Cuban art and history in Groningen

July 2009 -

The year 2009 marks the occasion precisely fifty years ago when Fidel Castro and his revolutionary fighters ousted the Cuban dictator Fugencio Batista. What followed were years of revolution during which many European artists showed their support for the new regime. Artists flocked in 1967 to the May Salon: a large-scale art manifestation that was first organised in Paris in 1944 being held that year in Havana.

Cuba Colectiva Salon de mayo

Cuba Colectiva Salon de mayo

Some one hundred artists including Picasso, Karel Appel and Corneille each painted a small section of a gigantic canvas celebrating the victory of Cuban socialism. The painting was subsequently exhibited in Paris, where it was removed after only a few hours for fear of vandalism. It disappeared into the stores of the Museo de Bellas Artes in Havana, where it was attacked by termites. It was not rediscovered until the 1999 restoration of the museum, after which it was repaired.

Now the canvas is the crown jewel of the exhibition Cuba! Art and history from 1868 to the present day in the Groninger Museum. At the same time, it is a metaphor for the manner in which the exhibition is organised. A total of about three hundred works are on display, varying from painted glimpses of the era of slavery by Victor Patricio de Landaluze to video installation art by contemporary artists. For most of the exhibits, no information is given. As was the case in 1967: who painted which section of the giant canvas is unknown.

The exhibition can basically be divided into an art-historical section and a historical section. Twenty wondrous paintings by Marcelo Pogolotti futuristically criticise capitalism, in perfect keeping with the concept applied by the Cuban organisers of the exhibition. Also worthy of attention is the room with pieces by artists including Amelia Peláez and René Portocarrer, whose art reflects the search for a Cuban style.

The last rooms of the exhibition devote attention to installation art by artists opting for the theme of Cuba's isolation. Examples include In order to forget: a canoe balanced on beer bottles by Alexis Leyva Machado, and El Bloqueo by Antionio Eligio Fernández, portraying his home island in concrete blocks. There is also an abundance of photography - much by anonymous photographers - providing a magnificent historical document that in some cases also has a high aesthetic value.

The Cuba! Art and history from 1868 to the present day exhibtion takes place in the Groninger Museum until 20 September 2009. The exhibition was organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in collaboration with the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and the Fototeca de Cuba in Havana.