Almost a Century Dedicated to Art. National Museum of Fine Arts
By: Xenia Reloba Photos: Roberto González
Three unique buildings with different architectural styles comprise the National Museum of Fine Arts, a Cuban cultural jewel that you should not miss when visiting Havana.
The ﬁrst Museum was located at Concordia and Lucena Streets in Central Havana and presented works of art, valuable historical documents, objects related to prominent Cubans, and even natural science exhibitions. It was 1913 and the dream had begun.
Between 1920 and 1958 the museum's holdings were constantly increasing thanks to the support of its second director, Antonio Rodriguez Morey. He promoted the purchase of original works, the acquisition of valuable art treasured by Cuban society of the time, and the correct cataloguing ofthe collection, Despite his skill and efforts on behalf of the Museum, the location itself posed a threat to the preservation of the art.
The ﬁrst project to construct a building that would allow the proper conservation and exhibition of the still young collection was planned by Evelio Govantes and Félix Cabarrocas in 1925. The site chosen was the space occupied by a former market named Mercado Colón. The architect were proposing a design based on the tradition of the Paris School of Fine Arts. The proposal never got off the ground and was forgotten for almost two decades.
In 1949, another idea emerged, this time from architect and Minister of Public Works Manuel Febles. This last proposal was replaced two years later by a completely different design from Alfonso Rodriguez Pichardo. Pichardo had an image that combined Cuba‘s colonial tradition with functional and contemporary design features.
The Palace of Fine Arts opened in the mid-1950's at the corner of Trocadero and Monserrate in Old Havana. It was the sole location for the national art collection until the building was restored and reopened in 2001 together with the second facility up the street at San Rafael.
There are sculptures, murals, and other museum pieces decorating the outside of the facility. The building is quite grand and uses a lot of glass for its walls and facade which allows natural light to ﬂood the lobby and other spaces surrounding the central courtyard. This is a pleasant place to rest and relax.
With more than 20 exhibition halls, this Museum holding Cuba‘s most important art can be toured chronologically. There are approximately 1,200 paintings, sculptures, engravings, and drawings on permanent exhibition.
The collection spans early religious topics to many 18th and 19th century portraits to the turn of the century when Cuban art was transformed by the modern era. The latter comprises early 20th Century art characterized by the assimilation and replication of the aesthetic styles of European vanguards by Cuban artists such as Victor Manuel, Carlos Enriquez, Fidelio Ponce, Amelia Peláez, Mariano Rodríguez, Marcelo Pogolotti, René Portocarrero, and Wifredo Lam.
The next areas are the contemporary collections which stretch from the 1960‘s to the 1990‘s, In these halls, you will discover the expressionist and pop periods of Raúl Martínez, the sensual transparencies of Servando Cabrera, the essential primitivism of Manuel Mendive, and the iconoclastic Antonia Eiriz.
It is an area that cannot be easily classiﬁed due to the diversity of themes, generations, and styles, The colours of Alfredo Sosabravo, the photo-realistic period of Flavio Garciandía, the identiﬁable aesthetics of Nelson Domínguez, Zayda del Río, and Roberto Fabelo, the unparalleled landscapes of Tomás Sánchez, the visions of Alexis Leyva (Kcho) and Antonio Eligio Fernández (Tonel), and the promising Belkys Ayón, an important engraver who died early in her life, are some of the examples found in those halls.
One of the architectural jewels of Havana is the former Asturian Centre of Havana which now holds the universal art collection of the Museum of Fine Arts. Located near Central Park, the building is a magniﬁcent example of Spanish eclecticism. The building was ﬁnished in the late 1920‘s and is an example of the most modern techniques of the time. It is said that it even overshadowed the nearby National Capitol.
The building is based on a steel structure, covered with brick, stone, concrete, marble from Italy, Spain, and United States, granite floors, and mahogany and cedar woodwork among many other exquisite details, It was reopened in the year 2001 with art from Italian, British, German, Dutch, Flemish, and French schools as well as the large Spanish collection including Joaquin Sorolla, Francisco de Zurbaran, Murillo, and El Greco.
Another of the important exhibits is the Ancient Art area from Egypt, Greece, and Rome With the Head of the Statue of Amon, the Book of the Dead of Bakenwerel, the Panathenaic Amphora, and the Palmira Funerary Relief which are considered true curiosities within the setting of tropical Cuban. The permanent halls also include Asian, North American, and Latin American art.
There are more than 1,300 pieces exhibited in the facility which represents, apart from a broad vision of universal art, an homage to the original collectors who enriched their lives with these invaluable pieces, Having donated them to the Museum has added, maybe unconsciously, to the Cuban cultural heritage.
The third building of the National Museum is named after Antonio Rodriguez Morey. Located near the Cuban Art collection, this building was, during colonial times, a militia barracks.
With its shuttered appearance typical of its original purposes, the building holds all the offices of the curators, researchers, experts on communication and other ﬁelds who dream up and organize new and appealing exhibitions and cultural programs for the thousands of people who visit the museum.
They have a lot to cover. They have more than 47,000 works of arts in storage and they don't intend to miss one centennial or important anniversary, Cuban or international, that might use the exhibition space at the Museum.
Six years since its reopening, this institution celebrating Cuba's collection and culture has allowed many visitors to see the works of great masters, to discover lesser known artists, and to open themselves to new concepts of visual arts. The cultural programs are rounded out with the use of its theatre spaces, audiovisual installations, and music.
The temporary exhibit halls, two in each building, are also very active with temporary or touring collections, Along with the permanent exhibitions, these works of ﬁne art provide an unsuspected spiritual oasis located in one of the busiest and most noisy areas of the Cuban capital.