One of the first places on your list of galleries to visit in Havana should be the National Museum of Fine Arts or its Spanish name, la Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts) . It is located at Calle Trocadero, e/Av. De la Belgica (Misiones/Egido/Monserrate) y Calle Agramonte (Zelueta), Centro. Beyond this, you should also visit many of the other art galleries in Havana which you can discover on an organized tour of the city. After a tour of the National Museum of Fine Arts, walk through the streets of old Havana and discover on your own, small art galleries and the workshops of the artists themselves. It is possible and wonderful. Stumbling upon a small gallery not listed in a tourists’ guide to Havana or finding an artist’s workshop and meeting the artists by chance on your own should be listed as one of the true delights of Havana.
The National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana should be the starting point of your exploration of the world of art in Cuba. There are actually two buildings in Havana which house the national collections of arts. In one museum, you will find the international collection of artists and in the other, one can find the collection of the works of the artists of Cuba. Designed by the architect Rodriguez Pichardo and opened in 1954, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes was later renovated by the architect Jose Linares. It is a gorgeous building architecturally. Not only will a visit expose you to the painters since the beginning of Cuban history from the 17th century to today, but it will also clarify the history and mood of its artists, a history often unexplored and misunderstood.
We have been taught to question and analyze a work of art based on the context of the historical-socio-political times in which the work was created. The National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana and its Cuban collection, is an extensive art collection of the works from the painters of the earliest colonizers of Cuba, painted by the working class man serving the aristocracy. “Painting” was not an activity of this new ruling class and was looked down upon. Painting and the creation of art was seen as an occupation of the working man and thus the most beautiful works were created by this class in the 17th century. These “working class” painters would never know that their creations would one day adorn the walls of one of the finest art galleries in Cuba. One can see in the earliest painting the dark representations of noble men and women, poised in their elegant European clothing.
Throughout the centuries in the history of Cuban art, we can also witness the suffering of the Cuban people at the hands of the outsiders. From the almost slavery existence of the farmers who worked the lands of the new landowners to the rape and kidnap of Mulatto women. Landscape painting emerges to document the early towns and landscapes of the island. Art becomes satirical as an awareness develops of the ravaging of their country. Art became very political in the early 1960s after the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Artists, once believing in the Cuban Revolution because confused and frightened by the events which occurred in the early 60s. Some fled Cuba and others remained, not sure of their place in this new society. Their confusion, anger and fear can be seen in their works of art on display on the walls of the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Havana.
Not all art is political in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. There are a few works that are political, but not that many. You’ll find Cuban surrealism, contemporary abstracts, religious works, scenes from Cuban life, sculpture, landscapes and the beautiful painting by Victor Manual Garcia of the archetypal Cuban woman, the “Cuban Mona Lisa” in the Museum’s collection. Some of the greatest works by one of Cuba’s most well known artists, Wifredo Lam, can also be seen. The National Museum of Fine Arts also host numerous exhibitions of the most talented artists in Cuba. For example, from October of this year to December of 2012, one can visit the exhibit of Carlos Quintana, entitled “Nada.”
It was a delight to behold the entire collection, to savor slowly that which is Cuban art. It will take you at least a couple of hours to experience all and is the perfect starting point for the art connoisseur of a tour of art galleries in Havana.