Friday, April 25, 2008

Cuba! Art and History from 1868 to Today: some impressions

It had been a good fifteen years since i had gone to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the previous time having been when my grandmother visited from overseas. This was not without some regret on my part, looking at pretty pictures and learning about different folks who drew or painted them being something i think i'd enjoy, but still i don't go - partly it's a lack of time, partly it's just not something i ever think of when i do have a spare day.

When i walked by the museum last week i saw this big poster for the Cuba! Art and History from 1869 to Today exhibit and thought "that looks interesting," but by for the aforementioned reasons had stopped thinking about it by the time i got to Peel. But then by happy coincidence one of our houseguests mentioned he had heard of this very exhibit - apparently the largest collection of Cuban works ever displayed outside the country - and wanted to go while he was in town, so a plan was struck and when half-price Wednesday evening rolled around, off we set.

Simply in the hopes of not forgetting it all by this time next year, here's what i thought.

First off, note to self: when visiting the Museum of Fine Arts, bring a pen and notepad. They don't provide anything beyond a glitzy-but-empty magazine you can take with you afterwards to remind you of what you saw. Not a list of artists, never mind a list of paintings. i had assumed i'd be able to find the information online, but (as you'll see) no such luck. & the book they sell at the end, with tiny reproductions of everything in the exhibit, costs $70, so that's kind of out of the question.

Cuba! Art and History from 1869 to Today contains about 400 works - paintings, drawings, photos, posters, a couple of old films and a few installations - divided into five chronological sections.

When you first enter, you're in confronted with this enormous, stunning landscape showing lots of green, cliffs in the background, breathtaking stuff. No, i don't remember the name of the painting or the artist - see my problem? - but it makes an impression. Really a stunning piece.

It and the first two rooms constitute the "Depicting Cuba, finding ways to express a nation" section, spanning 1868 to 1927. The art here is all paintings, with several other landscapes, some pastoral scenes, and an interesting juxtaposition of two paintings of teenage girls - one white, one Afro-Cuban entitled "Girl of the Sugar Cane" or some such.

But the real eye catcher in this room is a depiction of the execution of Hatuey, a Taino cacique who had resisted the Spanish in Hispanola (the island that today is Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and had then fled to Cuba to warn the Indigenous people there of what colonialism had in store. According to Bartolome de las Casas, he showed those who he came to warn a basket of gold and jewels, explaining:
Here is the God the Spaniards worship. For these they fight and kill; for these they persecute us and that is why we have to throw them into the sea... They tell us, these tyrants, that they adore a God of peace and equality, and yet they usurp our land and make us their slaves. They speak to us of an immortal soul and of their eternal rewards and punishments, and yet they rob our belongings, seduce our women, violate our daughters. Incapable of matching us in valor, these cowards cover themselves with iron that our weapons cannot break...
The blurb accompanying the painting explains that, having been captured, about to be killed, Hatuey was approached by a missionary who asked if he wanted to go to heaven. Probably about to offer baptism or last rites, expanding the colonialists' military win into an ideological one. The guerilla leader turned this around on his captors, though, responding with a question of his own: "Are these white men going to heaven also?" The missionary responded in the affirmative, to which Hatuey answered that, in that case, "I don't want to go to heaven."

The story, which i have no trouble believing, is more moving than the painting, which while pretty, really doesn't evoke either the horror of the situation or the stakes of what was being fought over. Rather you have this typically handsome muscly guy with a loincloth - oh that must be Hatuey - looking into the sky while an old dude with an incredible beard seems to be pleading with him. i mean it could have been like that, but i doubt it.

Gotta be careful dismissing stuff as clichéd when its from two centuries back, though. i mean, maybe it wasn't cliché at the time, maybe it was an accurate portrayal, one which because it worked to move folks way back when, laid the basis for a a set of conventions and visual shortcuts and stereotypes which today strike us as cliché? i dunno...

