Early History The first signs of creative expression In Cuba come from cave painting. Later, the testimonials were the cartographies of the island combined with impressions and myths developed by the chroniclers. Along the long historic path, the mural paintings executed, in the most part anonymously, on the interior and exterior of houses from the colonial period must be mentioned. On the basis of their character and craftsmanship, they have to be labeled “folk art”. Natural pigments and some inferior quality colors were used, and the later the paintings were executed, the more complex and higher quality the techniques.
Francisco Javier Báez is the first Colonial Period Cuban graphic artist who, in addition to religious themes, also designed drawings for tobacco and cigar brands in xylography (a technique which was introduced to Cuba in 1723). Foreign graphic artists and illustrators, above all French, came to the island and depicted landscapes, customs and places in the form of albums. The graphic arts, besides their artistic value, were the only means of honestly depicting the events and their consequences, including folklore. The first graphic document on the Toma de la Habana (The capture of Havana) by the English was made by Dominique Serres in the year 1762. The lithographic publication was made one year later in France. The six views of the town, realized by the North American Elías Durnford between 1764 and 1765, form the precursors of the Cuban Scenes by foreign artists in the 19th century.
Towards the end of the 18th century the Cuban cultural panorama changed as a result of developments achieved so far, which were mainly due to the growth in the sugar industry. The Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País (Economic Society of the Friends of the Country) was founded, schools and universities multiplied, the public library was expanded and advertisements by teachers of art and portrait painters appeared in the press. The artists were self-taught people who exchanged lessons with each other and were regarded as craftsmen.
José Nicolás Escalera is considered to be the first Cuban painter. Escalera painted the picture of a negro slave in the mural paintings of the church of Santa María del Rosario for the first time. The 19th century is characterized by the boom in the sugar industry and the growing slave trade. In 1805 the bishop, Juan José Díaz de Espada y Landa, patron of science and art, entrusted an Italian with the frescoes of the Cathedral of Havana. In 1818 Bishop Díaz de Espada y Landa and Alejandro Ramírez founded the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes. This, the second academy in the Americas, after San Carlos in Mexico, had as its first director the Frenchman and pupil of the Master David, Juan Bautiste Vermay. The style of painting taught reflected European trends at the time.
After the death of Juan Bautiste Vermay, the Academy was headed for a short time by a Cuban, then followed mainly a French-Italian sequence of successors until the permanent presence of Miguel Melero, the first Cuban Director in the last five years of the century, which coincided with the halcyon days of the Academy in Cuba. From this time onwards the directorship was to remain firmly in Cuban hands. This is the starting point for continuity in Cuban national painting. New initiatives and changes, such as the admission of women to the Academy, for example, at a time when no other institution offered this opportunity, first appeared under the leadership of this master. Besides his many paintings, he created the picture on the main altar of the chapel at the Cementerio Colón . In this century graphic art is represented by Leonardo Barañano, Hipolito Garneray, Eduardo Laplante and also Federico Mialhe , whose three albums “Scenic Walk “, “Picturesque Island of Cuba ” and “The Island of Cuba” form the most complete graphic report. Small lithographic editions, linked to trade and advertisements, appeared from 1822 onwards following the founding of a workshop The brand bands of cigarillos and cigars were produced with great figurative display using lithography. They were the main driving force behind the development, growth and boom in this technique.
National painting began to take shape from the mid 19th century onward. Taste and the appreciation of painting developed in Cuba at the same pace as the intellectual environment of the island was infused with new activities. Esteban Chartrand and Valentin Sanz Carta are examples of two opposing points of view, the former, a Cuban of French descent, created nostalgic and idealized landscapes bathed in twilight, in which the Cuban element of bohíos (farmhouses), ingenios (sugar factories) and palms can be recognized, and the latter, a Cuban from the Canaries, offered a more direct and realistic landscape flooded with tropical light. Armando García Menocal and Leopoldo Romañach Guillén contributed to the cultural renewal which found its positive aspect, favored by the new era, the new rulers, and the reorganization of education started under the North American occupation. Romañach is recognized as one of the most able professors in the development of Cuban art, after Juan Bautiste Vermay and Miguel Melero.
The commercialization of art did not begin until the 20th Century approximately 1916, with the Salón de Bellas Artes. Only the Academy itself and exhibitions which were organized in the Pabellón de Educación in the Quinta de Molinos existed as channels of distribution. Cultural institutions such as the Atheneum and the Academy for Art and Literature (1910) developed with private support. The Asociación de Pintores y Escultores cubanos was founded to represent the work of Cuban artists and to organize the annual Salón de Bellas Artes. At the beginning of the twenties a new generation of intellectuals surfaced in the conflict-ridden political and social panorama. The magazine Avances (1927) was the fundamental place to accommodate new ideas and artistic debate. Later it was to be the publications Verbum (1930), Espuela de Plata (1940) and Orígenes (in the fifties). In 1937 forward-thinking artists founded the Estudio Libre de Pintura y Escultura, promoting such fields of art as wood carving and mural painting which had been neglected by the Academy, and the “First Salon of Modern Art” was inaugurated. As in any avant-garde movement, the artists tried to transform society through culture. Those of this period who were to become masters of modern Cuban art also drew from Mexican mural painting.
Serigraphy had been employed from time to time in Cuba since the beginning of the century. This contemporary printing technique was originally used mainly for graphic – publishing and industrial – applications, and its introduction to Cuba (about 1910) was one of the first in the world. Amongst the forerunners of the Cuban avant-garde, Victor Manuel deserves particular mention, testing new forms from the basis of the figurative and bequeathing a symbol in the history of Cuban art with his picture La Gitana Tropical. In the third decade, modern art in Cuba finally became consolidated. This is the first moment of the turning point in Cuban painting, uniting the intimacy of Antonio Gattorno; the guajiros (farmers) of Eduardo Abela; the sensuality of Carlos Enríquez, the sociopolitical criticisms of Marcelo, the drama of an artistic world, the despair and agony of Fidelio Ponce; the African roots of Cuban culture emphasized by Wilfredo Lam and the still life, combined with elements of Cuban architecture of Amelia Peláez. Also belonging to this group are Arístides Fernández and René Portocarrero.The 1940s and 1950s mark the second moment in Cuban sculpture. In this process of the continued modernization of art, a new avant-garde developed. It coincided with trends in international art which was no longer focused on Europe but on North America. Abstractionism arrived in the country and provoked the Contrabienale of 1953. Raúl Martínez founded the group Los 11 (Group of Eleven), the abstract Informalists, and then the Concrete artists, independent creative artists who engaged in geometric abstraction: Sandú Darié, Salvador Corratgé, Luis Martínez Pedró, Loló Soldevilla and Pedro de Oraá. The masters Antonia Eiriz and Servando Cabrera Moreno turned their attention gradually to Expressionism. In the forties Cuban serigraphy, in connection with political posters, enjoyed a wide distribution. The merging of serigraphy and the poster form created a poster art with its own characteristics, which became obvious from 1943 through film posters in particular (due to the boom in Mexican and Argentinean films); a serigraphic link which continues without interruption to the present.
Cuban art from 1959 to the present represents the Revolutionary period. The serigraphic heritage was adopted by the Revolution in the first few months of 1959. The graphic arts experienced an extraordinary boom through the poster art of the ICAIC (Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográfica = Cuban Institute for Cinematic Art and Industry). Cultural polices have left little room for deviation from the official norm and most art produced is propaganda art and as such, the Cuban Revolutionary school remains a unique phenomenon in the Spanish Caribbean.