The Cuban Revolution came to an end in January 1959, as the guerrilla revolt led by Fidel Castro swept from power the US-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. The subsequent transformation of the Caribbean island into a Communist state, aligned with the Soviet Union, would give rise to an uneasy relationship between Cuba and the United States that exists to this day, and which in the 1960s threatened to ignite World War III. The paintings of Raúl Martínez (1927–1995) are today celebrated as some of the most iconic images created in the decades following the Cuban Revolution. And yet, the artist had a complex relationship with a regime that at times rejected and persecuted him.
Before the revolution, Raúl Martínez had briefly lived in New York and studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As with many young artists in the United States during the late 1940s, Martínez was inspired by Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Once back home in Cuba, Martínez became one of eleven abstract artists known as ‘Los Once’, who showed their work together from 1953. Although the group disbanded after a couple of years, Los Once is still remembered as the first and most significant association of Cuban abstractionists. During these years, Martínez also began to hone his skills as a graphic designer, mirroring the career of Andy Warhol by likewise working in the advertising industry.
For Raúl Martínez, the Cuban Revolution brought hope and fear. From the mid-1960s, Martínez and his partner, the playwright and poet Abelardo Estorino, were victimised as part of a government-sanctioned campaign against homosexuals. During this period, Martínez was expelled from his position as professor of design at the University of Havana, going on to forge a career as a freelance designer. In his memoirs, Yo Publio: Confesiones de Raúl Martínez, the artist recalls that many of his friends were sent to “rehabilitation” camps, in reality harsh labour camps that held homosexuals as well as artists and intellectuals, political dissidents, and religious minorities. This era of repression triggered an abrupt change in Martínez’s artistic style. While the influence of the Soviet Union simultaneously brought Socialist Realism to Cuba, Martínez instead took his cues once more from the art of the United States.
In 1964, Martínez began to experiment with collage, to produce works that reflected the visual culture of post-revolutionary Cuba. In parallel with his American contemporary, Robert Rauschenberg, Martínez combined photographs of famous faces, anonymous citizens and everyday objects, with the revolutionary slogans and graffiti style that had sprung up across the island in celebration of the revolution. Martínez subsequently returned to painting, combining elements of his collage work with contemporary street art and local folk traditions to produce a Cuban version of pop art.
While Martínez’s pop style had many of the hallmarks of American pop – strong colours, bold lines and repeated images – there were some marked differences which made the work distinctly Cuban. Rather than taking inspiration from the rampant consumerism in the United States, Martínez’s paintings reflected on the transformation of Cuban society and the prevalence of politics. Instead of media images of American film stars and celebrities, Martínez based his designs on unglamorised photographs of Cuban leaders displayed in state institutions. The national hero José Martí was a recurrent subject in Martínez’s pop works, while he also pictured national and global political figures including Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, Lenin, and Ho Chi Minh. In contrast to the vast sums paid for American pop art, the isolationist, anti-commercial policies in post-revolutionary Cuba prevented Martínez from selling much of his work. And while the pop art movement in the United States saw screen printing brought to the forefront of artistic production, Martínez remained committed to working in paint.
Martínez’s pop art gives the illusion of propaganda, with its apparently optimistic scenes celebrating the Communist leadership. And yet his work remains ambiguous. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Cuba’s anti-gay rules prevented Martínez from publicly displaying much of his work, and he was even ordered to cover his 1967 mural mourning the death of revolutionary hero Che Guevara. While Martínez’s paintings capture the widespread enthusiasm for change and the spirit of the Cuban people, the sombre palette and reflective mood of these works also suggest an artist struggling to reconcile his revolutionary convictions with his experience of being ostracised under the post-revolutionary regime.
Images: All Raúl Martínez. Untitled, 1962, mixed media on heavy paper, 15 x 20 inches; 26 de Julio [26 July], 1964, collage and oil on wood, 150 x 180 cm; Rosas y Estrellas [Roses and Stars], 1972, oil on canvas, 45.5 x 51 inches; Repeticiones Con Bandera [Repetitions with a Flag], 1966, oil on canvas, 127 x 147 cm.