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Cuban monumental and environmental sculpture
Sculptures in Cuba

by: Luis de Soto


Our sculptures in the past century (19th Century), as well as in the previous ones, could be considered Cuban only because of the site were they were placed and sometimes because of the subjects they dealt with, since the sculptors were foreigners and the contents of the works followed the trends in fashion in Europe then. Toward the end of the century, the romantic concept was added to the realism and academicism of earlier periods, and it is under this style that Cuban sculptures appear.
The last decades of the 19th Century bring with them the first Cuban sculptors, whose names begin this aspect of the history of our art: Miguel Melero, Guillermina Lázaro and José Vilalta Saavedra.
Miguel Melero, sculptor and painter, teacher and presenter, principal of the San Alejandro school of art, where he made improvements that made him unforgettable, is, because of his works and those of his disciples, the first important figure opening the history of our sculpture.
Melero, the sculptor, left some works which place him, in accordance with his European training and the trends prevailing at the time, within Spanish traditional realism with strong Italian influence. His Monument to Columbus, made for the city of Colón (Spanish for Columbus), his busts in the La Caridad Theater of Santa Clara and his Saint Thomas, that until recently was in the Central Chapel of the Havana cemetery, are his most remarkable works and those which best show the characteristics mentioned above.
We have very little information about Guillermina Lázaro, the first woman sculptor in the history of our art, only the contents of one of her letters. Thanks to it, we know that she studied in Madrid, that she was awarded a prize in the Barcelona Universal Exposition, that she made relieves, portraits and exempt sculpture. And with true pride she refers to a statue of Columbus made by order of the Cienfuegos city hall. “The first sculptural monument made by a woman in this country is a work of mine; another woman will make the best one, but I made the first one”, says the artist, thus providing interest information for those studying the history of Cuban sculpture.
José de Vilalta Saavedra is the most important of the three mentioned. He was a Havana sculptor who worked in Cienfuegos and was trained in Carrara, and was the winner of the competition held to build a monument for the students who were killed by the Spanish colonial government in 1871. This was his first important work and also the first monument made in Cuba by a Cuban sculptor.
Other works by this same artist are the groups that top the monumental entrance to our Columbus Cemetery, representing the Virtues, done in heroic sculpture, and the relieves of religious themes that decorate the walls.
Vilalta is also the author of the monument made to Francisco de Albear y Lara, erected in the small square that bares his name. Made in Florence in 1893, it is, according to its style, a realist work, of that pictorial realism that seeks the closest resemblance to the subject and copies with great delight the minutest details of attire and accessories.
Esteban Betancourt, trained in Barcelona and Rome, drank from the purest founts of realist sculpture of all times, and developed his outstanding production within this modality. Whilst Betancourt favored tradition and classicism in his realism, Rodolfo Hernández Giro was a romantic, made in Europe, who, on returning to Cuba, took to his native Oriente the artistic concerns of that continent. Romantic also was Carlos Era, a Cuban-made artist, whom I have sometimes called the Cuban “maker of religious images” of the 20th Century. He was a fantastic wood carver. No one has bettered him in making, with Cuban woods, statues compared to none.
Lucía V. Bacardí brings from Paris and New York, where she studied, the creative impetus of Rodin and Solon Borglum. They planted a seed in the young artist that her strong temperament made fructify upon her return to the homeland. Romantic and impressionist, she enriched our sculpture with her valuable personal contributions. El nacimiento de Eva (Eve’s Birth), La Faunesca (The Faunal Girl), reveal in our sculpture a strong influence of Rodin in her artistic education.
