As a culturally diverse country, Cuba’s artistic life is rich and thriving. The nation prides itself on its great number of gifted artists who are often inspired by their day-to-day lives as well as international trends and universal issues. The island is home to blossoming talent and is also an enthusiastic host that welcomes the finest manifestations of universal art; the best place to corroborate this is, without a doubt, Havana’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.
Founded more than a century ago, with the aim of nurturing, acknowledging and displaying the work of local and international artists, the National Fine Arts Museum is arguably the most remarkable art gallery in the Caribbean. Comprising pieces that date from colonial times up to the present, this impressive establishment is spread across two magnificent buildings within the charming colonial town of Old Havana in the capital.
If you are passionate about art and would like to add a cultural flavour to your Havana holiday, make some time to visit the beautiful collections of Havana’s National Fine Arts Museum. Those who would like to familiarise themselves with some of what this establishment has to offer, can find out about its history, collections and the most emblematic pieces to look out for in this blog post.
Brief History of Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes – how it came to be
A well-known architect of his time and also the descendant of renowned Cuban poet Jose Maria Heredia, Emilio Heredia, was the first to make tangible efforts in creating a space for fine artwork in the island. The architect put together a significant collection through donations and purchases.
On 23rd February, 1913, Heredia founded the museum, which was firstly located within the building “Antiguo Fronton” in the corner of Concordia Street in the municipality today known as Centro Habana. After the inauguration, the location for the museum changed several times until it was placed on the block once occupied by the old Colon Market.
But this would not be the definite setting and form of the museum we see at present. In 1954, a new Palacio de Bellas Artes was opened, designed by talented Cuban architect Alfonso Rodriguez Pichardo. This time, Rodriguez Pichardo created a true masterpiece of his own in the heart of Old Havana. The stunning palace created by the architect is breath-taking inside and out. Boasting a rectangular inner patio crowned by a fountain at the centre, this marble-filled palace is truly worthy of all the pieces it displays.
The original 1954 palace was recently reconstructed by the architect Jose Linares and a second building was taken over for the museum. Since 2001, the museum is spread across two impressive buildings, one dedicated to Cuban Arts in the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) and one dedicated to the Universal Arts, in the Palacio del Centro Asturiano (Palace of the Asturian Centre). Dedicated to the appreciation of visual arts, the Fine Arts Museum displays a total of 47,600 pieces including Cuban and international artworks, some of which even date as far back as the ancient era.
In 2001, after the new venues were chosen for the National Museum of Fine Arts, the international collection was installed in the former Centro Asturiano, a magnificent edifice built in Spanish Renaissance style in 1927. For its construction, 1,250 tons of marble from Italy, Spain and the United States were used, and Cuban cedar and mahogany for the woodwork. The stained-glass ceiling over the stairwell and the cast-bronze and Bohemian glass lamps were made in Spain.
Today, both of the museum’s buildings are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Tuesday to Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays. The cost for entering is 5 CUC for one of the buildings and 8 CUC for both; entry is free for visitors under 14 years of age.
Edificio de Arte Cubano – a shrine for the island’s finest art
To welcome you upon entering, a modernist sculpture by noted Cuban artist Rita Longa stands outside the main entrance of the museum. Dedicated exclusively to housing Cuban collections, the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) takes visitors through the history of the island’s artistic manifestations.
The 30,000 plus pieces that form the Cuban collection are divided into six basic sections: Colonial Art (from the 16th to the 19th century), with a room dedicated to magnificent landscapes; Turn of the Century (1894-1927), with academic pieces where the emergence of modernism is noticeable; Emergence of Modern Art (1927-1938) and Consolidation of Modern Art (1938-1951), with avant-garde pieces; Other Perspectives of Modern Art (1951-1963), featuring mainly abstract pieces; and Contemporary Art (1959-present day), with works that follow today’s codes and trends.
The Colonial Art section largely represents the “costumbrismo” movement in the island. The recurrent motifs are landscapes, religious subjects, portraits and narrative scenes of Cuban life. During the 18th and 19th centuries, miniatures also flourished and many of the country’s great portrait painters identified as miniaturists.
Some of the most important painters of this era were Patricio de Landaluze with pieces that represented scenes of slavery such as “La Zafra” (Cutting sugar cane), and Guillermo Collazo, considered to be the first truly great Cuban artist who created canvases such as “La siesta” (The nap).
Turn of the Century
From 1894 to 1927, this section exhibits the period, which was for the first time considered as a separate period, distinct from the main body of colonial art. The reason for this rupture is based on how national conscience started to develop in the island. During this period, realism begins to slowly replace romanticism, landscapes use lighting that corresponds to tropical weather and themes such as historic events, still life, and portraits now become the centre of artistic creation.
Particularly notable are the painters Rafael Blanco, considered to be the first truly modern Cuban artist who excelled at caricatures with cartoon-like paintings and sketches such as “La toga viril” (the Masculine Toga), as well as Armando Garcia Menocal, who dedicated a great part of his work to historic characters and events; some of his most remarkable masterpieces are “La muerte de Maceo” (the Death of Maceo) and the portrait of Jose Marti, Cuba’s National Hero.
