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EXCERPTS & ESSAYS

CORY REYNOLDS | DATE 9/7/2011

Soy Cuba: Cuban Cinema Posters from after the Revolution

ARTBOOK | D.A.P. is pleased to announce Soy Cuba, Trilce's outstanding collection of post-revolutionary Cuban cinema posters, spanning from the 1950s through the 1970s. Below is a selection of posters from the 1960s, alongside Steven Heller's Introduction, Recalling a Forgotten Treasure.

Soy Cuba: Cuban Cinema Posters from after the Revolution
Five Sinners, Czechoslovakia, 1965. Poster by Aldo Amador.

The posters in this book are so conceptually stunning it is hard to believe they are advertising films. Movie posters are typically mediocre and mired in clichéd imagery that unimaginative marketers believe will pique an audience’s interest. These Cuban film posters could never have been market tested or run through the typical approval wringer. If so, they would never look like this. Their very existence raises the question: Why indeed are posters produced for Hollywood USA generally so mundane, while posters promoting some of the same movies in Cuba so visually inventive? And perhaps a more perplexing question: Why have they been hidden away in the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry for so long?
Soy Cuba: Cuban Cinema Posters from after the Revolution
I Am Cuba, Cuba and Soviet Union, 1964. Poster by René Portocarrero.

Cuban political posters produced by the Organization of Solidarity of the People of Asia, Africa & Latin America (Ospaaal) have been widely exhibited and documented, but this extensive body of work has been kept virtually secret until Carole Goodman uncovered them. In the history of popular art, these posters are comparable to any major archeological find, and as momentous to the legacy of graphic design as the rediscovery in the 1970s of twenties-era Russian Constructivist film posters.
Soy Cuba: Cuban Cinema Posters from after the Revolution
Beatrice, Poland, 1965. Poster by Eduardo Muñoz Bachs.

What makes them worthy of such status (and awe) is less that they transcend the marketing conventions of the motion picture industry— which demands star-studded imagery and bloated typography. Even more essential from a socio-historical point of view is that these posters, created after the Cuban revolution in 1959, exhibit a unique graphic language that has roots in then-contemporary Europe, but ultimately developed a distinct graphic accent, which could for now be called a “Revolutionary Cuban Style.” And what a free style it is.
Soy Cuba: Cuban Cinema Posters from after the Revolution
Cyclone, Cuba, 1965. Poster by René Azcuy Cárdenas.

Like the Russian Constructivists of the twenties, and the Polish poster artists of the seventies, and even the French Atellier Populaire of 1968, this Cuban visual language expresses a youthful revolutionary zeal—not politically but aesthetically. In the Russian case, the avant garde was eventually betrayed by Soviet leaders and their demand for greater social conformity (which became Socialist Realism). This Cuban graphic style exudes a sense of individual freedom. Ironically, the freedom to produce carnivalesque movie posters in Cuba, when compared to the more rigidly proscribed poster clichés dictated by Hollywood USA, suggests that creative liberty and stylistic playfulness had more support under the real dictatorial regime rather than an iron fisted movie industry.
At first glance these gems of visual acuity and typographic expression do not follow the conventions of posters at all. The each look more like book covers and jackets. Almost each one (see “El Jueves,” “La Boda,” or “La Guerra Y La Paz”) could have major impact in a smaller format. Yet as posters they capture the eye in ways that are both demonstrative and distinctly contemplative.
Soy Cuba: Cuban Cinema Posters from after the Revolution
The 44, Czechoslovakia, 1964. Poster by Holbeín López.

