Thursday, September 26, 2013


Because Cuba is a highly diverse country, its art is a direct reflection of that diversity that Cubans endear.  For many Cuban artists, art is not only a means of expressing themselves and their views but also with the underlying purpose of documenting a moment in their history and ways of life as well.  There are different styles throughout the decades and centuries, but for the most part, the most popular form of art is painting – of all kinds.  Many muralists and street artists have gone on to become quite famous, such as Amelia Peláez, José Guadalupe Posada, and Diego Rivera. 

The 1920s were the beginning of changes in the art movements in Cuba, starting with the Vanguardia artists.  These were artists who generally rejected all of the traditional art forms being taught in Cuban art schools at that time to opt for the more modern European (and especially French) styles that were emerging: surrealism, cubism, etc. Some of the prominent Vanguardia artists were Antonio Gattorno and Eduardo Abela.

Eduardo Abela

When Castro took over in 1959, they were pretty much cut off from the American and European artistic movements that drove their own influences. Most serious artists continued their studies and work abroad at this time.  But through the 1970s and 1980s, artists were beginning to teach younger artists about art as a means of expression, and soon that translated into seeing artists push freedom of speech and expression.

There is a whole class of artists who have been deemed as “Naïve Artists.” Since the established artists pride themselves on their education and their studies, to be called a Naïve Artist is somewhat meant in a unbecoming connotation. These styles are characterized by the lack of perspective and bold colors.  Usually depicting scenes of rural life and religious deities, it also shows typical Cuban and Afro-Cuban life, generally portraying people enjoying life amidst hard times.

Example of naïve art

Since the Spanish arrived in Cuba, people have been writing in and about Cuba as well. Poetry has always been a popular genre of literature, mostly in the classic styles dominating Spain at the time. Nature has always been a common theme.

The 19th century brought along new changes in Cuban literature as Cuban writers began to find their own voice. Neoclassicism with references to Greek and Roman mythology was one of the early influences upon Cuban writers. Neoclassicism merged into Romanticism with prominent writers such as José María Heredia, poet Juan Clemente Zenea, and José Martí.  Martí, along with Julián del Casal helped Cuba to bridge the transition after independence into the modern literary movements.

Jose Martí
Literature changed again with a group of writers collectively called the “Generation of the Fifty.” It was mostly comprised of writers who were born between about 1925 and 1945.  Among other things, these writers tended to add a new element to Cuban literature: colloquialism. It seems that literature at this time bluntly mirrored the art movements during these decades as well: new-Romanticism, surrealism, and origenist styles were emerging in poetry as well as prose. Some of the prominent authors from this era are Pablo Armando Fernández, Heberto Padilla, Carilda Oliver Labra. Nancy Morejón, and Raúl Rivero.

Nancy Morejón

 Castro’s Revolution brought along a whole new set of challenges for Cuban literature. First of all, paper and ink were hard to come by, much less materials for printing and binding. On the plus side of all of this, the free education system was established, giving women the opportunity to learn to read and write. A new generation of women writers emerged with these new opportunities. At the same time Afro-Cuban women also excelled at creating a unique niche in the market as a merge of African roots and a Cuban way of life, incorporating musical styles into their writing such as rhythm. Literature on a whole got a little better during the 1970s and 1980s, with novels, short stories, and plays being continuously published throughout these times. However, in the aftermath of Russia’s breakup in 1991, Cuba went through a period of economic instability known as the Special Period. Once again, paper, ink, and binding/publishing materials were scarce, but recovered towards the late 1990s.

Hemingway with his cat. 
Not only did some Cuban writers work from abroad, but the opposite also happened as well. American writer Ernest Hemingway (famous for his novels The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, and For Whom the Bell Tolls) spent much of the 1940s and 1950s living in Cuba where he wrote parts of For Whom the Bell Tolls. I’ve visited the home where he grew up in Oak Park, Illinois years ago. He apparently left 4000-6000 books in a bank vault in Havana when he left Cuba after Castro took over, eventually moving to Idaho.  He killed himself in the early 1960s, despondent partly over money problems and partly over his manuscripts he left in Cuba, among other things.

Up next: music and dance

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