“La vanguardia” – the flourishment of avant-garde art in Cuba
The avant-garde section (1927-1951) represents a phase of maturity and coherence in Cuban art, drawing together a complex range of styles and influences. This section presents both mixed collections and spaces devoted to outstanding individual artists including Cuba’s legendary Wilfredo Lam.
The avant-garde movement began in the island as a result of international influence, but took form with a unique Cuban perspective. Perhaps the masterpiece that best represents the early avant-garde modern era is “Gitana Tropical” by Victor Manuel. Further along into the first half of the 20th century, Cuban artists began engaging in the “isms” like Wilfredo Lam’s influence of cubism in artworks like “La Ventana” (The Window), or Marcelo Pogolotti and his fancy of surrealism and futurism, which can be appreciated in the painting “Evasion” (Evasion).
Post-Revolution creations – Cuban Contemporary Art
The Contemporary Art section is devoted to the new generation. The style of the period was largely influenced by the political and social changes that came after the Revolution. Some of the main themes include humanism and human conduct, landscapes and countryside life, as well as the search of cultural identity, especially through the exploration of Afro-Cuban traditions.
Some of the most remarkable artists and pieces include Raul Martinez and his mural “La espina roja” (The Red Thorn), Roberto Fabelo and his “Salvavidas” (Life-saver), Rene Portocarrero and his “Mujer de perfil” (Woman in Profile) and Flavio Garciandia with the stunning photo-like “Todo lo que necesitas es amor” (All you need is love).
Edificio de Arte Universal – gems from all over the world
Merely blocks away from the Cuban Art building, the Palacio del Centro Asturiano (Palace of the Asturian Centre) houses the museum’s collection of universal art. Built in 1927 by the architect Manuel Bustos, the beautiful establishment houses European and Latin American paintings and sculptures, along with a collection of ancient art, which also includes pieces from Central Asia. Originally, the lush building was a club for natives of the Spanish Province of Asturias and after the 1959 Revolution it housed the Supreme Court of Justice, until 2001 when it became the setting of the Edificio de Arte Internacional.
The universal art museum features an art collection divided into eight curatorial sections. It includes works from France, Spain, Italy, Holland, Great Britain, Asia, the United States, Flanders, Latin America and Germany. There is also an ancient art collection that includes Greek, Roman and Egyptian sculptures and artefacts donated to the museum by Dr. Joaquin Guma Herrera, Count of Lagunillas.
Latin American artworks
Boasting over 150 artworks dating from the 17th to 19th centuries, the Latin American section shows the work of renowned artists of the region such as Fray Miguel Herrera, Jose Alcibar, considered the most famous painter of this period in Mexico, Jose Campeche from Puerto Rico, Luis Montero Caceres from Peru and Fernando Alvarez Carneiro from Venezuela. The most recurrent themes are religious motifs, portraits, landscapes, and works belonging to the “costumbrismo” movement.
Remarkable Spanish collection
One of the most notable collections is that of Spanish art, as the section comprises artworks dating from Gothic and Hispanic-flamenco styles up to the movements that preceded the avant-garde in the 20th century.
It boasts over 700 pieces by the most important Spanish painters of the 19th century, including Joaquin Sorolla, Lucas Velázquez, Mariano Fortuny, Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta. It also displays some canvases by renowned painters such as Zurbaran, Murillo, de Ribera and a tiny Velazquez.
A curious piece of British Art
The British Art section is certainly one of the building’s highlights. Comprising works by several English portrait painters, among them Kneller, Reynolds and Gainsborough, this area becomes even more amazing thanks to a unique feature: half of a painting of the river Thames.
According to the story, one mid-eighteenth century day in London, the Venetian painter Canaletto found that he was running low on funds and decided that drastic measures had to be taken. Whipping out a handy blade, he sliced in half a rather long landscape he had painted, to sell both halves separately. Now one half of Chelsea from the Thames hangs in Blickling Hall in Norfolk. The other half is in Havana is here in the Museo de Bellas Artes.
From the French school of art
The collection of French artworks is one of the building’s most attractive sections. With 330 paintings and approximately 500 drawings and prints, the themes that can be observed usually include landscapes, portraits and genre scenes. The area houses works from a vast era of French creative production, from the creation of the renaissance Ecole Nationale Fontainebleu in the 1600s to exponents of anti-academic movements of the late 19th century.
Art pieces from the US
Boasting a total of 60 artworks, this collection exhibits paintings from the 18th to 19th centuries. In geographical terms, the art pieces depict settings from the cold lands of the Arctic, through the impressive Niagara Falls, to quaint Southern cities to the warm shores of the Caribbean. One of the artists who represented these landscapes that are on display at the museum is Warren Bradford. As for themes, the US production focuses on portraits, landscapes, and genre scenes like still life, marinas, animal paintings and the much appreciated Native American paintings.
Fascinating experience for culture vultures and art aficionados
Visiting Havana’s National Museum of Fine Arts can be a truly enriching experience, not only for those with a deep appreciation for art, but also for travellers who are eager to get to know more about Cuban culture, architecture and history. If you can spare the time, make your stroll through Old Havana even more special by taking a tour of the Caribbean’s finest art gallery, which is sure to leave you beauty-struck and impressed.