"People don't expect such sophisticated expression from an underdeveloped country," observed Cuban graphic designer Félix Beltrán during the recent opening of "¡Propaganda! Cuban Political and Film Posters 1960-1990" at the New World School of the Arts Gallery. Showcasing rare works that symbolized the island's revolutionary ethos, promoted social programs and international causes, and advertised films being churned out by the busy state film institute, the exhibition, Beltrán notes, "is proof of the powerful creativity in revolutionary Cuba."
A student at New York's School of Visual Arts in the late Fifties, Beltrán returned home at the dawn of the revolution. Along with other young Cuban artists clearly schooled in American art and advertising techniques, he put his training and imagination in service to the new regime by designing posters. The resulting screen prints -- examples from the Sixties and Seventies are best -- display a syncretism of styles. Transcending propaganda and resting in the realm of art, they borrow elements familiar from Soviet socialist realism, Chinese poster campaigns, and Mexican muralism. Cartooning techniques (and humor) are also present, as are the iconographic patterns and brilliant colors of Pop.
"Sometimes we'd do a poster and it was rejected again and again," said Beltrán, who explained that one unbreakable rule was artists could experiment with Che Guevara's image but not Fidel Castro's. While some of the more creative designs were pushed through because of time constraints, others were signs of the swinging Sixties that even the bureaucrats couldn't ignore. "Sometimes officials would accept a poster just because they didn't want to appear square." To wit: A trippy sign portrays Che's face repeated in concentric circles. Another depicts a Peter Max-like portrait of Lenin enclosed in an Op-Art star.
Posters with political and social messages, many of them multilingual, were produced by the Organization in Solidarity with the People of Africa, Asia, and Latin America and reached 87 countries. A variety boast anti-U.S. symbols, such as Richard Nixon baring fangs, a dove flying out of a cage labeled "U.S.A.," or Uncle Sam being squeezed between two clasped hands. Others express more universal sentiments -- promoting peace, disarmament, or reminding Cubans to save electricity.
Beltrán, who left Cuba in 1979 for Mexico, where he enjoyed a career as a graphic designer, explained the artists in Havana always made posters with limited materials and equipment. But he stressed that the works served another purpose besides that intended by the government: "The poster was like art for poor people; they could have them for free."
At the opening, Maggy Cuesta, a graphic designer and New World professor who organized the exhibition, confessed trepidation about bringing the show to Miami. That unease is made obvious by the attempt to "neutralize" the display with a skein of barbed wire installed on the gallery walls, symbolizing repression in Cuba. While this propagandistic addition shouldn't be a reason to avoid the show, it's a shame the public (particularly students) couldn't be free to enjoy these designs for art's sake and draw their own conclusions about the content.