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Art, culture and revolution

Art in Cuba by Gilbert Brownstone and Camilo Guevara, Flammarion/Rizzoli, US $50.00, Pp 224, May 2019, ISBN 978-2080203885

Cuba has a very rich history of arts and culture. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, art and culture in Cuba have been absorbing international influences. Arts and culture mingle quite easily in Cuba. After the Cuban Revolution, promoting arts and culture was one of the top priorities of the Castro government. In Art in Cuba, Gilbert Brownstone retraces the history of culture and art from the beginning of the twentieth century and gives a panoramic view of the world of art including painting, sculpture, installations and the visual arts in Cuba which has been home to great artists from all disciplines.

Gilbert Brownstone argues that it is impossible to approach the subject of Cuban art or Cuban artists without understanding the important role Cuban culture has played in shaping them, even prior to the Cuban Revolution. Cuba, with fewer than twelve million inhabitants, has produced so many artists in every discipline. Cuba has always been a land where different ethnicities have mixed, and one that has an extremely dynamic culture. Throughout the twentieth century, cultural networks were created not only in Havana but in the provinces too. And this was true in literature, theatre, opera, ballet, music, and cinema, as well as in the visual arts, which boasts some first-rate collections, such as those assembled by the wealthy businessman Julio Lobo and the Bacardi family. Cubans excel in every discipline. Many artists of international renown have also come to Cuba to perform, from Sarah Bernhardt to Martha Graham, tuning this island — the pearl of the Caribbean — into a very special place.

Gilbert Brownstone says that contemporary Cuban art has emerged from a combination of influences, not least of which is the island’s own artistic heritage from the last century. The avant-garde reaction that arose in the 1920s introduced a new era in Cuban painting. The modern movement enjoyed its first and largest exhibition in 1927, under the aegis of the ‘Revista de Avance.’ The initiators of the Cuban avant-garde included Eduardo Abela (1889-1965), Victor Manuel Garcia Valdez (1897-1929), Antonio Gattorno (1904-1980), Carlos Enriquez (1900-1957), Mario Carreno Morales (19913-1999), Marcelo Pogolotti (1902-1988), Leopoldo Romanach (1862-1951) and Amando Menocal (1863-1942).

Drawing on surrealism, fauvism, and cubism in the first part of the twentieth century, artists added Afro-Cuban elements familiar from their own culture. Gilbert Brownstone says that the following year saw the consolidation of the modern movement, in particular, thanks to the first Salon of Modern Art in 1937. During this period, work by young artists offered the promise of a revival of Cuban art, which eventually bore fruit with the so-called Havana School in the 1940s. Leading figures in this movement were Rene Portocarrero (1912-1968), Amelia Pelaez (1896-1968), and Mariano Rodriguez (1912-1990). In 1942, Wilfredo Lam (1902) returned to Cuba after a lengthy sojourn in Europe, during which he had spent time in Picasso’s studio. This event marked a turning point in Cuban painting. In the 1960s, talented painters such as first Cuban pop artist Raul Martinez (1927-1995) and Servando Carera Moreno (1923-1981) and others left a hugely important body of work that would exert a powerful influence over following decades.

Gilbert Brownstone says that, during the last thirty years, Cuban art has demonstrated its ability to channel the most significant currents of international art in individual and creative ways, all the while maintaining a critical position with respect to its themes in its effort to defend Cuban identity. As the 1980s dawned, topics such as migration, geography as destiny, history, and identity were increasingly taken up by Cuban artists, as were more sensitive subjects including homosexuality, masochism, and domestic violence.

Art in Cuba is a complete introduction to culture and arts in Cuba. In Art in Cuba, 32 artists talk about their lives and work in lengthy interviews. It is as much inspirational as it is educational. Gilbert Brownstone must be commended for this brilliant encyclopedic volume on Cuban art and artists. Art in Cuba is required reading for everybody interested in arts in general and Cuban arts in particular. The eye-catching colored cover and stunning images of artworks and replicas of the painting will brighten your coffee table.

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