Art and Literature in Cuba
A yearning for liberation has been the strongest theme in Cuban art and literature for hundreds of years. Ever since the Spanish colonized Cuba in the 16th century, art has been used both as a tool to promote propaganda and rebel against regimes. Overwhelming oppression has created a culture where great artistic achievement and government censure go hand in hand.
Socialist propaganda is a prominent part of public art in Cuba. You’ll see good examples of this on the faded billboards on the side of the road, which still bear slogans from Castro's revolution. The most memorable image from Castro’s revolution is a stirring photograph of Che Guevara, taken by Alberto de Gutiérrez. You can see a gigantic mural of this image on the side of the Ministry of the Interior building in Havana.
The Museum of Fine arts has the largest art collection in Cuba. The collection is divided between two buildings, which are just a couple of blocks apart.
Palacio de Bellas Artes showcases exclusively Cuban art. This museum will give you a good idea of the breadth of Cuban art throughout history.
In the Centro Asturiano building visitors can see the best of the country’s international art, including notable works from Russia, Cuba’s longtime ally.
The Museum of Decorative Arts’ main attraction is its collection of Art Deco antiques. The collection is housed in a neo-classical mansion built in the 1920s. Many of the items in this collection belonged to members of Cuba’s upper class.
Even if you never step foot in a museum, you’ll get to see the influence of Spanish style in nearly every Cuban city you visit. During the 18th century the Spanish began bringing their architects to Cuba. These architects brought a Moorish aesthetic to Cuban buildings – they employed arches and slender columns, and used domes to make interiors feel open and airy. The elaborate elements of Spanish colonial style were more streamlined in Cuba, since Cuba had far fewer skilled laborers.
Architecture from the colonial period is everywhere you look on Cuba’s city’s streets, particularly in Havana, and its old neighborhood of Havana Vieja.
Costumbrista: 19th-Century Cuba
During the 1800s Cuban culture became the subject of highly regarded paintings. Spanish artists introduced a body of work that came to be known as costumbrista. These works focused on everyday life in Cuba, and depicted a highly idealized version of Cuban plantations and the lives of Afro-Cuban slaves. Víctor Patricio Landaluze produced some of the most famous works from this movement. His painting Cutting Sugar Cane shows slaves in a field. The figures look like contended peasants, gathered around a wagon bearing sugarcane under a sunny Cuban sky.
In the 1920s Cuba experienced an artistic revolution that came to be known as the Vanguardia (“vanguard” or “avant-garde” in English). During this period Cuban art threw off the mantel of colonial art and classical technique.
Art historians consider Victor Manuel García a leader of Cuba’s Vanguard movement. He studied art in Cuba, and then traveled to Paris. When he returned to Cuba he had begun painting in a “primitive” style, which uses bold brushwork and saturated colors. His painting La Gitana Tropical (The Tropical Gypsy) is referred to as the Mona Lisa of the Americas.
Naïve Art: 1950s – Today
Naïve art came out of a cultural appreciation for Afro-Cuban folk art. It is called Naïve art because of the simplified appearance of figures in the paintings. Naïve art started to get international attention in the 1990s, when Luis “El Estudiante” Rodriguez formed El Grupo Bayate, an official group for the movement. This group is based in Santiago de Cuba, and focuses largely on Afro-Cuban subjects and traditions.
Manuel Mendive and Afro-Cuban Art: 1970s – Today
Manuel Mendive is an Afro-Cuban artist who has had a significant impact on the Naïve Art movement, and all of modern Cuban art. Mendive was born in 1944, and grew up in a family that actively practiced Santería. Santería and Afro-Cuban culture are consistent themes in his artwork.
He graduated from the Academia de Artes Plásticas San Alejandro in Havana in 1962. His work is often characterized as rebellious, but his paintings have somehow eluded government censorship and appear in the state-run Museum of Fine Art. Today he is widely regarded as one of the most note-worthy artists in Cuba today.
Many of the greatest works produced by Cuban authors have been banned in Cuba. In 1961 Fidel Castro dictated that only pro-revolutionary works would be allowed on Cuban bookshelves. The following works have all contributed to the conversation about the relationship between literature and social activism in Cuba.
19th Century Cuba
José Martí is Cuba’s most well known poet – the one that no Cuban high school student can escape. Martí lived during the colonial era in Cuba, and fought for liberation from Spain. He had to live in exile as a result. Castro is known to admire Martí, and has drawn parallels between himself and the rebellious poet. Naturally there is an intense irony surrounding the authoritarian regime’s enthusiasm for Martí’s work, since Castro has exiled authors who speak out against his regime, just as the Spanish exiled Martí.
Martí’s most well known work is a book of poetry called Versos Sencillos. His poem “The White Rose” inspired the lyrics to “Guantanamera,” a 20th-century song that has special significance for Cubans. In the last line Martí says “With the poor people of the earth/ I want to cast my lot/ The brook of the mountains / Gives me more pleasure than the sea.”
Cecilia Valdés is one of the most highly regarded novels from 19th-century Cuba. Cirilio Villaverde wrote the novel Cecilia Valdés during the 1880s, while he was living in exile. It is named for its main character, a light-skinned criollo woman who falls in love with a Spanish man. Eventually the Spaniard leaves her to marry a European woman, and Cecilia plots her revenge. This book is considered a thought-provoking treatise on the relationship between race and class in Cuba.
Poesía Negra – 1930s
Poesía Negra evolved out of the Afro-Cuban cultures throughout the Caribbean. Nicolás Guillén is one of the most prominent authors to come from this movement. His first book of poetry, entitled Motivos de Son, was published in 1930. “Son” is an influential style of music that combines African rhythms and instruments with popular Cuban song structure. His poems explored Afro-Cuban folklore and songs.
Guillén was a contemporary of African-American author Langston Hughes. Hughes traveled to Cuba to meet Guillén, and the two authors became good friends.
José Lezama Lima and the Machado Dictatorship – 1960s
José Lezama Lima is one of the most influential 20th-century Latin American authors. He wrote several acclaimed poems, edited several anthologies, and published one semi-autobiographical novel, Paradiso. Paradiso is a semi-autobiographical work that takes place during the turbulent era of the Machado dictatorship. In it he references his own homosexuality, and touches on the beginnings of Castro’s revolution. Despite its subversive sexual themes, it was published in 1966, probably because the language was too dense for readers to easily understand. It remains a controversial work in Cuba to this day.
Castro and Communist Censorship – 1980s
Reinaldo Arenas was arrested and imprisoned for his anti-Castro writings. José Lazema Lima was one of his main influences. Although he supported Castro’s revolution as a teenager, his homosexuality got him in trouble with the Castro regime and he was sent to a labor camp. He escaped Cuba in 1980 and fled to New York. His works Hallucinations and El Central were smuggled out of Cuba and published in the U.S. Arenas committed suicide at the age of 47, after learning that he had contracted AIDS.
Cuban Literature Today
Leonardo Padura has won literary awards and written several acclaimed novels. He is one of the most Cuba’s most popular authors today. In 2005 he published his novel The Mist of the Past, which describes both the crime-infested world of Havana in 1950s as well as the criminal activity many Cubans deal with today. He has also written a successful series of detective novels.
Havana International Book Fair
Padura is one of many popular authors that Cubans seek out at the Havana International Book Fair. The shelves of Cuban libraries and bookstores are not always well stocked, and every year the book fair has long lines. Each year the fair focuses on introducing literature from another country, and hosts a lecture from a visiting author.