TheArtNewspaper.com | David D’Arcy
Paintings made before the current regime seized power in Cuba are on display at the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Art made before Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in 1959 is now available for public viewing until September 1st where 93 works titled “Great Masters of Cuban Art 1800-1958”. The art belongs to Roberto and Carlos Ramos, brothers who fled Castro’s Cuba for Florida in 1992.
Roberto Ramos, 42, had done his military service in Cuba and become a martial arts instructor for elite troops, a position with status on the militarized island. He was arrested in 1990 for possession of US dollars (the only currency of value in the communist country), and spent a year in prison.
Carlos and Roberto Ramos in front of Armando Menocal’s Portrait of Thomas Estrada Palma, first president of the Cuban republic, 1902
Before leaving illegally, Mr Ramos assembled a collection of 14 Cuban paintings by artists who had fallen out of favor with the Cuban regime; he hoped to sell these in Florida to support his new life. These purchases included a large canvas that a Cuban family had been using as a lining for a balcony canopy.
After crossing the Florida Straits on board a small ship carrying 14 people “without water, petrol, or food”, as well as his paintings, the Ramos brothers were intercepted by the US Coast Guard and taken into custody. The paintings disappeared. Released from the internment center, Mr Ramos tracked them down to the Marpad Art Gallery in Coral Gables, Miami, which had already sold them on. Tracing the buyers, he persuaded them to return the art.
Evelio Garcia Mata’s La Conga, 1930s
He then started to collect in earnest as a campaign to salvage works by Cuban academic artists whom the new regime maligned as conservative or counter-revolutionary. Portraits and landscapes fell into this category, as did the paintings of Oscar Garcia Rivera (d.1971), often called the Norman Rockwell of Cuba. Rivera painted sentimental scenes of Cuban life and did not change his style under the new regime, which meant that his work was not exhibited. Rivera’s grand Evolution of the Conga, a tribute to the Cuban dance, is on view in Daytona.
So is the monumental history painting Finlay’s Triumph by Esteban Valderrama y Pena. The canvas, more than 12 feet high, depicts American physician Walter Reed’s visit to Cuba in 1901, when he confirmed the discovery made earlier by the Cuban researcher Carlos Finlay that yellow fever was transmitted by the mosquito. Cuban authorities, who found the painting’s subject colonial and imperialist, ordered that it be removed and destroyed. The painting was surreptitiously saved by a building employee and needed major restoration, says Mr Ramos.
The Daytona Beach exhibition takes place at the same time as a survey of some 400 Cuban works at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, “¡Cuba! Art and History from 1868 to Today” (until 8 June). Like Finlay’s Triumph in the Ramos Collection, the centerpiece of the Montreal show, Cuba Colectiva, a six-panel mural celebrating Cuban socialism, conceived by Wifredo Lam and painted in 1967 by 100 artists, required major restoration. It had been damaged by termites in Havana storerooms.
Although some of the same artists are shown in both the Montreal and Daytona exhibitions, the Canadian institution was able to receive loans from a number of Cuban museums whereas US museums are legally barred from collaborating with institutions on the island.
Mr Ramos’s 400-piece collection of landscapes, portraits, folkloric scenes and academic paintings is not for sale, although the brothers (who decline to discuss its value) run a gallery in Miami.
The Ramos paintings augment the institution’s existing holdings from the Cuban Foundation Museum which is housed in the same building. It was created 50 years ago with the donation of the personal art collection of Fulgencio Batista (1901-73), the Cuban president who was overthrown by Fidel Castro in 1959. Batista lived in Daytona Beach while in exile in the 1940s.