Cuban "Vanguardia": Modern Collectors' Focus

Cuban art is a very diverse cultural blend of African, European and North American design reflecting the diverse demographic of the island. Cuban artists embraced European modernism and the early part of the 20th century saw a growth in Cuban vanguardism movements, these movements were characterized by a mixture of modern artistic genres. Some of the more celebrated 20th century Cuban artists include Amelia Peláez (1896-1968), best known for a series of mural projects and painter Wifredo Lam (1902-1982) who created a highly personal version of modern primitivism, and young Jorge Camacho, (see right) born in 1934.

More internationally known is the work of photographer Alberto Korda, whose photographs following the early days of the Cuban revolution included a picture of Che Guevara which was to become one of the most recognizable images of 20th century. There is a flourishing street art movement influenced by Latin American artists Jose Guadalupe Posada and the muralist Diego Rivera. In the late 19th century, landscapes dominated Cuban art and classicism was still the preferred genre.

The radical artistic movements that transformed European art in the first decades of the century arrived in Latin America in the 1920s to form part of a vigorous current of artistic, cultural, and social innovation.

By the late 1920's, the Vanguardia artists had rejected the academic conventions of  Cuba's national art academy. In their formative years, many had lived in Paris, where they studied and absorbed the tenets of surrealism, cubism, and modernist primitivism. Modernism burst on the Cuban scene as part of the critical movement of national regeneration that arose in opposition to the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado, American neo-colonial control and the consequent economic crisis. They returned to Cuba committed to new artistic innovation and keen to embrace the heritage of their island. These artists became increasingly political in their ideology, viewing the rural poor as symbols of national identity in contrast to the ruling elite of post independence Cuba. The vanguardia artists achieved international recognition in 2003 with the Modern Cuban Painting show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, subsequently showing in Paris.

Vanguard leader Eduardo Abela (shown left) was typical of the movement, a painter who studied in Paris, Abela discovered his homeland Cuba from abroad apparently motivated by a combination of distance and nostalgia. On his return, Abela entered a highly productive period of work. His murals of Cuban life were complemented by cartoons which became social critiques of Cuban life under authoritarian president Gerardo Machado.

After the Cuban revolution of 1959 Cuban artists became more isolated from the anti-establishment artistic movements of the United States and Europe. Though artists continued to produce work in Cuba, many pursued their careers in exile.

While some artists felt it was in their best interests to leave Cuba and produce their art, some artists stayed behind, either happy or merely content to be creating art in Cuba, which was sponsored by the government. Because it was state sponsored, an implied censorship occurred, since artists wouldn’t want to make art that was against the revolutionary movement as that was the source of their funding. It was during the 1980s in which art began to reflect true uninfluenced expression. The “rebirth” of expression in Cuban art was greatly affected by the emergence of a new generation of Cuban. This generation did not remember the revolution directly, nor did they feel angst from having not been a larger part in forming the nation. 

The masters of the first generation of Cuban modernism set the stage for the prevalence of certain themes that would govern Cuban art after 1930, and which would have varying degrees of impact on those generations that would later emerge entirely in exile after 1960. Between 1934 and 1940, and still reeling from the overthrow of Machado, Cuba was searching for its cultural identity in its European and African roots. The landscape, flora, fauna, and lore of the island, as well as its peasants-the often neglected foundation of Cuba’s soul and economy-emerged in its art. During and after World War II, a booming economy where sugar prices immediately tripled, helped fuel the island's artistic and economic growth.