The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Cuba
Exhibition Review

The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Cuba
Exhibition Review

The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Cuba
Exhibition Review

The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Cuba
Exhibition Review

The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Cuba
Exhibition Review

The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Cuba
Exhibition Review

The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Cuba
Exhibition Review

The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, in Havana, Cuba, presents a large and varied international collection divided into two buildings. The Palacio del Centro Asturiano exhibits the island's 'Arte Universal', with works dating from 500 BC, to the world's largest Joaquin Sorolla collection and a selection of international Contemporary art. The second structure, the Palacio de Bellas Artes, located in bustling Havana Centro, dedicates its space to 'Arte Cubano'.

Although founded in 1913, the institution reopened its doors in 2001 with the idea of curating a space that would allow for works of art to be presented through a historical and aesthetic lens, emphasising the fundamental artistic milestones Cuba has achieved over time. When entering the Palacio, you are greeted by an interior courtyard with large stone sculptures. The visitor is then invited to the left corridor of the building, ascending a ramp which leads to the first exhibition of the permanent collection which is divided into four chronological galleries over three floors.

Arte en la Colonia presents works separated by theme. Shown here are religious scenes, 18th century portraits, 19th century landscapes and finally, Costumbrismo, a genre which depicts social and religious traditions and customs altered by the Colonisation. Victor Patricio Landaluze's Servidumbre de casa rica and Preparandose para la fiesta are two wonderful examples of this type. The artist's works represents scenes from domestic life in 19th century Cuba, with characters often appearing in humorous situations. Landaluze paints figures representative of certain stereotypes; they appear sometimes as caricatures, promoting idyllic images of slavery, challenging the racial identity of his subjects as black, poor or guajiro (a Cuban agricultural worker) living in colonial Havana. However, through these detailed representations of the interiors, attitudes, and objects one reads between the lines to discover a different, harsher and uncomfortable reality.

The cultural modernization of Cuba during the 19th century, which turned Havana into a cosmopolitan city, produced a body of work that is difficult to group under one common style. Realism slowly moves towards Romanticism, religious depictions almost disappear, landscapes take on an Impressionist approach, and still lifes become more common. One of the highlights on the main floor of the Palacio is Armando Garcia Menocal's Embarque de Colón por Bobadilla (Deportation of Columbus by Bobadilla). The work is not only striking for its very large size but also for its vivid use of colour, depicting Christopher Columbus being sent from the island of Hispaniola by order of Francisco Bobadilla, viceroy of the Spanish colonies.

One of the most striking displays on view is the Arte Moderna section which reveals the discovery of Cuba's own true style. In this section, Los Vanguardistas, a term which translates to 'the avant-gardes', are given individual galleries, presenting the most astonishing and strongest works by René Portocarrero, Wilfredo Lam, and Amelia Peláez. By the latter artist hangs a painting who by the 1940s evolved her quintessential style, representing still lifes and female figures in a sublime and alternative, domestic universe. A supreme example of this tradition is Naturaleza muerta con pitahaya, a painting which shows a defined composition of the creole fruit pitahaya at the centre of the canvas lying on a diagonal, cubist table. Along with explosive hues of warm and cold green, blues and rose colours are framed with thick black lines. The painting is representative of the artist's signature style which she pursued until the end of her career.

Opposite these vibrant and colourful masterworks hang defining examples of Los Once and the Diez Pintores Concretos, movements which rose in the 1950-60s in Cuba. Key works by Sandu Darié, Mario Carreño, and Luis Martinez, cover the museum's walls with geometric abstract canvases. An example of this style is Sandu Darié's Multivisión espacial painted in 1955, with its deconstructed circular and rectangular forms evenly dispersed on a yellow background. Darié's technique uses geometrical forms to rethink the use of space and to create order, harmony and balance.

The top and final floor is dedicated to Cuba's most influential Contemporary artworks from their collection. The period that followed, beginning in 1967, produced social and political paintings and ignited discussions of the Cuban identity - an identity to be considered as both physical and ideological. A variety of aesthetic styles emerged from Contemporary artists such as Raúl Martínez, Ángel Acosta León, Servando Cabrera Moreno, Umberto Peña, and Santiago Armada; and a particular fascination for hyperrealism is illustrated in the works of Tomas Sanchez and Rogelio Lopez Marin.

Since MOMA's exhibition of the Modern Cuban Painters in 1944, Cuban art has been exhibited worldwide. From the Pompidou in Paris, to Reina Sofia in Madrid, and most recently at the Tate Modern in London and the McMullen Museum in Boston; we can observe a growing interest in Cuban artists and their work. Dating back to the 1950s, auction records for this material have remained strong, achieving competitive prices in today's auction market. 2016 produced record-breaking prices for Cuban art, including Mariano Rodriguez's Pelea de Gallos, selling for $1,087,500, and other notable results by René Portocarrero, his Paisaje de la Habana fetching $295,000, as well as Paisaje doubling its high estimate and fetching $162,500. Another artist who has achieved favourable sale results is Wilfredo Lam, whose Volière d'un ongle, sold for $588,500 against a pre-sale estimate of $250,000–$350,000.

by Agnieszka Perche, Cataloguer, Impressionist & Modern Art, New York