How Cuba’s Movie Posters Influenced Its Revolutionary Art

A new exhibition explores a lesser-known side of Cuban design history.

In 1973, Cuban graphic designer Olivio Martinez made a political poster in commemoration of October 8, 1967: the day of Che Guevara’s execution. Although it’s rendered in bright pink and orange, Che looks somber and reflective—a departure from the more pop and psychedelic depictions found on many other propaganda posters. Rather, Martinez’s rendition looks closer to the abstract, graphic-heavy movie posters that Cuban artists were making in the 1960s.

That’s likely because Martinez was one of the first graphic artists to start working with Cuban Institute of Art and Film Industry (commonly known in Cuba as the ICAIC) in the months directly after the 1959 revolution. The revolutionary government had created the institute to bring cinema to the Cuban people, which mostly meant smuggling in the popular Hollywood films of the day and bringing them to countryside villages through an effort known as “cines móviles,” or mobile cinemas.

But the Cubans found the American promotional posters boring—not to mention inaccessible—so they made their own. Through the cinema program, Martinez and a cadre of other Cuban graphic designers helped define a style of Cuban poster art, which went on to influence better-known Cuban political posters, and which is still celebrated today.

This lesser-known group of brilliant, silk-screened Cuban poster design is the subject of an upcoming show at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (opening August 20). The posters in the show, which were made from 1960 to 2009 and produced by the ICAIC, depict bold, artful, and unexpected designs for familiar subjects, like Charlie Chaplin movies and Singin’ in the Rain. According to the exhibition’s curator, Carol Wells, the ingenuity and experimentation that defined the graphic style of those movie posters flourished thanks to a man named Saul Yelin, one of ICAIC founders. “He was a visionary,” she says. “He encouraged a sense of imagination and breaking the rules that allowed the designers to go wild.”

Yelin recruited many of the big Cuban designers we now know for their revolutionary Cuban poster art in the 1960s—like Martinez, René Azcuy, Eduardo Muñoz Bachs, and the artist Antonio Pérez (known as Niko). Martinez had started experimenting with silk screening before the revolution, and before it became widespread as a way of making political posters. After the revolution, these designers began silk-screening movie posters as a way to make them in small print runs, as opposed to the offset movie posters many larger countries used that required print runs too large for a Cuban audience. This allowed them the flexibility to make the posters their own. As Wells points out, while it was popular for American movie posters at the time to feature the big stars and starlets—the star system was what made Hollywood money—Cuban designers didn’t have to adhere to the same constraints. They could make them into art.

“In Cuba they started to develop a visual language that asked people to interpret what it meant,” says Wells, who is also the founder Center for the Study of Political Graphics, which loaned the museum the posters for the exhibition. “When you’re asked to interpret visuals, you become a critical thinker and develop a visual literacy.”

This mind-set was also in line with what ICAIC was trying to do with its mobile cinema program. While the agency did at times use movies to push the government’s political agenda, it also valued movies as pure entertainment—a way to make Cuba more modern, progressive, and cultured. The same sense of visual imagination and the same modes of production that emerged from the cinema program went on to influence Cuba’s famed revolutionary poster art—much of which was fueled by the same artists. A click through the slide show above shows how culture and cinema can be revolutionary, too.

Meg Miller, CO.DESIGN

July 12, 2017

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