Hatuey, Francisca, El espíritu de la fuente (The Spirit of the Fountain), show Lucía V. Bacardí’s creative personality. Hatuey was her first romantic tribute to Cuban iconography, which should have continued and was interrupted in Tipos de mi tierra (Guys of my Homeland), a series which would have been an interesting contribution to our national art.
José Oliva Michelena, Alberto Sabas, Benito Paredes, Félix Cabarrocas, Crispín Herrera, Antonio Bachs and others, are among this outstanding large group of sculptors who at the end of the first quarter of the 20th Century gave a great boost to our production.
As concerns monuments, now that our artists are being entrusted with the task of immortalizing events and honoring names of our country’s history, Sicre, whose work and name is well known abroad and is one of the greatest representative of modern sculpture here in Cuba, has to his credit, among others, a monument which to me is one of the most remarkable works of American art, his Monumento al Soldado Invasor (Monument to the Invading Soldier), excelled only by that masterpiece, his project that won the competition for the monument to José Martí.
A second promotion of sculptors, whose life begins with the 20th Century and which began to flourish during the first decades of the Republic, joined the already large ranks of the “art of form”. Some common features of the members of this group are the following: the preoccupation which is manifested in new plastic expressions, under the influx of the trends of universal modern art, and the search for their own solutions to the basic problems of sculpture. Stylization in its different modalities, primitivism, the sense of rhythm, the preoccupation with space as a plastic element of sculpture, are guidelines that can be perceived in his work.
Well-known names are at the top of the list of this promotion of sculptors: Teodoro Ramos Blanco, Fernando Boada, Florencio Gelabert, Ernesto Navarro, Domingo Ravenet, Jesús Geraldes Nápoles, Jesús Casagrán, Mirta Cerra y Carlos Sobrino.
Despite being contemporary or there being very little difference between their ages, there are notable differences regarding their respective aesthetic attitudes, aside from the personal aspects that individualize each artist’s production.
Three contemporary sculptors, Caridad Ramírez, Lucía Alvarez and Rita Longa represent, along with Jilma Madera, women’s contribution to the collective work of this group of artists.
While Caridad Ramírez, perhaps because she is also a painter, has remained within romantic realism, with her peculiar way of depicting reality, Rita Longa and Lucía Alvarez have estranged themselves from the purely “representative” concept. Rita Longa has sought that liberation and has defined her personality through decorative stylization. Few expressive elements, “musical” sense of the sculpture where shapes and spaces come together generating rhythms. Lucía Álvarez, has taken stylization even further, venturing into a field not yet trod by our sculptors yet full of possibilities: that of abstraction.
Contrasting with the artists I have just mentioned, there is another group of young sculptors whose work, new and bold in our environment, reveals a different concept of the “art of form”.
I have used the expression “art of form” instead of “sculpture” deliberately, because the work of the artists I am going to mention is essentially that and above all, forms in artistic function, aesthetic manifestation based on organized masses.
Lozano, Tardo, Girona, Madera, Rodríguez, Núñez Booth, Gutiérrez, Estopiñán, González Jerez, Arjona, are the names which illustrate this trend that can be seen in Cuban sculpture.
One can notice two modalities in it: one which, using a term coined in the recent history of art, is usually called “massivism”, because of the predominance of the solid, considerable mass, and another, which, without a specific name, is characterized by a broader concept of sculpture defined in relation to its basic plastic elements: shape and space.


