PARIS — Socialist and communist art can evoke the drab grays and cold aesthetic of social realism. But the 250-plus posters in Cuban Posters: Revolution and Cinema, 1959-2019 at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris — which celebrates 60 years of the Cuban Revolution — burst with colors, shapes, and textures. The exhibition is a glorious mix of psychedelia, surrealism, pop art, photo collage, and abstraction, often mixed with verve and humor.
Presenting a comprehensive collection of Revolutionary Cuban posters, the exhibition starts with political posters that focus on Cuba, celebrating the nation’s massive literacy campaign and the triumph at Playa Girón — that’s Bay of Pigs in the US — as well as the requisite posters of Revolutionary hero and martyr Che Guevara, notably the 1968 poster “Day of the Heroic Guerrilla” by Elena Serrano, which positions Che Guevara’s face in the middle of a map of South America, the image rippling out in concentric squares.
Other posters address international events and liberation movements, including a wall of 25 posters published by the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (OSPAAAL). These posters, often published within OSPAAAL’s multilingual magazine Tricontinental, showed support to revolutionary movements around the world, from Vietnam to Mozambique to Palestine. In many cases, the artists, such as Alfredo Rostgaard and Ernesto Padrón, used innovative techniques and incorporated imagery from the respective country, such as maps and revolutionary symbols like guns. For instance, Asala M. Páraz Bolado’s 1970 poster “International Week of Solidarity with Latin America” shows the South American continent as a giant fist clenched over an AK-47.
Posters by Félix René Mederos supporting Vietnam are among the exhibition’s gems. In 1969, the Department of Revolutionary Organizations (DOR) sent Mederos to report on conditions in Vietnam. He became acquainted with Vietnamese soldiers and civilians and marched with soldiers. His vibrant images of Vietnamese people working in fields and at home and taking part in military actions are marked by their vivacity and passion.
Central to the exhibition are film posters from the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinemátograficos (ICAIC). Founded in 1959, ICAIC published one poster a week in the 1970s, producing 3,000 posters for movies and art events in and outside of Cuba. Artists and designers created colorful reinterpretations of movies; in Revolución! Cuban Poster Art (2003), scholar Lincoln Cushing writes, “the posters were not as much advertising as they were an opportunity to present a Cuban slant on a film’s subject.”
Several rooms are dedicated to specific artists and their work, including Eduardo Muñoz Bachs, who produced nearly 2,000 posters characterized by a sense of childlike wonder. For instance, a 1974 poster for the Jerry Lewis movie Three On a Couch features a flat, brightly colored image of a face and upper torso of a man with a red hat and a sneaker for his nose. Another room highlights the mostly black and white photo collages of René Azcuy Cárdenas.
The last room is dedicated to the posters from the 1990s to the present. When the Soviet Union fell, Cuba lost significant subsidies and faced what is known as the Special Period. Massive shortages of basic items made paper and ink scarce, so production dropped. ICAIC dropped its output to two posters a year. But poster art persisted and, after a few years, new artists came on the scene.
There are notable absences in the exhibition, however. No women artists are featured in exhibition texts to the extent of their male counterparts, yet Elena Serrano’s Che poster is considered by scholars as one of the best. Nor are there any posters related to Cuban women, such as those celebrating the Federation of Cuban Women or women’s contributions to the Revolution.
Moreover, the exhibition presents a series of incongruities, like the Revolution itself. An exhibition of posters from a socialist country is housed in the former Louvre palace. But unlike ornate parts of the building complex filled with antique furniture and objects, the posters are hung on the bare walls, exposing the brick work and cement underneath. Outside the walls, there’s a transit strike over pensions that has shut down most of the Parisian Metro system.
The posters’ dazzling array of colors and shapes reflects an incredible diversity among Cuba’s graphic artists. At the same time, the Cuban government penalized dissent, often censoring, jailing, and even executing so-called traitors to the Revolution. Even the posters artists were not exempt; at least two, Raúl Martinez and Antonio Fernández Reboiro, lost their respective positions and were persecuted by the state for their homosexuality.
Despite the contradictions of the Revolution, these posters suggest that on paper, artists had freedom to express their optimism and support through bright, bold, and sometimes daring design.
Cuban Posters: Revolution and Cinema, 1959-2019 continues at the Museum of Decorative Arts (107, rue de Rivoli, Paris, France) through February 2.