With a collection of more than 30 thousand works of art, the Cuban National Museum of Visual Arts (‘Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes’ – MNBA) in Havana bears witness to art production on the island from the 17th century to the present day, through paintings, sculptures, drawings, engravings, printworks and installations. You can view a wide selection from their collections via their website here We present a little taster – focussing on 12 of the works below.
The permanent exhibition consists of 940 works grouped into four conceptual periods: Art of the Colony, Turn of the Century, Modern Art and Contemporary Art.
Art of the Colony
Since the middle of the 16th century, visual arts has been developing on the Island, with the colonisation of Cuba by Spain. In the Museum’s collection are some works made by painters of the 17th century and many more works by artists born in the 18th-19th centuries.
Despite the brutality of the colony, forcing enslaved Africans to work on plantations. many paintings show lush and peaceful landscapes, and “order” brought by the colonial powers.
Turn of the Century (1894-1927)
The modernization that took place in Cuba during the 19th century, mainly in the capital Havana, increased notably in the last quarter of the century. after the end of slavery.
Rise of Modern Art 1927-1938
This part of the collection shows the process of the emergence of modern art in Cuba approximately between 1927 and 1938. Famous Cuban artists like Victor Manuel took the people of the countryside as his subject. Amelia Pelaez painted the everyday domestic interior – fruit on a plate, tiles and windows. This was a period of ‘tropicalisation’ in painting subjects and palettes, attempting to reflect island life.
Consolidation of Modern Art 1938-1951
The art of the 1940s rapidly unfolded in different directions, decisively departing from the characteristic currents of the 1930s.
Cuba’s best known painter was Wifredo Lam, famously of African and Chinese heritage. He returned to the island after spending some years in Europe in 1941, when he produced some of his greatest masterpieces including ‘The Chair’ (‘La Silla’).
André Breton, the guru of the surrealist movement, said of Lam: “Nobody but my friend Lam has produced, with such simplicity, the unity of the objective world and the magic world. Nobody but he has discovered the secret of physical perception and mental representation, qualities that we have tirelessly sought in surrealism, because the greatest drama of modern consciousness arises from the growing separation of these abilities”. Find out more about Wifredo Lam here
Other aspects of Modern Art 1951-1963
The 50s make up a stormy decade, full of political, social and cultural events.
Sandu Darie is known for his contribution to neo-concrete and kinetic art. He was constantly interested in space, light and colour; from chromatic experiments in painting and installation to public interventions, kinetic painting and video art. Born in Romania, Darie moved to Havana in 1941, taking Cuban nationality. He began as an abstract artist in the 1930s and was a member of the Latin-American geometric abstract group Madí, and later, of the group ‘Diez Pintores Concretos.’ (’10 concrete painters’). Most of his works are in the MNBA collection.
Pedro de Oraá is known as the founder of Los Diez, the pioneers for the Concrete movement or Concrete Abstraction, a style that defines itself as simply geometrical and without “…representational or drawn-from-life references… a style without narrative or natural connections…” By the early 60s the style was overtaken by the need to express the big changes in society, to find new ways to reflect Cuban cultural identity, after the revolution in 1959.
Contemporary Art 1960-1970
The beginning of each historical period is determined by events that define it by its intrinsic nature. With the triumph of the Revolution, Cuba bursts through the front door in contemporary history.
Painter Servando Cabrera Moreno supported the revolution which triumphed in 1959 and, in what is called the ‘Vanguardia’ tradition, reflected the collective and individual efforts of the workers in making it happen. ‘Campesinos Milicianos’ shows rural workers intertwined with each other while each one has their own unique face and identity.
The son of a sugar mill worker and a teacher, Raul Martínez trained at the San Alejandro Academy. Encouraged by abstract artist Sandu Darie, inspired by Bauhaus professor László Moholy-Nagy, Martínez enrolled in the Chicago Design Institute where he developed his abstract expressionist style. In the 50s he returned to Havana and also worked as a graphic designer. From 1967, his painting became figurative and painterly, of revolutionary heroes and ordinary people, with a modernist grid structure.
José Gómez Fresquet (FRÉMEZ) (Havana, born 1939) Graphic artist, designer and printmaker, self-taught, from 1959 Fremez produced work for national and foreign publications. He was also artistic director of several national magazines and director of the Experimental Graphic Workshop in Havana. His works were first exhibited in the Salon de Artes Plásticas UNEAC’68. ‘Cancion Americana’ brought together US consumerism and the consequences of the Vietnam War.
Contemporary Art 1967-1981
The discourse in this part of the collection presents works that coexist and interrelate with each other. It presents a stage for different postures and views of the new artistic ideas that coexist in a dynamic system within the Cuban visual arts panorama. There are stylistic groupings within each discipline and a wide repertoire of themes explored visually. It includes the art production from the end of the 60’s of the selected artists, according to the level of incidence of their work, according to the impact of their individualized poetics. It covers the first graduates of the National School of Art (ENA) from 1967, as well as the rest of the graduates of the San Alejandro Art School and outstanding self-taught artists.