(Excerpts taken from: Soto y Sagarra, Luis de. La escultura en Cuba. In “Libro de Cuba”. La Habana, 1954. P.581-588)


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A just finished study on the development of commemorative art in Cuba is based upon the parallel action of two fundamental artistic directions in our production of monument works: one which keeps faithful to the traditional artistic models that have dominated during centuries within commemorative ongoing, and that in general sense it agrees with the artistic awareness of the committee members (those who take charge and finance this kind of works), coincident, also, with aesthetic conceptions, tastes and ideals of a minority (but very meticulous) segment of those "creators"; other frankly guided towards the deep formal and conceptual renovation of the monument, in consonance with an upward artistic thought that has advanced and consolidated within a good amount of the Cuban creators, in spite of not few setbacks and difficulties.


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One of those aspects send us back to the relationship level established by commemorative work together with its physical environment. Precisely in this point one of the main contributions of Cuban commemorative monument work, during the latest decades, is expressed.


The selection of the sites - being natural or historical scenes connoted from the construction of the work -, as well as the principles of visual harmonization and systemic conception of environmental design that have been taken into account by the authors, constitute a feature of particular originality of our monument art which can be well illustrated through some paradigmatic exponents.


The Demajagua Monument Park (1968) [Archs. Fernando López and Daniel Taboada] - located within lands and sugarmill property of the Cespedes family - was faced by its authors as a work which respects and incorporates the extraordinary symbolic value of the elements preserved in this place by time and history: its jagüey tree, its set of the sugar mill gear wheels, the bell of The Demajagua and its imposing landscape. It is a monument in which the man-built element contradicts neither in competition of scale, nor of significance with the natural element.


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The Monument Park to the University Martyrs (1967) [Archs. Escobar, Coyula, Domínguez and Hernández], Julio Antonio Mella´s Mausoleum (1975) Architect´s Team headed by F.López] and the Monument to Abel Santamaría (1973) [Archs. Fernando Pérez O'Reilly and Raúl Oliva] they all had foreseen their respective locations in completely urban areas, connoted by history itself and for the presence of a powerful architecture and a complex urbanization that in each case, imposed singular work characteristics and specific situations to the creators, all solved with undeniable success.


It does not mean, by any means, that havocs suffered and still being suffered by our urban environment, from the colonial stage, have been overcome. During that colonial stages
the kings´statues (just like the public fountains) were already “removable” victims derived from wills, not precisely artistic – up to the present - when new political-administrative centers and Squares of the Revolution are projected and placed in hypothetical "new development areas" absolutely detached from cities´hearts, and for the same reason, beyond to their peoples´heartbeats, who only visit them, like in pilgrimage, certain almanac-appointed-commemoration-days.


Another point through which contributions which we acknowledge in an important part of the recent monument work production are expressed, lies in the level of relation that the commemorative work establishes the with the system of cultural values of its time; it is to say, in itse links, in the syntony or the dialectical increasement of other works of similar functional nature - previous or contemporary -, in the links settled with other artistic disciplines and regarding the interests and aesthetic ideals of certain social group.


The different monument typologies , particularly those which locate important backgrounds in colonial and republican stages - just as the Monument Park and the Mausoleum -, they demonstrate over and over a core renovation of concept and language.


As for the The Demajagua Park Monument, as well the Park of the Martyrs and the Celia Sánchez Park of Medialuna, they constitute a half round turn regarding the decade-repeated formula of the independent, figurative, portrait-like sculptoric monument generally, located on pedestal and, almost always, located in the center of the block selected as location place. These works were freed of such scematisms and the Park was conceived as an essentially functional monumental tipology, as a social space for daily public use, where the commemorative element is not an independent, or able-to-become independent, attachment from the rest of the elements, but a system organically conformed which inserts and dialogues with the environment.


Mausoleums have also proved the deep renovation of essence sustained by the formal turn: The Julio Antonio Mella´s Mausoleum goes beyond the traditional necropolis enclosure and intimacy of the self-sufficient sepulchral structure, and it imposes a daily, uninterrupted and open functional dynamics which, however, succeed on showing in perfect agreement with the solemnity of the subject, at the time that favorably impacts within the aesthetic improvement and in the symbolic identity of the urban space in which is located, facing the Havana University Stair


And when the Mausoleum returns to the necropolis, to make it company and to alternate among equals the "infinite proliferation of marble statues, crosses, angels and trumpets", it makes it testifying the contemporareity irrevocable vocation of a strong and persistent sector of the Cuban conmemorative monument art: the Mausoleum to the Martyrs of March 13th (1982) [by the architects Emilio Escobar and Mario Coyula and the sculptor José Villa] it is not only a daring work in what concerns to its location in such a culturally and historically connoted place, as the majestic Necropolis of Colón is, but it is rather bold in its artistic, space, and landscape solutions, and really original in its artistic proposal.


