The revolution will not be criticized; Cuba's current regime gets a free ride in Montreal art exhibition
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 19 February 2008)

MONTREAL - A few insolent words in a wall text summarize the hypocrisy and intellectual torpor that dominate íCuba! Art and History from 1868 to Today, a blockbuster exhibition that runs till June 8 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

The words belong to I.C. Amador, a contributor to Revolucion y Cultura in Havana. They appear in an essay in the Montreal exhibition catalogue and on a wall near the work of Constantino Arias, a talented photojournalist. Amador claims the photos Arias took of guests at the Hotel Nacional in Havana "focus on the absurd, vulgar and artificial traits that wealth fosters in those who possess it."

That moment of flagrant self-righteousness seems particularly dissonant in a museum created by wealthy Montrealers. Did the curator who picked those words to go on the wall mean they should apply to the Desmarais family, whose riches helped build the Jean Noel Desmarais Pavilion holding the exhibition? Perhaps people named Desmarais are to be considered the exceptions that prove the rule.

The words seem especially inapt when we notice that only two Arias photos were taken at the Hotel Nacional, where he was house photographer half a century ago. One shows a woman sunbathing by the pool, her hat pulled over her face. The other catches a few glum tourists playing roulette in the hotel's casino. How do they express vulgarity or absurdity? The woman's bathing suit now looks outmoded but hardly vulgar. One man at the roulette table wears a business suit, another a dinner jacket. Would that illustrate absurdity?

Nathalie Bondil, director of the MMFA and curator of the exhibition, approaches Cuba and its culture with nervous delicacy, as if afraid her project would blow up if she chose the wrong image, wrote the wrong word or failed to show appreciation for Fidel Castro's regime.

She told a reporter, "It's not a political show. It's just a show."

On the contrary, it's a political show. As anyone in Castro's government would be quick to point out, every expression of Cuban culture is inevitably political. The title of the exhibition refers to a major political event, the beginning in 1868 of Cuba's first war for independence from Spain. Bondil makes sure we know about tyrants of the past, notably Gerardo Machado y Morales (dictator from 1925 to 1933) and Fulgencio Batista (1934-44 and 1952- 59). But somehow Castro never gets censured in the same way, though longevity has made him arguably the worst of the lot:He's lasted more than three times as long as Machado and Batista combined.

Bondil's exhibition includes many paintings and drawings but it's not mainly an art show.

She wants to leave us with a generalized impression of Cuban history by showing us movie posters, cigar labels, postcards and a roomful of Castro and Che Guevara posters. She pays serious attention to documentary photography, especially the pictures taken by Walker Evans in 1933 for a book on the crimes of the Machado era. And everywhere a visitor goes, Cuban music plays in the background.

This may well be the most comprehensive anthology of Cuban images ever mounted outside Cuba, but it's intellectually undernourished. The thematic arrangement seems obvious and the 424-page catalogue, much of it written by contemporary Cuban critics, looks good but reads as a string of limp banalities.

Bondil wants us to take Cuban art seriously, but she's assembled strikingly uneven examples. Her major candidate for international importance is Wilfredo Lam (1902-1982), who gets a room of his own within the exhibition. He spent much of his adult life in European capitals, first Madrid, then Paris. In the 1930s, he was part of Andre Breton's Surrealist circle and followed Picasso in his adaptations of African sculpture. He followed so closely, in fact, that in several places his work amounts to outright imitation.

Eventually Lam was collected by Alfred H. Barr for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but in Montreal he makes no great impression. The evidence on the walls reduces the catalogue's claim that he's among the "truly universal artists" of the 20th century to laughable puffery. Marcelo Pogolotti (1902-1988), who also gets his own room, turns out to be a talented cartoonist but an extremely limited painter, overly indebted to Fernand Leger.

Down in the basement of the museum, we can see Cuba Colectiva, a 1967 mural remarkable for its size (60 square metres) and the number of artists who contributed to it (100) -- but not, alas, for quality. Under Lam's leadership, Cuban artists, joined by a few foreigners (including Edmund Alleyn from Canada) divided a huge surface into sections, each to be painted separately. A few poets and intellectuals were asked to contribute poems or slogans. Castro was invited but never showed up, so Space No. 26 remains blank, in memory of his non-participation. The mural has never before been shown outside Cuba and ideally should stir memories of an exciting time. But as a work of art it's a mess.

íCuba! Art and History from 1868 to Today lacks both critical intelligence and historical honesty. Still, curatorial imbalance shouldn't keep anyone from enjoying this vast array of imagery. Seeing it is like searching through the attic of a creaky, once-grand house that's filled with quaint surprises and some gems, in this case much of the photography.

Still, its romantic, half-blind approach calls for a strong antidote. Fortunately, there's one available. A visit to the MMFA show should be followed by a viewing of Before Night Falls, the superb film that Julian Schnabel made in 2000 from the memoirs of Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990). As a teenager Arenas welcomed the revolution but later found himself classed as its enemy because he was gay and because he sent his poetry outside Cuba for publication. Schnabel shows Arenas (brilliantly played by Javier Bardem) brutalized by the goons of homophobic communism, which established prison camps for the punishment of gays. Exiled in the 1980 Mariel boatlift, Arenas arrived in New York. He killed himself in 1990, leaving a suicide note that blamed Castro for ruining his life.

Neither Arenas nor anyone who shared his fate gets mentioned in the Montreal show. The governing principle of the exhibition is neither artistic nor historical. What the MMFA has delivered on this occasion is a distorted and pathetic expression of cultural diplomacy.

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