The first of the hyperrealist paintings that Flavio Garciandia made is ‘Portrait of Zaida’ in 1973. Later he made other works, the best known and representative is ‘All you need is love’, [the Beatles were massive in Cuba!] with the obvious influence of cinematographic aesthetics, which becomes a key work of this pictorial movement in Cuba. This artistic trend tries to enrich the perception of the world, by transmitting optimistic images, with romantic content.
“Manuel Mendive‘s creative world is nourished by the legends and rites of the AfroCuban religion Regla de Ocha or Santeria. His work is inspired by the magic and spirit of his visions of worship and from the transcultured elements of Cuban identity he creates a vast, fantastic universe. It synthesizes man via poetic allegories where the mythological, and the syncretic, offers a domestic vision of the liturgy through codes and categories elaborated intellectually, in an art where memory and experience are juxtaposed together with the imagination, which determines the aim of each piece. “His eyes as through the mpaka congo, see in the everyday the raw material of the extraordinary “. Mendive uses the popular as an essential source along with the Black experience. An eloquent example is ‘Barco negrero’ (‘Slave ship’), which marks a new dimension in the treatment of historical scenes in their quest to preserve the historical legacy and documents a stage in his work characterized by bright colours using the dotting technique.”
Contemporary Art 1979-1996
A display of the most important ideas of the 80s and 90s, which have marked a moment of substantial renewal in Cuban art (Contemporary art since 1979). The rupture in the first years of the 80s can be compared to the eruption of modern art in the 20s and 30s, in that it transformed not only expressive resources and languages, but the perspective itself to what art can be. There is a renewal of theoretical thought, often assumed by the artists themselves, and conceptual and post-conceptual currents become strong. New approaches to traditional Afro-Cuban religions, long-standing aspects of popular culture, kitsch aesthetics, art over art, social criticism and humour, among other topics, breathe new life into a highly impactful visual arts culture. Artists such as Juan Francisco Elso, José Bedia, Humberto Castro, Tonel, Fors, Flavio Garciandía, Lázaro Saavedra, Kcho and Belkis Ayón, just to mention a few examples, make a set of powerful symbolic imagery developed during those years.
Belkis Ayón Manso La cena [The supper], 1988, 137 x 300 cm, MNBA collection
Belkis Ayón is an artist focused on a myth. For the artist, the Abakuá heritage is a world to look through, a deep universe and full of mysteries from which she draws reflections about man and his conflicts. Belkis does not describe these myths, rather creates images for them, images of majesty and sacred lineage with great impact, which recall the Byzantine icons that inspired her so much. ‘The Supper’ is a piece made by the artist at 21, still a student of the Higher Institute of Art (ISA), which reveals her early artistic maturity. With a novel handling of the collographic techniques, Belkis makes a huge scale engraving [3m wide], incorporating collage [thick paint]. Colour, which is a rarity within her work (almost always she used white, black and grey), is used here with great success and richness, endowing the piece with the splendour, the enigma and the magnetism that the scene requires. This work may refer to an Abakuá ritual, the so-called iriampó (meal). At the end of the initiation rite, a collective ceremonial banquet is offered. Members of the religious hierarchy participate in it as well as initiates. But the artist, who often takes the richness and universal possibilities of this mythology as a concrete starting point then brings reflections on other cultures, also refers to the Christian Last Supper of the apostles.
Kcho Alexis Leyva Machado Paisaje cubano, 1990, twigs, branches, leaves, textiles, metal, earth y cera; 300 x 347 x 30 cm
Kcho Alexis Leyva Machado One of the responses Cuban artists took during ‘Special Period’ of the 1990s was to use found objects and domestic materials to make their art, but Kcho’s work was at the centre of this trend. Kcho, from the Isle of Youth, graduated from art school in 1990 with a project called ‘Cuban Landscape’ in which he recreated national symbols such as the flag and the shield emblem from waste materials including sticks and vines, sometimes as huge structures. Humble crafts used to create a national discourse about identity. His work also spoke of insularity and the island condition.
You can watch a documentary made for the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Cuba (in Spanish but with English subtitles) of 400 years of art in Cuba here on Youtube (45 mins)
Text translations by Cuba50. All images copyright and courtesy of Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Cuba.
Visit the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana to see the art in the collection close up and their many temporary exhibitions with more contemporary art at:
MNBA, Arte Cubano,Trocadero entre Zulueta y Monserrate, La Habana, Cuba
The Museo plays an important role in the international Art Biennial of Havana. See a report here of the Art Biennial in 2019 where the Museo presented 5 challenging and very diverse exhibitions about national cultural identity, presentation of history, the legacy of slavery and racial identity under the umbrella title ‘The Infinite Possibility: Thinking About the Nation‘.