Raúl Martínez and the Ambiguous Art of Post-Revolutionary Cuba

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.

Exhibition of the Month: Post Pop: East Meets West

The Saatchi Gallery in London seeks to build on its successful exhibitions of recent Russian and Chinese art – including 2008’s The Revolution Continues: New Chinese Art and 2012’s Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art, 1960–80s – with a show that combines the two.

While the title of Post Pop: East Meets West suggests the two sides of the former iron curtain joining in a shared appreciation of Pop Art, the selection of works indicates instead the movement of Pop from east to west, with Russian and Chinese artists taking inspiration from and seeking to improve upon art emanating from the United States and the UK.

Pop Art’s satirical exploitation and subversion of familiar visual references to reveal uncomfortable truths about the world in which we live found a second life in communist regimes. The same techniques were adopted by artists to reveal the banality and absurdity of state propaganda and Socialist Realism, from the Sots Art of Komar & Melamid to the Political Pop of Wang Guangyi.

This focus on Pop Art’s legacy means the movement’s heyday of the 1960s and its most familiar names are absent. Instead the exhibition’s chronology runs from the seventies to the present day. Of the 250 works by 110 artists the UK offering is dominated by the YBAs, although Yinka Shonibare is a welcome deviation from the classic east/west bipolarity; the US works are more conventionally Pop, as Jeff Koons and Keith Haring rub shoulders with Paul McCarthy and Cindy Sherman; the Chinese section is more eclectic, from a marble sculpture by man of the moment Ai Weiwei to a human hair installation by Gu Wenda; while art from the former USSR ranges from the big names of the Nonconformist art movement to contemporary collectives AES+F and Blue Noses.

The exhibition suggests a similar obsession with celebrity and commodification in both east and west, but it neglects to go deeper into the political significance of the art, instead offering something of a curiosity cabinet of Pop’s diverse manifestations.

According to The Telegraph is looks “like a bonkers art-department store“. If you’re in London you can go along and decide for yourself until 23 February 2015.

Images: Top – Leonid Sokov, Two Profiles (Stalin and Marilyn), 1989. Bronze, photographic print; Bottom – Wang Guangyi, Great Criticism: Benelton (大批判), 1992. Oil on canvas © Wang Guangyi, 1992

Featured Artist: Robert Rauschenberg

A worthy analysis of the impact of the Cold War on Robert Rauschenberg warrants more than a single post. The American pop artist frequently chronicled major geopolitical events resulting from the clash between competing superpowers, as well as commenting on the daily tensions of life in the shadow of the mushroom cloud. Perhaps the most obvious is his series of prints entitled Soviet/American Array, produced for his solo exhibition in Moscow in 1989. Here sculpted busts of Lenin and photographs taken in Red Square rubbed up against US cityscapes and Western consumerism to dizzying effect.

But in the interests of brevity, here’s one I made earlier:
The Space Curiosity of Robert Rauschenberg

Click on the link to see my entry for the Artsy Emerging Curator competition, where I explore Rauschenberg’s fascination with the Space Race and how the astronaut came to symbolise his hopes for world peace.

Robert Rauschenberg, Soviet/American Array VII, 1988 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, New York.

Jasper Johns’ Un-American Flag

As the United States of America celebrates Independence Day, the country drapes itself in the red, white and blue of the American flag. As a potent symbol of national pride and ‘Americanness’, the flag became a recurrent subject in the work of one Cold War painter as he questioned his response to political events.

Jasper Johns was part of a new wave of young American artists in the 1950s who began to explore ways of distancing themselves from the overblown rhetoric of the Cold War, paving the way for the rise of Pop Art and Minimalism the following decade.

Johns painted his first Flag in 1954, after waking from a dream in which he saw himself painting an American flag. The image operated on several levels, including as a semiotic conundrum (is it a flag or a depiction of a flag?), and to question the viewer’s ability to discriminate a series of block colours, a familiar modernist pursuit, from their political content. But in the oppressive atmosphere of early Cold War America, where McCarthyist blacklists and loyalty oaths lent the flag added political significance, Johns’ Flag also become an ironic symbol of the loss of freedom.

