A great art city on the rise

It’s time to hail Havana as one of the world’s great art cities. The Cuban capital has never lacked artistic credentials, but a growing band of small private galleries, fresh interest in outlandish street art and the emergence of the extraordinary art collectives has sparked a creative renaissance that has truly put the city on the map.

 

Artistic roots

Havana’s artistic roots go deep. The city is home to the oldest arts academy in Latin America, the Academia de Bellas Artes San Alejandro, housed in a colonnaded building in Marianao. Founded in 1818, the academy has bred generations of precocious talent, most notably in the 1920s when it spawned the Vanguardia, a loose collection of painters and sculptors who, rejecting the contemporary penchant for mundane landscapes, invented Cuba’s avant-garde.

 

Where to start

For an introductory exposé to the heady world of Cuban art, proceed directly to the bedrock of Havana’s art scene, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, a huge multifarious art museum spread over two campuses in Centro Habana. The ‘Arte Cubano’ section is the finest collection of Cuban painting in the world. Artists to look out for include Victor Manuel Valdés, executor of the haunting Gitana Tropical, a painting sometimes referred to as the ‘Latin Mona Lisa’ that today is seemingly reproduced on every shower curtain and umbrella in Cuba. Another star is Wilfredo Lam, a colleague of Picasso who absorbed his Spanish amigo’s envelope-pushing spirit, but also nurtured distinctive Cuban themes such as Santería. Lam dominates the middle section of the museum with his dark, abstract works, including his most graphic, Tercer Mundo.