Art and Architecture in Cuba

Visual arts

Havana got its European imported art academy Academia de San Alejandro during the colonial period in 1818, founded by Frenchman Juan Bautista Vermay. Only in the 20th century can one talk about their own Cuban visual art. Modernism had a prominent representative in the painter Amelia Peláes (1896–1968), who combined the impulses of Fernand Léger with Caribbean elements. Marcelo Pogolotti (1902-88) emerged as a politically engaged parallel to the Mexican mural painters before he became blind in the 1930s. The painter and draftsman Eduardo Abela (1892-1965) is known for his landscapes and political caricatures.

The Cathedral of San Cristóbal in Havana

Cuba. The Cathedral of San Cristóbal in Havana, built 1660-1724 under the influence of Italian Late Baroque.

However, the big name in recent Cuban art is Wifredo Lam (1902–82). He educated, like other Cuban artists, in Europe and was a long-time resident of Paris. He painted pictures that unite European and African American impulses, executed in a modernist form. René Portocarrero’s (1912–86) expressive paintings have also won recognition for international designs.

The fall of Batista and Castro’s victory gave new importance to the visual arts. The Cubanacán art school, Instituto Superior de Arte, provided the basis for an artistic boom in the 1960s. Particularly famous is Raúl Martínez (1927-95) for his colorful pop art-inspired portraits of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Together with Alfredo Rostgaard (1943-2004), he renewed poster art in Cuba, which had also attracted much international attention. Che Guevara’s ideas of a Cuban cultural revolution without ideological coercion helped to give the art a completely different aesthetic diversity and expressive vitality than in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. However, the increasing dependence of Moscow on the economic field in the 1970s led to the so-called socialist realism also had a breakthrough in Cuban art education.

The 1980s new artist generation reacted to this import of “dogmatic populism”, marking the beginning of an artistic unfolding that today places Cuba as a center on the international art map. In the new art there are both Afro-ritual currents and a carnivalistic force. It gave room for criticism against stiffened perceptions within aesthetics and to some extent politics, but the cultural bureaucracy and party camps have had an ambivalent relationship with the young artists’ opposition.

The Havana Biennale, which primarily targets third world countries, has been an important forum for impulses and a field of research for new ideas since 1984. International museums and large collectors such as German Peter Ludwig have made major purchases of Cuban art. Artists have also been able to go on work and scholarship trips abroad. Nevertheless, the contradictions between authorities and artists have led many in exile to Mexico, the United States and Europe.

Installation art is the most distinctive medium in the new Cuban art, with prominent figures such as José Bedia, Ricardo Brey, Alexis Leiva (Kcho) and Antonio Fernandez (Tonel).

Modernism had a prominent representative in the painter Amelia Peláez


Colonial architecture has clear similarities to contemporary Mexican. The main impulses came naturally enough from Spain. In Havana, there are a number of beautiful buildings, especially from the 18th century, including the Cathedral of San Cristóbal (c. 1660–1724), Casa de Correos (1770–92), in the style influenced by Borromini, Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (1773– 92) and Casa de Gobierno (1776–92). Examples of modern Cuban architecture include the Havana Art Academy, designed by Ricardo Porro, Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi, and the University Center, designed by José Fernandez.