The up to here mentioned works, like other equally meritorious are also expression of a third aspect of indispensable reference when the question is to validate the artistic contributions by the current commemorative monument art, that is: the multidisciplinarity, the integrated organic and systemic joining of diverse artistic disciplines, such as it exhibit a significant part of our monument systems, even when some of them have been responsibility of teams solely conformed by architects.


The question is that the interdisciplinary creation concept is not based upon the simple addition of expressions, but in the linking of diverse disciplines integrated in the attainment of aesthetic and extraesthetic purposes demanded by a work of this type. With the result that for the artistic valuation of the results of a commemorative monument creation, it is necessary to take into account, within its indissoluble unity and systemic structuring, the results of all and each one of the elements that integrate it: the architectonics, spatial, urbanistics, landscapes, sculptural, graphics, pictorials, musical, and so many other that could intervene in its global conception.


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In the same way that in the Mariana Grajales Square of the Revolution (1985) [Team work headed by Arch. Rómulo Fernández and the Sculptors. José Villa and Enrique Angulo], it is acknowledged the plastic success of graphic works inscribed in the blocks which enrich the sculptural work in great extent and multiply the possiblities for communtication among spectators, as well as the right connection of the sculptural subsystem and the tribune-monument with the rally area and with the whole urban space, just like the functional and aesthetic solutions of the roofed architectural structures, where they outstand as key elements of environment, music and painting.


In fact, approaches such as the interpretive boldness of the topic which develops, the formal richness of the group, the quality of the technical-material making, the contemporaneity of the used language and the solidity of its conceptual base, as well as its right concretion in the artistic fact. will always have special emphasis and hierarchy for the artistic evaluation of any commemorative monument work.


Another core factor derives from that evaluation which defines the relationship of the work with the related one; it is to say: the what (or to whom) it is evoked and how it is evoked. What have already said with out-fashioned, but unappealably implicit when emitting a critical trial, is translated in: the right relationship between form and content, relationship in which the aesthetics and artistic qualities of the monument work will always have to support. And right here lies the same essence of the qualitative leap expressed in an unavoidable part of the Cuban commemorative art of the latest decades.


When our monuments broke up – in the early 1960´s - with the atrophied outlines of traditional statuary, when the worn-out obelisk or the millennial equestrian figure climbed of on the pyramid overfilled of allegories and descriptions were left behind, when they ceased copying foreign models, far away in time and space, and it was assumed with open mind a wider and revitalized meaning what can a commemorative monument be, then the works began to look like much more to the tributed heroes, although their portrait were not always present, and the public had to learn how to look at the monument in a different way, and to think of it, or concerning it, in an also different way.


When the precious marble kept on among the materials, but suddenly concrete, which was revealed as noble, immortal and fabulous like marble, entered - also taking into account that the stones from a near river, or that the same rock, re-elaborated, could become the suitable materials to build a monument production, undoubtedly a new chapter, full of unimagined possibilities was opened for the revolutionary commemorative production.


When the concert of the abstract volumes was imposed, and also when a figurative language was assumed, but, in one and another case, based upon the firm purpose of approaching to the hero, or heroine, and to perpetuate, beyond the nobility or the beauty of his, or her, face, the greatness of his, or her, thought and of his, or her, actions through the human contact, when it was not sought to look for "into the frozen forms of the Socialist realism the only valid recipe", the vocation of contemporaneity of our commemorative art in spite of all the obstacles, triumphed, including stubborn-will, the worse of them all.


This new monument art appeals to a kind of public also renovated: to a participating public who gets into to the work, lives and moves inside it, dialogue with it and deeply meditate for getting the proposed artistic message. Because it is nomore a menial and obliging monument work having a sclerotic aesthetic pleasure and which does not resign itself to speak eternally in the “everybody understood language”, but it projects boldly and with vision of future, and in few more than three decades it has been able to make the Cuban commemorative art a sui géneris and excellent expression within the Latin American context........


(Excerpts from the article La monumentaria conmemorativa en Cuba, by Dr. María de los Angeles Pereira, essayist and History of Art Professoress. Publioshed in Artecubano magazine, Nº1, Havana, 1997. pp. 9-16)