Cuban hero José Martí is remembered as a man of arts and letters committed to the cause of Cuban independence from Spain. In his short life, he died in battle at the age of 41, he inspired many. His legacy endures and his message remains relevant today.
Born in 1853 in Cuba, José Martí is honored throughout the Latin American world as a poet, journalist, diplomat and, foremost, a man committed to social justice and Cuban independence from Spain. From an early age, his activism drew attention to the injustices committed by Cuba's Spanish colonizers.
Martí's influence has endured and may be said to embody a message for people of all nations and cultures today. In the exhibition that follows, beginning with this timeline, you will see Martí depicted by artists and filmmakers, in popular culture and in the expressions of everyday people.
This exhibition is part of The Bronx Museum of the Arts José Martí Sculpture Project, an initiative to bring a reproduction of Anna Hyatt Huntington's sculpture of Martí in New York City's Central Park to Old Havana - a gift to the people of Cuba from the people of the United States.
Jorge Arche (1905-1956) was a modern Cuban artist. His oil paintings were realistic, but also full of Classical and Expressionist elements. He is considered a forerunner, along with Victor Manuel Garcia, in bringing a modern style to Cuban art. Part of the vanguard movement that took place in Havana beginning in the 1920′s, Arche became one of the first to help define a singular Cuban art. This portrait of Martí, painted in 1943, exemplifies his style - combining classical portraiture with lush and fully developed landscape backgrounds.
Throughout the 20th century and up to the present, artists in Cuba and elsewhere have continued to depict Martí. In this monumental mural, the Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886 – 1957) painted Martí in the midst of assembled historical figures, notable citizens, Indians and workers. Mindful perhaps of Martí's exile from Mexico by Porfirio Diaz, who disliked his activism, Rivera has inserted him into the mural in the company of Diaz's wife and daughter and Frida Kahlo. Just in front of Kahlo and Martí, we see Rivera depicting himself as a childlike figure.
In the early 1950s, Raúl Martínez—along with such artists as Guido Llinás and Tomas Oliva—established the group Los Once (The Eleven), Their work was influenced by the Abstract Expressionists at first.
Throughout his career Martinez exhibited a wide-ranging engagement with a variety of media and ideas - from architecture and design to photography and collage. In this work from 1966, we see Martí portrayed serially, in a nod to Pop, a style with which he also became identified.
In the works that follow, you will see Martí through the eyes of artists working from the early 20th century to today.
The Salón de Mayo (May Salon) was an art exhibition held in Havana, Cuba, in July 1967. It took its name from the Salon de Mai, an artists collective founded during the Nazi occupation of France. the exhibition was organized by Carlos Franqui with the assistance of such artists as Wifredo Lam, René Portocarrero, Alexander Calder, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso.
The Salón de Mayo presented works by more than a hundred artists and represented rival schools of twentieth-century art: early modernists (Picasso, Miro, Magritte); the next generation (Lam, Calder, Jacques Hérold, Stanley Hayter); and the post-World War II generation (Asger Jorn, Antonio Saura, Jorge Soto). Lam wrote to Franqui in anticipation of the event of his hopes:
."..that young painters and sculptors would be able to work in a socialist country such as Cuba and enjoy the spontaneity of creating something so that they would have memories of the pleasure they experienced working in Cuba just for the sake of working. Some artists were invited to create works in Cuba in the weeks preceding the exhibition, with those works donated to the Cuban government to form the nucleus of the collection of an anticipated but never realized contemporary art museum.
Collaborative engagement was a principle theme of the event. On 19 July 1967, over 100 artists and writers contributed to a mural, Cuba Colectiva, in front of the Cuba Pavilion in Havana, adding either images or text inside spiral bands that circled outward from a central image of "rhomboid heads" by Lam.*
*Sims, Lowery Stokes; Cuba and the International Avant-Garde, 1923-1982.
A celebrated painter, photographer, and printmaker, Tomás Sánchez is best known for his sublime, painted landscapes and waterscapes that inspire comparisons to the Hudson River School and Caspar David Friedrich. These meticulously painted works are inspired, in part, by Sánchez’s practice of yoga and meditation, as he states, “The interior spaces that I experience in meditation are converted into the landscapes of my paintings.”
In this early work, Sanchez depicts José Martí leading a parade of cheering citizens through the streets while other similarly cheering people look on from roofs and porches.
Juan Francisco Elso Padilla was a Cuban sculptor who died of leukemia in 1988 at the age of 32. Despite his short life, he set an influential example. He was part of the Cuban Renaissance of the late 1970s, a group of artists who introduced experimental styles and new content to Cuban art.
In 1991, Elso Padilla produced Por América/For America, for an exhibition of his work at the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The work, a wooden effigy of Marti, depicts his body pierced by red and green darts as he crosses a field studded with darts. Its reference to the martyr Saint Sebastian is unmistakeable.
The exhibition, organized by Luis Camnitzer, took its title from this work. In his essay for Por América, Camnitzer wrote of Elso Padilla, "He sought to know himself, his particular culture, and the complex convergence of traditions—Caribbean, African, Socialist, Western—that bound them together in suffering and hope. His art embodied an odd mixture of secularism and mysticism. "
Initially considered a disciple of Elso Padilla because of his use of natural materials and a preference for iconic representations of humanity, Carlos Estevez has developed a coherent personal mythology that guides his work. In hus words, his sources comprise a fusion of “anthropology, existentialism literature, syncretic cults, ontology, medieval codes, popular cultures, religion, the knowledge summarized in encyclopedias, the philosophy of Kant and Nietzsche, Asian spiritual beliefs, and Ernst Cassirer’s Neo-Kantism."