At the time the work was deemed to be so controversial that MoMA arranged for it to be purchased via a third party to avoid accusations of un-American subversion.

Image: Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954–55. Encaustic, oil and collage on fabric mounted on plywood, three panels, 107.3 x 153.8 cm. MoMA © 2014 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Featured Artist: Peter Saul

Peter SaulNever afraid to confront the less salubrious aspects of American society, painter Peter Saul has made a career of challenging the boundaries of taste. Born in San Francisco in 1934, Saul was one of the pioneers of Pop Art and has often incorporated Cold War themes into his canvases.

His distinctive style blends Surrealism and Expressionism with a psychedelic colour palette. Like a modern-day Hieronymus Bosch, Saul has often created lurid landscapes populated by deformed figures that are reminiscent of those of Salvador Dalí. His early fascination with cartoons has reverberated throughout his work which is at turns humorous, grotesque and offensive.

During the Cold War, Saul often responded to controversial political themes to provide unsettling and unflattering social commentary. In the 1960s and ’70s his anger at US aggression in the Vietnam War led to a series of works including Vietnam and Saigon, while he delivered scathing visual attacks on political figures including Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. In recent years he has continued to make allusions to the Cold War, such as in a series of canvases with comical depictions of Stalin and Mao.

Peter Saul - Saigon

Peter Saul - Stalin Mao

Images (top to bottom): Peter Saul, Saigon, 1967. Enamel, oil, and synthetic polymer on canvas, 235.6 × 360.7 cm. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Peter Saul, Stalin + Mao, 2009. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of David Nolan Gallery, New York.

Featured Artist: Leonhard Lapin

leonard lapinOnce a dissident rejected by the state, Leonhard Lapin is now considered one of the most important modern artists in his native Estonia. Born 1947 in what was the Estonian SSR, Lapin trained as an architect but soon began to also create paintings, sculpture and graphics.

In the 1960s and ’70s his political views deeply affected both his pioneering work as an architect of the ‘Tallinn School’ and his career as a visual artist. 4.0.1Lapin rejecting the tenets of Socialist Realism to produce work that revealed the gap between the state-approved utopian images and the reality of a nation struggling with uprisings in the Soviet republics and the threat of nuclear disaster. In all media, Lapin has blended pop art inspired by Andy Warhol with references to the early Soviet avant-gardism of Constructivism and Suprematism.

Lapin’s political focus continues today. In 2012 in Washington, D.C. his exhibition Lest We Forget: Masters of Soviet Dissent provided a timely reminder of Soviet artistic repression, juxtaposing the symbology of religion and totalitarianism as a challenge to Putin’s Russia.

Image: Leonhard Lapin, Suprematism and Socialism, from the series Conversation of Signs, silk print, 1989.

Recommended Read: A Conspiracy of Images

John J. Curley. A Conspiracy of Images: Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, and the Art of the Cold War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

Warhol Atomic Bomb

In the early Cold War, grainy photographic images were published daily in newspapers and magazines to warn an increasingly fearful Western public of the dangers of the conflict. A new book considers how this media imagery penetrated the work of visual artists, focusing in particular on American pop artist, Andy Warhol, and German photorealist, Gerhard Richter.

The starting point for A Conspiracy of Images is a set of blurred surveillance photographs taken by a U-2 spy plane in October 1962, which alerted the Kennedy administration to Soviet missiles on Cuba and led to the ensuing crisis. Soon after, Warhol began to produce screen prints of graphic and distressing photographs and Richter painted blurred distortions of photographic images to channel the ambiguity of the Cold War experience. Professor John J. Curley explores how the artists’ work was inspired by an ominous aesthetic particular to the Cold War, which melded military photography, photojournalism and propaganda.

A Conspiracy of Images is on sale from Yale University Press. You can also read more about the fascinating story of surveillance photography and the Cuban Missile Crisis in ‘The Photographs That Prevented World War III’ in the Smithsonian Magazine.

Image: Andy Warhol, Atomic Bomb, 1965. Silkscreen on canvas, 264 x 204.5 cm. Saatchi Collection, London.