Revolution from the Back Seat of a ’56 Bel Air

I am hardly expert in such things, but I believe that in the Havana International Airport, the Muzak played “Every Step you Take, Every Move you Make, Every Vow you Break, I’ll be Watching You” in a heavily salsa-fied Spanish version.

Later, I noticed that the ancient American cars—the General Motors line-up from the 50s, the not-so-well maintained Plymouths with truly ugly fins, a spearhead shaped Studebakers, a lone Edsel—were not family cars but taxi cabs or motorized versions of the horse carriages that cart people around tourist cities like Charleston and, well, Havana. Yes, the embargo may still be in place, and it may still be impossible to get parts for a 1956 Bel Air convertible except by special order from Pyongyang, but there are also many new Kias and Hyundais on the road. The owners of the classic cars have enough cash to put a new Toyota engine and a new transmission in that Bel Air, so I suspect they can also afford a new Kia. But the symbolism, giving the finger to the embargo, bewailing the tyrant to the north, beating the bejesus out of a Honda exhaust system so that it fits a ‘50s Desoto, are now all cultural imperatives. To praise one’s Kia is small potatoes; to paint the ’64 Oldsmobile two complementary shades of a pale lime, to earn a living from parading it along the Malecon, to park a flotilla of pastel or flame-red autos around the Revolutionary Square is to win more underdog points than Castro ever dreamed of. As Rumsfeld taught us, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want. Anglo-American rock becomes mango-flavored rumba, and the sufferings of the embargo are transformed into what the tourists, who’ve made their way through Canada to get here, came for. Right down to car horns blaring the opening bars of Dixie.

Which brings us to art. The Museum of Fine Arts was built in the mid-fifties. Sometime in the ‘90s it closed down. Renovations? Economics? Politics? No one said. This was during the Special Period, the years immediately after the departure of the Soviets. Our docent was an Art History student at the excellent arts university. Her command of the subject was well matched to the ease with which she shifted the moving gears—political life meshing with artistic life—of generational transmission.

That is: each generation since the Revolution has witnessed Cuba through its own lenses. Consequently, the Cubas they see are altogether incommensurate, and the artists cannot but paint those differences. How heroic the revolution felt to the revolutionaries, and how that heroism dominates the revolutionary canvases. How disappointed and frustrated the aftermath of the revolution felt to those who were branded counter-revolutionary or whose families fled. How peculiar the emptying of the prisons of felons and intellectuals appeared to both classes of criminal. And how liberating and then desperate the Special Period felt to those who saw their prospects, their education, their jobs, their aspirations go for naught when the Russians, whom so many despised, vanished from the scene. No one we’ve spoken with has any kind word to say for the Russians. No one wants them back. There is, our docent said, no cultural or social vestige of the Russians’ half-century presence except those horrid apartment blocks they learned to build throughout eastern Europe after the war. But when the Russians left, the Cuban GDP fell by 85%. Who could survive that?

In any case, the Museum re-opened in 2001, and the opening revealed a good deal of work that had, in earlier days, been censored, banned, confiscated and held in storage. Happily, the work was not merely burned. One cartoonist had been forced from his newspaper post because his comic character, an idiot savant called Solomon, kept reminding the government that it might be wiser to behave in some new, reasonable way. After 2001, the museum hung a series of his prints depicting talking, used condoms. The used condom is the government’s; the condom’s pillow talk tells us what we might hear after being screwed by the state.

This commentary, amazingly, is allowed.

Independent of what the state might be interested to see from its modern painters, a man like Wilfredo Lam painted the Cuba of his private history and lineage. He is Cuban-Chinese. His mother was half-African. Raised Catholic, he was exposed to his godmother’s experience of Santeria and healing. During his years in Europe he was a friend of Picasso who introduced him to Braque, Matisse, Miro. All these threads he weaves into his vision of Cuba.

Most impressive to me is Antonia Eiriz. In 1963-64, she made a large painting titled The Annunciaton. The announcing Gabriel is a malevolent, malignant, deformed, monstrous Angel of Death. He hovers over his Mary, smothering her. She shrinks back from her labor. Gabriel’s Mary, remember, was reading a book and was “inwardly disturbed” by the angel’s presence. Thus, in Botticelli, her body sways defensively. (In other iterations of the scene, her thumb still, deliciously, holds her place in the book she’s closed.) In Eiriz’s case, the symbol of Mary’s labor is an old sewing machine, a sweatshop tool. She does not suffer an inward disturbance. Rather, she’s knocked backwards as if by a body blow. This Mary needs no angel to announce her impending pregnancy. She is already pregnant unto, it would appear, full term.

Our docent described the symbolism this way: Gabriel announces that the revolution is death dealing; it is a fearsome, all-consuming failure. Even though the dominant pigment is the voluptuous Cuban blue of a popular postcard’s sea and sky, here it is deeper, darker, ready to unleash wind and lightning.

Allowed. In fact, the painting has appeared on a Cuban postage stamp.

Once upon a time the dictum was: “Within the revolution, anything. Outside the revolution, nothing.”

The new sense of allowance was confirmed by our visit to the home studio of Kelvin Lopez, a young painter and professor of painting who has had the good fortune of an international career and the travel and income that such a career might command. He has a series of paintings that mimic the government’s censorship policies as felt by artists. He allows us to see just what he chooses even if that image tantalizes us into an effort to know whatever might be proscribed. The process: someone emails him a photograph of a well-identified place. In our examples, the place is an American super highway that runs as a curving vertical strip up the center of the canvas. Two-thirds along that road there is an overpass; several rectangular signs hang from the bridge. Before the bridge, an exit ramp veers off to the right. Other than a few nondescript trees, no other object helps to identify the place—no building, no car, no truck, no RV, no hitchhiker, no road kill, no litter. It is a pristine, unoccupied place, a concrete Eden before the creation. And it will remain so because, before painting from this emailed image, Lopez has carefully Photoshopped all the information from the signs. They appear as gray-black blanks, like the smudged words redacted from a high-security document.

Cheerfully, because Lopez has created an outdoors scene painted from a single viewpoint, he calls this his ‘en plein air’ painting. But the artist is not sitting on his stool before an easel in the open air; he’s detained in his studio assuming, vis-à-vis his audience, the role of government. He determines what we may see of the world, and we are not going to get a visa.

Not a great series of paintings, but damned clever along the way, unmapped as his roads are. Or so it appears from our lavender-on-lavender convertible in the Bel Plein Air.

(The examples of Lam and Eiriz are from the web. Photography in the museum was forbidden.)


Wilfredo Lam:Cuba/Africa/Spain/Catholic/Santeria


The Bel Air in Plein Air


Kelvin Lopez Greets Visitors


In Kelvin’s Kitchen Next to the Coffee Pot


Kelvin Lopez: Cigar Box Allegory


Kelvin Lopez: Flowers Break Through the Concrete


Lopez: Corner the Flowers? Doesn’t Matter.


Lopez: En Plein Air to Nowhere


Lopez: No Visa


Antonia Eiriz: The Annunciation

4 thoughts on “Revolution from the Back Seat of a ’56 Bel Air

  1. I’m trying to follow your syntax. Are you suggesting that I forget ruins and focus on cars, politics, and contemporary art? I think you are. I think I might.There’s one upcoming on living artists in their 30s and in their 80s. (But Lebanon looms in the near future. Brave Alexa has taken a post, starting in August, in Beirut. Holy moly, says I.)

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