GETTY MUSEUM DISPLAYS PHOTOGRAPHS OF CUBA BEFORE, DURING, AND AFTER THE REVOLUTION
A Revolutionary Project: Cuba from Walker Evans to Now
Exhibition Marks First Showing of Getty’s Walker Evan’s Cuban Photographs
Also on view are photographs by Virginia Beahan, Alex Harris, and Alexey Titarenko
LOS ANGELES - Cuba’s attempt to forge an independent state with an ambitious set of social goals, all the while moored to powerful political and economic interests, has been a source of fascination for nations, intellectuals, and artists alike. On display at the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Center, May 17 — October 2, 2011, A Revolutionary Project: Cuba from Walker Evans to Now, looks at three critical periods in the island nation’s history as witnessed by photographers before, during, and after the country’s 1959 Revolution.
A Revolutionary Project juxtaposes Walker Evans’s 1933 images from the end of the Gerardo Machado dictatorship with views by contemporary foreign photographers Virginia Beahan (American, b. 1946), Alex Harris (American, b. 1949), and Alexey Titarenko (Russian, b. 1962), who have explored Cuba since the withdrawal of Soviet support in the 1990s. A third section bridging these two eras presents pictures by Cuban photographers who participated in the country’s 1959 Revolution, including Alberto Korda, Perfecto Romero, and Osvaldo Salas.
“The Museum’s collection of Walker Evans prints is the largest in the U.S., but until now, we have not shown his photographs of Cuba,” explains Judith Keller, senior curator of photographs. “This exhibition allows us the opportunity to showcase this body of work, alongside newer work in the collection.”
1933: Evans in Havana
Walker Evans (1903–1975) is one of the photographers most responsible for the way we now imagine American life in the 1930s. His distinctive photographic style, which he declared “transcendent documentary,” was nurtured in New York in the late 1920s and fully formed by his experience in Cuba in 1933. In the spring of that year, Walker Evans was asked by publisher J. B. Lippincott to produce a body of work about Cuba to accompany a book by the radical journalist Carleton Beals (1893–1979). This book, The Crime of Cuba, would be a scathing indictment of the then-current regime of Cuban President Gerardo Machado. Leaving the country less than two months before Machado was forced out of office, Evans was able to capture Cuba at the start of the revolutionary movement but almost 30 years before the 1959 Revolution.
During Evans’s time in Cuba, he made substantial strides in his photographic practice. There he worked with different format cameras, large and small, one more deliberate and descriptive, the other more spontaneous and agile. He created both close-up and wide, inclusive compositions that he could then combine in intense sequences to best communicate his response to the poverty, the ferment, and the beauty of his environment. While in Havana, Evans met the American writer, Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961), whose acclaimed avant-garde work he knew and admired. Hemingway’s terse narrative style, which he was then applying to his own Harry Morgan stories set in Havana and Key West, no doubt influenced Evans’s approach to the subject of Cuba’s current political and economic struggles. Evans’s photographs also reflect the inspiration of French photographer Eugène Atget’s Parisian pictures that Evans critiqued for an arts journal in 1931. The series that comprised Atget’s thorough study of “Old Paris” seem to have provided additional motivation for Evans’s selection of Havana subjects: the signage of urban storefronts, the abundant street offerings of fresh produce, the decorative balconies of old houses, the many studies of archaic horse-drawn wagons and carriages, and the portraits of women, some of whom appear to be prostitutes.
Machado’s fall from rule in 1933 resulted in a long power struggle that culminated in the country’s 1959 socialist revolution to overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista, anchoring Cuba to the Soviet bloc for the next thirty years and defining a relationship with the United States that still exists today. Fidel Castro, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and their new government harnessed photography as a means of keeping the project of the Revolution at the forefront of Cuba’s collective consciousness. As both genuine records of popular insurrection and propagandistic documents used for political purposes, pictures of the Revolution and its aftermath have shaped how both Cubans and Americans understand the significance of that revolutionary moment. Photographs in the second section of the exhibition are drawn from the work of nine Cuban photographers who participated in recording the political context and triumphs of the emerging state in the years surrounding 1959.
Included in the exhibition is an iconic image of the revolutionary hero Che Guevara by Alberto Korda titled Guerrillero Heroico (March 5, 1960). One of the world’s most reproduced images, it has been adopted for political causes, appearing on countless numbers of t-shirts, banners, and street art around the globe. The print on view in the exhibition is among the earliest versions of the photograph known to exist. Made as a press print, it was used as a source to reproduce the image in media outlets a year after Korda photographed Guevara at a rally in Havana.
Also on display in the exhibition is the well-known revolutionary photograph Patria o Muerte, Cuba (Negative, January 1959; print, 1984) by Osvaldo Salas, one of Cuba’s most important photographers. Salas effectively captures and conveys the populist fervor in Cuba shortly after the movement’s triumph with an image of a patriotic sign framed by a celebratory crowd.
The photographs included in this section of the exhibition are culled from the extensive holdings of Cuban photography assembled by the Austrian collector, Christian Skrein, including a number of recent acquisitions by the Museum.
Since 1991: The Special Period
After Soviet troops began to withdraw from Cuba in September of 1991, the troubled Cuban economy suffered severe internal shortages, and Fidel Castro declared what is known as the “Special Period” (período especial), marked by food rationing, energy conservation, and a decline of public services. In the nearly twenty years since the Soviet withdrawal, Cubans have managed to survive through perseverance, the forging of new political relationships, and the easing of socialist systems. This period of transition, which continues today with the recent transfer of power from Fidel Castro to his brother Raúl, has attracted the attention of photographers from around the world who are interested in exploring the relationship between Cuba’s revolutionary past and its uncertain future. The final section of the exhibition looks specifically at the work of three contemporary photographers with diverse approaches to documenting the island in recent decades: Virginia Beahan, Alex Harris, and Alexey Titarenko.
Virginia Beahan’s work concentrates on the landscape’s relationship to history and culture. In 2001, she began a multiyear project on Cuba, photographing its topography in search of remnants of the island’s diverse past. The work resulted in a publication in 2009 called Cuba: Singing with Bright Tears. Beahan’s Cuba is a land of contradictions, full of disappointments and hope, decay and rejuvenating beauty, simultaneously anchored to the past while looking beyond the present.
Born and raised in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), Russia, Alexey Titarenko became fascinated with Cuba in 2003, when he made his first trip to Havana. Titarenko’s goal was to represent the soul of the Cuban capital. In the artist’s photographs, the city is shown with little overt reference to its politics. Instead, Titarenko describes the conditions of life in the communist country, depicting people persevering amid varying states of ruin. Venturing out of the tourist zones of Havana into the network of dilapidated avenues beyond the old city walls, his images depict a gray metropolis whose inhabitants congregate on the streets to collect food rations, fix long-outmoded cars, and play baseball.
A former student of Walker Evans, Alex Harris made several trips to Cuba following the collapse of the eastern bloc and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, developing a powerful body of color work that addresses the country’s cultural fabric during a period of difficult economic circumstances. His photographs focus on portraits of women whose lives are affected by the tourist-fueled sex trade, landscapes made through the windshields of refurbished 1950s American cars, and monuments to the Cuban national hero José Martí. His study was published in the form of a book, The Idea of Cuba, in 2007. Through these distinct vantage points, Harris probed the country’s propensity for ingenuity as it underwent great transition.
A Revolutionary Project is curated by Judith Keller, senior curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Brett Abbott, former associate curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum and, currently, curator of photography at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
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