Public Art in Relation to the Cuban Law

Nicholas Socrates 2009

Urban Design: Art City Society

Public Art in Relation to the Cuban Law

Compared to the old European civilizations, Cuban art developed in a short space of time. This time constriction created specific characteristics which were strongly influenced by successive and sometimes superimposed trends emanating from the great cultural metropolises. In that desolate cultural panorama, it was inevitable that self-taught artists as well as those who received academic training would build on European artistic traditions, fundamentally those of Spain, France and Italy; and later those of the United States. When Spanish control of the island ended in 1899, the artistic environment offered an encouraging panorama, and several academically trained painters, whether romanticists, realists or late impressionists, left an excellent legacy for subsequent generations.

As Cuban artists – part of the intellectual movement that played a major part in Cuban and Latin American culture – moved into the 20th century, experiencing a maturation of their own sense of identity and gaining from the heritage of the fin-de-siècle masters, the island’s art attained its first true authenticity. The 1920s, considered by the most perceptive intellectuals of the period as “critical,” signified a new stage in the history of Cuban culture. At that time, its sources of inspiration were fundamentally the Paris school and the renewal movement that gave birth to the Mexican Revolution of 1910. We can say that from that moment on until this day, Cuban painting has been an integral part of the most modern universal art trends.

Within Cuban art as a whole, rural and urban landscapes have been a recurrent theme in the country’s eastern region. Indeed, this theme is a valid expression of self-recognition, of which the artists were not always aware. This has been a sustained although varied and changing theme, marked by light that is filtered or explosive; vegetation that is steamy and exuberant, voluptuous and extremely sensual, or chaste and serene. These landscapes may reflect lovely rural scenes, corners of the city, or a brilliant urban synthesis marked by colonial tiled roofs or poetic combinations of geometric pieces. Any viewpoint assumed by the artist speaks to us, above all, of a manifest desire to portray physical surroundings as a way to reevaluate oneself, to validate an existential experience through images, thereby perpetuating it and preserving it from the ravages of time and of humankind itself.

The tradition of landscape painting dates back to the 19th century with the work of José Joaquín Tejada Revilla (1867-1943), born in Santiago de Cuba, where he lived throughout his life except for sporadic trips abroad. Tejada constitutes a milestone in the city’s art history, more because of his skills than because of the paintings he produced.

Juan Emilio and Rodolfo Hernández Giro, brothers born 20 years after Tejada, painted the natural setting surrounding them with great precision. “It’s impossible to be a painter here and not paint landscapes,” Rodolfo stated. “Oriente’s landscape is our pride. The mountains look closer than they really are, and one needs to have been born here or to have lived here for many years to know how to place them in their proper perspective.”

In the mid-20th century, Santiago’s prodigious art scene was graced with numerous artists who followed the path forged by the masters, who simultaneously brought their own originality to bear. The art of cityscapes and landscapes achieved a level of extraordinary virtuosity on the canvases of Antonio Ferrer Cabello, José Julián Aguilera Vicente and Miguel Angel Botalín, among others. They were succeeded by a group of landscape painters, including Danis Montero Ortega and Eddy Ochoa Guzmán, who in 1995 founded the ECOART ecological project.

The most recent generation of painters from Santiago de Cuba, whose focus has not been landscape painting, has sparked controversy in the local art community. Almost all of these young people have had years of formal training, at the National Art School (ENA), the Higher Institute of Art (ISA), provincial schools, art instructors’ schools and other institutions. They have acquired knowledge about the most varied and the latest artistic trends, and they have developed extremely personal styles linked to Cuban and Caribbean life. This essay offers an evaluation and characterization of their works.

Their art, created in the ’80s and ’90s, constitutes a response to some principles of the most conservative artists and an attempt to break with an attitude that some of them have called contemplative and mimetic, an attempt to recreate reality rather than to question it. These young artists have searched for a language that, without facile accommodation, clearly defines their intention to make that questioning the focus without which their work would be incomprehensible. That is why their themes reach far beyond art itself; they transcend or explore problems of humans and their behavior; their internal dialogue and self-awareness, and their relationship with their habitat, both social and natural. Their art often challenges facets of society and sarcastically criticizes selfishness, deceit, hypocrisy and many other “sins.” On occasions they irritate or hurt the onlooker, so that the latter will react and actively take sides. They call everything or almost everything into question, even though they don’t always achieve their objectives. Their codes have diverse levels of complexity.

There is true philosophical reflection in this trend. Every artistic action or form is well studied and backed up by a “why,” inviting the public’s response. Due to this artistic involvement with the most difficult, contradictory and profound facets of reality, the semantic force becomes metaphorical and shapes take on a symbolic value which often increases, depending on the context in which the viewer places them.

Sometimes they venture into social commentary, although this is neither the most general nor the only expressive form utilized. There is a somewhat generalized tendency toward the grotesque, in which artistic elements and their treatment lend an aggressive note to the work. Each painter confronts the artistic condition in his or her own way. Some are very concerned about form and, despite some variation, the finishing touches of their work are an important requisite. Others, however, are not very interested in this aspect of the work, concentrating on the theme under discussion or a humanistic analysis of existential problems.

The youngest artists are attracted to social satire, often employing clear and precise iconographic language, while others prefer a unsettling discourse aimed at eliciting a reaction on the part of the public. They utilize elements of kitsch, choosing certain images that function as expressions of mass culture and often make very strong statements.

The artwork of these young people fits harmoniously into the national art scene, and – due to its contemporary nature – on the local level it is the expression of artistic renovation.

The 1980s was the decade when several generations of artists converged, resulting in a process of rupture and simultaneous continuity: the young graduates of the ISA – and more recently, those who come out of the provincial art schools – infused innovative features into a well-established artistic production, while the older artists (who in their time played a revolutionary and transforming role) maintained their traditional forms of expression. In many cases a natural process of creative maturity produced gradual modifications.

This younger generation, struggling throughout the country for its place in the Cuban art world and seeking its own expressive codes, sprung up in the island’s eastern region in late 1988; throughout the ’90s and to the present day it has developed its own discourse. Within this panorama, in recent years a generation that emerged in difficult times is coming into its full maturity and its production is more visible than ever, striving for public recognition. In the ’90s they began to question society openly, not only in two-dimensional art, but also in highly conceptual installations. They also express concern for our world’s problems and the environment, with clearly stated ecological themes. At a time when all reasonable people recognize the need to heal the Earth’s wounds before it’s too late, these artists have set their gaze on the threat to all life on our planet.

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