Next room was photos. Gotta say, i'm not a great fan of photography, so i skipped through quickly enough. A few did catch my eye though - guys working sorting tobacco, other guys working i believe unloading coal on the docks, women working in a textile factory... one thing all of these folks have in common is they look tired, very tired, unlike the paintings in the previous room where everyone - slaves, soon-to-be-executed guerillas, young folks, everyone - looks wide awake like they're posing on a movie set.

i'm not sure if it was in the photo room or next that we enter our next section, "Arte Nuevo, the avant-garde and the recreation of identity" spanning 1927-1938. But suddenly things get interesting. The blurb on the wall explains that Cuban artists were now trying to portray reality as they saw it around them, not some kind of idealized "Cuba" as it was imagined. The style is what they call modernist i think, and painters were obviously not trying to give a photo-realistic view of things, but by making people less detailed, they manage to convey much more emotion.

One artist, and one painting, stand out from this period for me.

The painting, which i believe was called Workers or Trabajadores, i don't remember the painter (see my problem!), shows two guys piggy-backing a third. It's left unclear whether because he's hurt, or dead, or just dead tired. In the background there's all these buildings, factories, and there's a nice juxtaposition between the three guys in the foreground and the background of architecture. It works.

The artist who stands out for me - in fact, the artist who for me constitutes the highpoint of the entire exhibit - is Marcello Pogolotti. (The curator must have liked him too, because he gets his own room.)

Like many of the artists featured, as a member of the privileged classes, Pogolotti was born in Cuba but spent his childhood and early adulthood abroad, mainly in Europe but also for a few years in the united states. During this period he fell in with the surrealists, and then the futurists in Italy.

Now, i never knew a lot about the futurists, and most of what i ever did know i have forgotten. But my impression was that they were an artistic movement in line with Fascism, especially in its revolutionary, forward-looking aspects, exulting the machine and technology and embodying the spirit of the age to come, a spirit they were very enthusiastic about. So while interesting, i wouldn't have expected to find anything politically inspiring to come from that quarter.

Pogolotti, however, appears to have been an anti-fascist futurist, albeit one who may have taken his time coming to anti-fascism. But then again, from memory, these artsy types often take their time getting places, and the futurists as a whole i imagine took their time lining up for Mussolini. According to an article from Art Nexus, it was Pogolotti's Nuestro Tiempo series of charcoal drawings which got him kicked out of Fascist Italy in 1932, though it would seem that for some time he allowed his "apolitical" or pro-fascist futurist friends to continue including his work in their exhibits, until he finally broke with them in 1934. According to the Art Nexus article:
In Paris, Pogolotti became close to the Revolutionary Writers and Artists Association, led by Louis Aragon. He showed his works alongside theirs on a couple of occasions, without abandoning the formal achievements of Futurism. He kept painting factories and machinery, now incorporating the “human pulse” of work and of the class struggle, expressed in relationships of dominance, subordination, and symbiosis between those machines and human subjects, and in the tension of diagonal lines.

El Capitalismo by Pogolotti

Several pieces from the Nuestro Tiempo series are included in the Montreal exhibit, and as i said, they're some of the best stuff there, explicitly anti-fascist and anti-capitalist. There's an interesting interplay between mechanical imagery, gears and pistons, often incorporated directly into bodies, especially the bodies of the oppressor. The most memorable piece for me was "Bloodbath":

When i saw the actual drawing, at first i thought it was a big fight or a melee between the people shown all intertwined. The cops or soldiers firing guns into the crowd seemed just part of the dark background, but then suddenly i could see it - folks weren't fighting each other, they were being mowed down.

Unfortunately, some of Pogolotti's anti-fascist pieces seem to suffer from the weaknesses of the broader anti-fascist movement of his day. One shows Nazis whipping workers, with a fat-cat capitalist holding them on leashes - while i remember what i said about clichés above - perhaps at the time this represented a cutting edge insight - today this is a hackneyed view, obscuring more than it reveals.