I can’t take my eyes off of “El Mar.” It is the most sublime graphic design I have ever seen—no hyperbole intended. The contrasts, first of the condensed sans serif type sandwiching the ornate bifurcated “m,” then this unit next to the seemingly arbitrary silhouette of an umbrella, is curiously hypnotic. Maybe it is also the repeating pattern of soothingly colorful half-circles that draws the eye. Whatever calculus of images makes the total composition so compelling, the combination of type and abstraction results not in just a mere commercial image, but in a piece of art—assertive art.
These posters run a conceptual and formal gamut, from decorative to symbolic, from comic to serious, from expressive to surreal. “Nos Amamos Tanto” embodies all these traits into one and yet it is such a minimalist work. Minimalism works. If there is one common conceit, surrealism appears to reign. Interestingly, surrealism was widely practiced in Iron Curtain graphics throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties. The surreal tropes enable the artist and designer to mask certain visual ideas that might offend the censor’s eye. The dislocation of reality also provides greater opportunities for pictorial adventures. In addition to surrealism, economy of space is the other thing almost all these posters have in common. Even an otherwise ornate rendering like “Tulipa” is set against an open green field, allowing the abstractly sensual bikini clad figure to seemingly dance across the page. And what could be more alluring in its economy than “Rita?” This tightly cropped high contrast black and white image, says so much about the texture of the film with so little graphic information. It would be impossible to do this in Hollywood USA (where are the stars’ credits?).
Soy Cuba: Cuban Cinema Posters from after the Revolution
The Ugly Woman, Czechoslovakia, 1962. Poster by Eduardo Muñoz Bachs.

It is interesting to speculate on where and how the artists got their inspirations. “La Larga Noche del 43” is reminiscent of Saul Bass, the American graphic designer and film title pioneer who introduced expressionist minimalism to screen and poster. The delightfully sketched figure of “Beatriz” suggests the American book jacket designer Roy Kuhlman, and the symbolic “Todos Son Inocentes” has a George Guisti look—he too was known for his book jackets. As students in art school, these designers may have seen the New York Art Director’s Club or Society of Illustrators annuals. Probably, they received the Swiss Graphis magazine, which made a relentless effort to publish Eastern European/ Iron Curtain design, and essentially introduced the West to this work and vice versa.
Yet maybe the inspiration—and style—just came naturally and instinctively. The posters are so different, not just compared to Hollywood USA posters, but from Polish film and theater posters, which were at their creative peak during the sixties and seventies, that it is difficult to trace a direct link. There is no clear line between these posters and other designs in Latin or South America.
Soy Cuba: Cuban Cinema Posters from after the Revolution
A Woman Leaves, Hungary, 1964. Poster by Raymundo García Parra.

The pre-revolutionary graphic design, much of it borrowed from America and Europe, notably the Art Deco conceits that prevailed in advertisements and magazine illustration, appear to have been rejected by the film poster designers. Cuban commercial art from the twenties through to the fifties was usually quite mannered, which is not to say rigid—it was often playful with a Caribbean spirit—but these film posters avoid excessive mannerisms in favor of definite modernist art roots. Take “A Pleno So,” “El Hombre Que Debia Morir,” “Alba de Cuba,” and “El Cielo Del Haltico,” all have painterly (or collage) roots. Many appear as though they could have been designed yesterday or today and even tomorrow. Without a conformist style, they have a timeless energy. “Pisito,” with its building windows made of white letters, could easily be in a graphic design annual today—and may turn up after a designer sees it in this book. And the typographically jarring “Desarraigo” is such a contemporary idea and execution, that it is destined for the pantheon of expressive lettering.
Soy Cuba: Cuban Cinema Posters from after the Revolution
Papa Dollar, Hungary, 1962. Poster by Eduardo Muñoz Bachs.

Design archeologists have long been uncovering various one-off lost items that fit nicely into the overall history. But rarely is such a treasure as this—a collection of material so decidedly unknown—been found intact. It is always easy to edit a critical mass of material into a solid body of work, but even allowing for some lesser works, the sheer quality of this quantity of posters is incredible. And what a model of excellence these posters are for all to see—maybe even someone in Hollywood USA. Maybe some day, they’ll catch up with Cuban film posters.

Soy Cuba: Cuban Cinema Posters From After the Revolution

Soy Cuba: Cuban Cinema Posters From After the Revolution

TRILCE EDICIONES
Pbk, 9.5 x 13.5 in. / 320 pgs / 272 color.