Saluting Cuba's, Fine Arts Museum on its Centennial
By: Ana Laura Arbesú / Photos by Miguel Guzmán Ruiz
With a collection of some 45,000 pieces, Cuba's national museum of fine arts, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, is the country's largest gallery for the Cuban and universal visual arts, and it is celebrating its 100th anniversary.
As part of these centennial festivities, the museum is sponsoring a range of different activities throughout the year with a program designed to look back at the institution's history, bring us closer to the present, and peer into the future.
To start things off: an imaginary journey back in time. An exhibition featuring the main pieces shown during the early days of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is part of this program. “Origins of the Collection” is the title of this show, which includes various antiquities, such as the death mask of General Máximo Gómez (1836-1905), a Dominican who was one of the leaders of Cuba's Independence War in the late 19th century, and a master of the machete charge.
And there is the first movie: El parque de Palatino (Palatino Park, 1906), filmed by one of the precursors of that industry in Cuba, Enrique Díaz Quesada, during the exciting early days of that incipient technology created by the Lumiere brothers.
A liturgical drum studied by the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz, 18th century Spanish paintings, indigenous objects, Afro-Cuban ethnology pieces, and stocks that were used as punishment for slaves are all part of the exhibition. According to its curators, this exhibition represents a real feat in archeological recovery.
Another part of the centennial program is an exhibition of 45 works by the late Cuban painter Ernesto González Puig (1913-1988), focusing on his first creative period, when drawing prevailed as his form of artistic expression. This is an artist whose work has tended to be overlooked, according to Elsa Vega, the exhibition's curator, in comments to Cubaplus.
Beginning with his early work, González Puig showed himself to be of the avant-garde, and “in this show, we are trying to return him to that visual arts movement,” Vega explained.
The works selected are from the 1932-1937 period, and most were part of the artist's first solo show in 1934 in the former Liceo de La Habana, a cultural institution. Many of these pieces are part of the museum's collection, while others were donated to the museum by the artist himself and by family members, while one piece belongs to a private collector.
Along with exhibitions that will reflect different periods in the history of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, a number of centennial activities are aimed specifically at young people, and bringing them closer to all aspects of the visual arts. One of the most important of these are community art workshops for elementary-school children, and they will once again take over summer mornings.
A wide-ranging academic program is also underway, designed to focus on preservation work, and an international colloquium featuring specialists from different parts of the world will center on new challenges for art museums, their collections, and the restoration and conservation of their patrimony. Founded on April 28, 1913 by the architect Emilio Herrera, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes was initially located in several different spaces in Havana, none of which were appropriate for holding its growing collection.
Years later, the Cuban art collection was put on display in a building near the Paseo del Prado, the site of the old Colón market, located a few steps away from the Hotel Sevilla.
Today its expansive galleries hold more than 300 years of Cuban art in all of its magnitude, beginning with 16th century colonial pieces and ranging to contemporary work. From the earliest period, viewers can see “La santísima Trinidad” (The Holy Trinity), by José Nicolás de la Escalera, and, closer to the 19th century, “El embarque de Colón por Bobadilla” (Columbus's Embarkation at Bobadilla), by Armando Menocal.
And from the early 20th century avant-garde artists, works include “Flores amarillas” (Yellow Flowers), by Amelia Peláez, “El rapto de las mulatas” (The Abduction of the Mulatto Women), by Carlos Enríquez, “Paisaje de La Habana” (Landscape of Havana), by René Portocarrero, and more.
From the post-revolutionary period, the public can enjoy works by Servando Cabrera, Antonia Eiriz, Raúl Martínez, Manuel Mendive, Ever Fonseca, Roberto Fabelo, Tomás Sánchez, Nelson Domínguez, Zaida del Río, Belkis Ayón and Kcho.
In the late 20th century, the museum opened a second location to house its vast collection of universal art. The former Asturian Center of Havana became a huge gallery for displaying drawings, paintings, engravings and the visual arts in general, including ancient art from Egypt, Greece and Rome. The collection features art from Japan and from the European schools, including Spain, Italy, Flanders, Holland, and Germany, among others.
Considered by many as one of the most important museums in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes has preserved the history of the Cuban and other visual arts for a century now, for the enjoyment of Cubans and visitors alike.