Another charcoal piece shows Hitler with four or five penises, and (again, only discernible to me after i'd been staring at it for a minute) someone leaning over revealing their naked bum in the background. The idea, i guess, being "Hitler's gonna fuck you in the ass" - again, in step with its times perhaps, but both homophobic and missing the point all the same.

For me, the funniest piece by Pogolotti is the one that obviously impressed the curator the most, so that it ended up on the cover the the $70 commemorative book the museum put out about the exhibit:

Titled "The Young Intellectual", according to the accompanying blurb the artist's intention was to portray the intellectual as a combatant, threatened by an ominous figure outside (the bird with the scythe). His weapons an open book and the typewriter by his side, our hero is apparently presented with a stiff back "to show that intellectuals are not weaklings." Really, that's what it said. i like it, but i hope you can see why it makes me laugh.

(Pogolotti died in 1988, but there is no visual art from him after the thirties: he went blind in 1939. Living until just before his death in Mexico, he devoted the rest of his life to literary and art criticism.)

The least interesting sections of the exhibit for me were the two that came next, "Cubanness, affirming a Cuban style" spanning 1938-1959, and "Within the Revolution, Everything - against the revolution, nothing" spanning the 1959-1979 period.

Not that they were entirely lacking: works by Wilfredo Lam certainly stand out, muppet-like in their zaniness, really bursting with life like some friendly yet fierce drug-induced vision. Take a look at this, for instance, Lam's The Jungle, which i got off the internet but which i believe was at the exhibit, along with many other of his works:

Lam, like Pogolotti, was born in 1902. His father was Chinese-Cuban and his mother Afro-Cuban, while her mother was one of the many African slaves who supported the country's economy; like so many in this show, Lam went to Europe in his youth, finding himself in Spain at the time when revolution was in the air. According to wikipedia:
Throughout Lam’s travels through the Spanish countryside, he developed empathy for the Spanish peasants, whose strife, in some ways, mirrored that of the former slaves he grew up around in Cuba. Therefore, at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Lam sided with the Republicans where he used his talent to fashion Republican posters and propaganda. Drafted to defend Madrid, Lam was incapacitated during the fighting in late 1937 and was sent to Barcelona.
With the Republican defeat Lam took up residence in France, until the Nazis invaded, at which point he returned to his native Cuba.

Really, what struck me seeing Lam's fantastic and slightly deranged works was how much surrealism obviously drew from innovations and art forms from outside of the metropole: Lam in particular seems to have learned about and brought "African" artistic styles to his friends in the "European" cutting edge art scene.

As for all those OSPAAAL posters, put out after the revolution in solidarity with struggles and groups the Castro regime supported around the world - they're great, of course, but in a sense they deserve their own exhibit with lots of commentary. Put on one half of one wall, they seem a catalog of struggles which to most people may be meaningless, or else not understood. Although i think done properly the OSPAAAL posters could have impressed me more than anything else, presented as they were they seemed trite, reduced to a wall full of propaganda, nothing beyond that.

In any case, here you can see them all online if you're interested: just go to the OSPAAAL website.

Not knowing much about Cuba - part of my aversion to the Pathfinder types i guess - i was slightly surprised at how some artists began to voice criticisms of the world around them by the 1980s, as shown in the final section, "The Revolution and Me, the individual within history", bringing us up to present. NOT that there is anything denouncing state repression or the marketization of class relations or any such - the "critique" in this period remains subdued or implicit, nothing like the works of a Pogolotti explicitly showing the blood and guts of oppression, of state repression or the broader capitalist system which is clearly a factor in the continuing misery of people around the world, including people inside Cuba.

