Cuban art reflects the extremely diverse demographic makeup of its people. It features an exceptional blend of African, European, South American and North American elements.
During the Colonial Era, Cuban art followed the European traditions of religious subjects and the classical style of the time. After the slave revolt in Haiti in 1804 and the diaspora of its people to neighboring Cuba, a new form of art came forth, Costumbrismo, which portrayed the day-to-day life in a realist yet romanticized view.
By the late 19th century, landscape became popular with scenes featuring Cuba’s lush natural environment. Despite the benign content of their art, many artists were strong supporters of Cuban independence, and some were exiled. Four long centuries of Spanish rule over Cuba came to an end in 1898 when the U.S. intervened on the side of rebel fighters. In effect, this was no real independence for Cuba, as the U.S. controlled Cuba’s foreign policy and economy while Cuban presidents did little to promote democracy and freedom.
Artists of the early Republican era continued painting landscapes and scenes of Cuban life in the traditional European style, some of them showing light hints of Impressionism.
In the early 20th century, the Vanguard artists had rejected the practices of Cuba’s national art academy in Havana, where most of them had attended. In their developmental years, many had lived in Paris, where they studied and absorbed the Surrealism, Cubism, and modernist Primitivism movements. Modernism in Cuba arose during the opposition to the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado, American neo-colonial control, and the economic crisis that followed. The artists returned to Cuba committed to new innovations in art and ready to embrace the heritage of their country. They became progressively political in their ideology, portraying the rural poor as subjects of national identity in their art.
Cuban art of the 20th Century embraced European Modernism and vanguard ideas with very celebrated artists including Wilfred Lam (1902-1982), who created a very modern version of primitive art, Federico Beltran Masses (1885-1949), whose use of color and seductive portrayals of women made explicit references to the tropical settings of Cuba, and Amelia Peláez (1896–1968), best known for a series of mural projects.
After the Cuban Revolution of 1959, some artists left Cuba to produce their art freely, while others stayed behind, either because they couldn’t leave or didn’t want to, although any art produced now had to adhere to the censorship required by the revolutionary government. In the 1960’s, government agencies began churning out posters for propaganda purposes. Many of these used stereotypically Soviet design features, but even some early samples showed hints of the Cuban flair for colorful and inventive graphic design; and by the late 60s, Cuban graphic art was in its heyday. Though still essentially producing propaganda, artists such as Rene Maderos, Raul Martinez, Alfredo Rostgaard, and Felix Beltran were creating lively, powerful, and highly characteristic works that had huge impact on global graphic design.
An image commonly used by Cuban graphic designers was “Guerillero Heroica”, a photograph of Che Guevara taken by Alberto Korda (1928-2001). The candid shot of Guevara, taken in March 1960, at a memorial service for victims of the ammunition ship explosion in Havana Harbor, became one of the world’s most iconic images.
It was during the 1980’s in which art began to reveal true uninfluenced expression. The renascence of expression in Cuban art was greatly affected by the emergence of a new generation of Cuban, which did not remember the revolution directly. Afro-Cuban sensibility emerged as The New Art, an art movement widely recognized as distinctly Cuban. Young artists born after the revolution rebelled against modernism and embraced conceptual art, amongst other genres.
Today, there is a flourishing street art movement influenced by Latin American artists José Guadalupe Posada and the muralist Diego Rivera.