At the height of the Cuban revolution, some of Cuba’s most talented artists turned their energy to state-sponsored political and cultural posters. It was the 1960s, an optimistic but insular era known as the “utopian years,” when rock ‘n’ roll was officially banned and the boundaries of acceptable art were drawn by Fidel Castro’s famous warning to the island’s creative community: “Within the revolution, everything. Outside the revolution, nothing.”
The graphic art renaissance that emerged was anything but doctrinaire.
Steeped in the lush culture of a Caribbean crossroads with a cosmopolitan history, Cuban artists sidestepped the formalized Social Realism of Soviet and Chinese political graphics. Instead, they embraced a color-drenched, sophisticated Pop Art style more in tune with that of such U.S. contemporaries as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Peter Max. What emerged was a home-grown visual style colored by Cuba’s gravitation toward the romantic and the Baroque and suffused with a tropicality reminiscent of distinguished Cuban Modernist Wifredo Lam, a Picasso contemporary who recast Cubism and Surrealism with Afro-Cuban imagery.
Chinese and Soviet propaganda artists imagined their political leaders as stern patriarchs, but Cuban artists envisioned guerrilla martyr Ernesto “Che” Guevara as a smoldering sex symbol.
Cuban artists adopted swirling graphics and electric colors reminiscent of posters for Jimi Hendrix concerts at the Fillmore West. With this revolution-meets-the-psychedelic-era aesthetic, even an icon as stolidly orthodox as Ho Chi Minh was sent up in a beaming explosion of hot oranges and lime greens.
Appreciation of Cuban contemporary art has long been complicated by the U.S. trade embargo. But this summer, about 200 Cuban posters will be on display through Aug. 7 in the Track 16 Gallery at Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station. The exhibition, sponsored by the Peter Norton Family Foundation, draws from the collections of Global Graphics and the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles and the Center for Cuban Studies in New York.
The curator of the show, Beverly Walton, describes it as among the most comprehensive exhibitions of Cuban graphic art ever mounted in the U.S. Walton hung the work chronologically, scattering some emblematic classics but providing a sense of the evolution of this short-lived but potent graphic art belle epoque.
“These were the utopian years,” says Gerardo Mosquera, Cuba’s most prominent contemporary art expert, a co-curator of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and a traveling curator of shows in Europe and Latin America. “It was an era of great cultural explosion in Cuba, not just in graphic art but also film, theater, music and visual art. It was the liberal period of the Cuban revolution, united with a moment of euphoria and dreams, of great hopes and great cultural and political energy.”
What the artists created is already familiar to some collectors. Raul Martinez’s 1968 “Lucia,” a sumptuous silk screen of deep pinks and oranges, was the poster for the classic Cuban film about three women whose lives were shaped by the political currents of their times.
Another favorite is Eduardo Munoz Bachs’ 1985 poster for the film “Vampires in Havana,” illustrated by a cigar-smoking tough guy with a shark-like grin. The film was a hip animated allegory about the Mafia’s 1950s tenure in Cuba, when it controlled segregated nightclubs where comely black Cubans were welcomed as performers but banned as patrons.
Some of these works put a Cuban imprint on foreign films, such as Rene Azcuy’s 1970s poster for the Francois Truffaut classic “Stolen Kisses”: a close-up of voluptuous lips made all the more sensual by its stark rendering in revolutionary red and black.
A number of Cuban posters adopted Charlie Chaplin as a Cuban Everyman. Chaplin was popular throughout Latin America, but in Cuba his films had an added resonance: They were the first cinema seen by peasants who had abandoned the isolated poverty of the Sierra Maestra region to live closer to urban schools and hospitals after the revolution.
Much of Cuban propaganda art was about creating icons and glamorizing revolutionary and independence wars, especially in Africa, where thousands of Cuban troops would be expected to serve. This genre was a continuum of Latin American populist artistic currents, dating to the Mexican revolution and to the murals of Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
State-sponsored Cuban artists created posters of Chilean President Salvador Allende, ousted in a bloody 1973 military coup; posters for Guatemalan guerrillas; and posters celebrating American black militants such as George Jackson, whose slaying by California prison guards is depicted in an image that shows him crumpled on the ground, bleeding an American flag.
But the Cubans’ most effective graphic was the mass production of the hero known simply as Che into a sultry pinup emphasizing the matinee-idol looks that made him one of the world’s most recognizable faces. This cult of personality did not begin until after Guevara’s 1967 death in Bolivia, which left him as permanently young and uncorrupted as Marilyn Monroe or James Dean.
Guevara also did not live to see the 1970s cultural crackdown in Cuba, which sent musicians, artists, gays and those deemed political dissidents off to rural camps, where they were assigned to harvest fruits and vegetables as a means of getting in touch with revolutionary values. Many serious artists abandoned propaganda art.
“Cuba entered the Soviet orbit, and restrictions were imposed on culture,” Mosquera says. “Bureaucrats had to approve everything. That killed the moment of creative Cuban design, and it has not reemerged.”
The torrent may have slowed to a trickle, but some impressive posters in the exhibition were created in the years after the boom.
But the resonance and meaning of the symbols changed.
Against the realities of rationing and shortages of everything as varied as food and political freedoms, Che evolved from a symbol of optimism to a remnant of a paradise lost of hopes and ideals.
For some younger Cubans, born after the revolution, he became a symbol of official culture or state repression. By the early 1990s, some performance artists were tearing up Cuba’s renowned Che posters at crowded galleries, and a state crackdown would send a new generation of artists abroad.
By then, a new cadre of graphic artists had emerged. One of them, Eduardo Marin, is represented in the Track 16 show. His 1989 poster “Havana Express” protested the state’s policy in those days of courting foreign tourists to earn hard currency but punishing Cubans caught possessing dollars with months or years in prison.
Planners of the Track 16 exhibition wanted Marin and other artists to accompany the show to Santa Monica. But new Bush administration restrictions on U.S. visas made that and a number of other cultural exchanges -- including a tour by Cuban singer Carlos Varela -- impossible.
Cuban artists are used to having their art caught in a political bind on both sides of the Straits of Florida. But today, few Cuban artists of any stature still dedicate themselves to pro-government posters.
One Marin poster in the exhibition announces a concert by Varela, who made his reputation in the late 1980s when his songs were banned and his concerts shut down.
In one song, he used an allegory to express the discontents of Cuba’s younger generation: “William Tell, your son has changed / He wants to shoot the apple off your head / With your own crossbow.”
In case anyone missed the point, Marin created a poster showing Varela holding a bow and arrow and facing Karl Marx -- who holds the apple over his heart.
This new poster art is not state-sponsored, and it is about questioning official symbols, not reinforcing them.
“We are the ones who came of age after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now it is up to us,” Marin says. “Attitudes and even laws can be changed by art. We are pushing for a better society.”
‘The Cuban Poster: A Retrospective’
Where: Track 16 Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica
When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays
Ends: Aug. 7
Contact: (310) 264-4678