The only way in which global capitalism is attacked is in the form of the Blockade, the u.s. embargo on Cuba. On the one hand, this is understandable, given the incredible hardship the decades-long attempt to starve people into submission has inflicted on the island. Nevertheless, what with the expansion of a capitalist tourism industry within Cuba, and expanding class divisions, it is striking that these topics were nowhere mentioned. In a similar vein, while a blurb gives a one-sentence nod to "sexism and homophobia" in art in the revolutionary period, we see neither examples of this sexism or homophobia in what is included, nor do we ever see any artwork criticizing this. Indeed, women artists are utterly missing from the exhibit (there are only eight included, and i only noticed one of them), and there is not a single visible queer expression.

For whatever reason, the only pieces i found moving in this last section were installations, not drawings, prints or paintings.

One artist - again, forget the name, and can't find it on the net - wrote out the word "UTOPIA" in Russian letters made of measuring tape, a smart way i thought to communicate a bunch of ideas at one time.

Another wrote out the word "Blockade" in concrete letters in front of a maquette of the island. This was surprisingly effective.

By far my favourite two pieces here were both by Alexis Leyva Machado, who prefers to go by the name "Kcho". The first of these, titled "In Order to Forget", consists of a canoe atop an "island" of beer bottles, shaped in the same form as Cuba itself. It can be read various ways, but according to various blurbs it would seem Kcho's work deals with migration, and this was certainly the theme throughout that room, so that's how i took it. Neat and smart:

The second installation i actually thought was much smarter, and worked very well, though i have not been able to find it online. It was also by Kcho, and it ends the entire exhibit. It consisted of a darkened room with large flat surface, on which stood dozens of candles in different states of melting. Some seemed just like blobs, while others were recognizable as buildings of various kinds - according to the guard i asked, many are historic buildings: the eiffel tower, the vatican, etc. and once i was told i think i made out the twin towers. Many burning, many having gone out. (Each morning they are re-lit, and as they melt away completely they are replaced.)

This alone would be interesting, but what to me made it great was three close circuit video cameras filming the entire thing and displaying alternating shots of it on a screen above. Every ten seconds or so the perspective would change, but no matter which camera angle was being used, what appeared on the screen was just a narrow slice of what you could see on the table. Much of the table could simply not be seen, no matter which perspective was being displayed, or at least could not be seen on the screen.

For me, this summed up my misgivings about art and representation in general, how the perspective used always leaves out much of what is actually going on. A shortcoming that seems unavoidable, and was certainly not avoided in this show, like it tho i did. For a piece of art to sum up why art makes me uneasy was a very nice surprise. A great finale.

This was a good show, but it was by no means complete, and should not be presented as such. Women, who make up well over 50% of the people depicted, were practically absent from the list of artists. This is inexcusable, and that the exhibit was organized by Nathalie Bondil, herself the first woman director the Museum of Fine Arts, is just another example of how useless it is to count on change coming down from above.

But again: this is inexcusable. There is a long and established herstory of women making important, and widely recognized, contributions to Cuban art - at Havana's 1927 "New Art Exhibit" six of the eighteen artists featured were female, and women had been accepted in the country's art academies since 1879. Amelia Pelaez participated alongside Wilfredo Lam in Cuba's "First Exhibit of Modern Art" in 1935, and would earn her place as "one of the most important painters of the continent." Other renowned female Cuban artists include Mirta Cerra, Antonia Eirez, Lesbia Vent, Flora Fong, Nancy Franko, and Julia Valdes. While Pelaez and Eirez both have work in the Montreal exhibit, they don't have much, certainly not enough to mitigate the overwhelmingly male vision.

Similarly missing is anything explicitly critical of the regime in power, or of the continuing intrusion of capitalism into peoples' lives. Not that i expect this is present in other exhibits put on at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, but still, it's an absence worth noting.

Despite these holes, i enjoyed this trip to the museum. Definitely, taking a few hours to look through other people's eyes is an exercise well worth doing. Hopefully, i'll visit again before another fifteen years go by (shit, that would be 2023!). Gotta remember to bring a notepad and pen next time, though...

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