In this work, La Verdadera Historia Universal (The True History of the World, 1995, MNBA) the linear concept of history is subverted by placing the viewer literally in front of a wooden puppet theatre where he can eliminate or add heroes, historical figures, and villains. Once again, we see Martí among this gallery which overlooks a pile of figures scattered on the floor - the discarded, or detritus, of history.
Among the decorations and talismans in many Cuban homes it is common to find objects made from shiny colored glass underlaid by a figure made from aluminum foil. . Popular subjects are birds and young women. For example, are a peacock with its tail feathers displayed or a sort of idealized kimono-clad geisha with parasol.
Adopting this form, Alberto Casado's luminescent canvases of recycled glass and aluminum foil depict subjects from a broad spectrum of contemporary Cuban culture. Among his many subjects is Martí.
In the three portraits that follow, Martí is seen first with his face covered in brightly covered dominos, in his hand is what might be a domino with the image of an old-fashioned kerosene lamp. The portrait carries the legend - Buen Jugador (Good Player). In the second portrait, Martí holds what is definitely a playing card, but one that identifies the organization name and date of one of his earliest exhibitions in New York. Two of the three pictures carry the legend, Yo abpazo a todos los que saben amar (I embrace all those who know how to love).
In using this popular style and integrating it in the language of contemporary art, Casado succeeds in validating a popular form; one understood and appreciated by countless Cubans.
José Toirac and Meira Marrero are a husband and wife art duo living and working in Cuba. Toirac, born in 1966 in Guantánamo, Cuba is an artist has a background in painting and installation, while Marrero, born in 1969 in Havana, Cuba, has a background as an art critic and curator. In their work, Toirac and Marrero combine references to Cuban politics, history, and culture; much research goes into the artworks.
Marrero and Toirac’s installation, Ave Maria, features a long, horizontal board, which serves as a base for objects representing the Virgin of Charity that they obtained throughout Cuba and in the United States. Carved into the board is the following quote by José Martí: “Either the republic is based on the whole character of each one of its children...or the republic is not worth a single tear of our women nor a single drop of the blood of our brave men.” By juxtaposing various images of the Virgin of Charity with Martí’s words, Marrero and Toirac write, “The work becomes an altar to diversity and a prayer for the unity of the Cuban family, for racial and social equality.”
Just as Marti has continued to be a compelling subject for artists in the more than one hundred and twenty years since his death, so has he been an enduring subject in official and popular culture. The image of Marti, particularly his instantly recognizable visage, has been commemorated in all the conventional media used to honor heroes. He has adorned postage stamps, currency, childrens coloring books, building facades and numerous statues and monuments around the world dedicated to his memory.
The eight panels that follow show examples of Marti's representation in official culture.
Martí is found, and honored, in many contexts. There is no single strata of society that lays claim to him. He is genuinely a man for everyone. This scrapbook, found in an antiquarian bookshop, was kept from the beginning of the 1940s by a resident of Havana, Cuba. Carefully assembling and recording information and images of Martí, this anonymous collector has left us a unique record of the Apostle's representation at a particular moment.. It's an extraordinary example of the ways in which history can be constructed through the everyday acts of ordinary people.
In the following panels you will see the many ways in which everyday people have depicted Martí. Among these are images from a child's coloring book, a mural at a school in Jersey City, New Jersey, street art in Cuba that places Martí within a pantheon of other heroes, living and dead, and public monuments and sculptures.
Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1928-1996) is a world-renowned Cuban filmmaker. Gutiérrez's work is representative of a cinematic movement occurring in the 1960s and 1970s known collectively as the New Latin American Cinema. This collective movement, also referred to by various writers by specific names such as “Third Cinema”, “Cine Libre”, and “Imperfect Cinema,” was concerned largely with the problems of neocolonialism and cultural identity. The movement's main goal was to create films in which the viewer became an active, self-aware participant in the discourse of the film. Viewers were presented with an analysis of a current problem within society that as of that time had no clear solution, hoping to make the audience aware of the problem and to leave the theater willing to become actors of social change.
Gutiérrez was an unapologetic social critic and this short video clip from his first feature film Death of a Bureaucrat (1966) - widely understood to be an homage to cinematic comedy - depicts an assembly line delivering busts of Martí to an insatiable marketplace for representations of the Apostle. Perhaps questioning whether Martí, now divorced from his life and self, has become simply a useful decorative element for sale.
Examples of heroes who endure solely as icons abound all over the world. How many homes in the U.S. and elsewhere contain photos or prints with the image of John F. Kennedy, without the inhabitants actually knowing much about him or his ideas.
In this clip and the images that follow, we can see some of the many ways in which the image of Martí has infiltrated the culture-at-large.
In 1958, the U.S. sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington proposed to the City of New York the idea for a monumental bronze sculpture of José Martí at Dos Rios to be fabricated and installed at the foot of Central Park in a place reserved for sculptures of heroes of Latin American liberation. It was her intention that the sculpture be presented to the people of New York as a gift, not from the sculptor herself, but from the government of Cuba.The City of New York enthusiastically agreed.
In 2015, following the decision of President Castro and President Obama to renew relations between our two countries, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, a community-based international contemporary arts museum in New York City, with a long history of cultural exchange with Cuba, began an initiative to reproduce the original sculpture to present to the people of Cuba as a gesture of enduring friendship between our two nations.
Again working in close cooperation with the City of New York, the Museum created the Friends of José Martí Sculpture Project and began the process of producing an accurate, full-size bronze reproduction of the sculpture to present to the Office of the Historian in Havana, as a gift from the people of the U.S. to the people of Cuba. The process of fabrication is ongoing, with an anticipated completion and installation in Old Havana in spring 2017.
As our work continues we will post images and information about this state-of-the art digital fabrication process in a new exhibition.
The Autonomous Martí