Marc Haefele reviews "Hollywood in Havana: Five Decades of Cuban Posters Promoting U.S. Films, at the Pasadena Museum of California Art through January 7, 2018.
The poster must be a gift, an agreeable surprise, but above all that it must be understood, simple, but not elementary." --Alfredo Rostgaard,graphic designer for the ICAIC
The historic breach between the the US and Cuba 66 years ago slashed apart the countries’ long conjoined cultures. The island left to Fidel Castro’s rule would evolve its own music, art, literature, and dance as generations of amity turned to armed enmity.
But even blockades, invasion, and embargoes could not divide the cultures completely. In one particular area, they could be united anew, hence the 40 wonderful silk-screen art movie posters now showing at Pasadena Museum of California Art, from Cuban artists interpreting American film landmarks in taut, symbolic representations like nothing the world had ever seen.
However it might have officially felt about Hollywood’s choice of subject matter, Castro’s government saw its product as essential to educating a country whose illiteracy sometimes exceeded 40%. So, the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC) came into existence to bring pirated movies to the Cuban poor.
It took mobile projectors and dozens of bootlegged films into the most rural areas of Cuba, and poured out there a wealth of mostly American cinematography ranging from Charlie Chaplin to "Cabaret."
It also, just by the way, had to introduce the entire medium to many people who had never seen a movie.
To attract these audiences, ICAIC created powerful poster to widely promote the films. The posters eschewed typical Hollywood images of sexy stars and incipient violence. Instead, a green fish-tail is the simple symbol for John Houston’s “Moby Dick,” a Victorian ghost-child for “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” a juice-squeezer brain montage for Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.”
Leading-edge Yanqui culture thus was encouraged, willy-nilly, to infuse that of the new socialist state. (One can only imagine the impact of a film like “the Silence of the Lambs” on a rural Cuban audience.) But the poster typically conveying such a film was the contrivance of Cuba’s top artists.
Says Carol A. Wells, of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, who curated the PMCA show. "During the early years of the Revolution, poster designers had few material resources and operated in an almost artisinal manner, using the silkscreen technique." It’s the same technique merchants use for “Sale” signs and backwoods politicians use for campaign posters. But here, it was embraced by Cuban artists, already steeped in a national graphic tradition, and so it created an outburst of hybrid art.