Umberto Peña, Hell! I have lost everything, 1968

recent article by Juan Cruz in the Spanish newspaper El País (“Cuando el comandante mandó parar,” “When the commander ordered a stop”) reflects the international media’s ongoing fascination with Cuba’s post-Revolutionary history. The author focuses on the documentary PM, made in 1960 by Orlando Jiménez Leal and Sabá Cabrera Infante (brother of writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante). The 14-minute film was shot in black and white in a “free cinema” style that perfectly captured Havana´s nightlife: the music floating from bar to bar, the night dwellers, strollers, drunks, and prostitutes. They were “the armies of the night,” typical of any city.

The film was broadcast by a Cuban TV channel but never reached the cinemas. Multiple conflicts arose around the film, erupting in a meeting with Cuban intellectuals convened over several days by Fidel Castro. During the meeting, the Cuban leader issued a legendary statement that now seems tailor-made for Twitter: “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing.” The makers of PM later went into exile, and for half a century it became the most controversial and invisible film in the history of Cuban cinema. Recently, however, it was screened—without comment or controversy—at the Cinematheque of Cuba, and in a few months it will be screened in Madrid, Spain. It is already available (in two parts) on YouTube.

The El Pais article attributed to Castro a role he never actually had in the censorship of the documentary. Moreover, it displayed a profoundly outmoded sense of contemporary Cuban culture: these days, Cubans are talking openly about this and other thorny issues. One can cite published books such as Cultural Controversies in the 1960s by Graziella Pogolotti; Foundation Time by Alfredo Guevara, director of the Cuban Institute of Cinema at the time of PMTomás Gutiérrez-Alea: Retracing My Steps, edited by his wife Mirta Ibarra; or even the long interview with Alfredo Guevara and Leandro Estupiñán, which was disseminated via e-mail and can easily be found on the Internet.

In Cuba, art critic Graziella Pogolotti summed up the complexity of the era: “The 1960s were not light” (“los sesenta no fueron light”). Yet the international exhibition circuit is still dazzled by the icons of the Revolution: the “epic” pictures of such photographers as Korda, Corrales, Salas, and Fernández. Other areas of artistic creation in the 1960s—painting, architecture, even comics—are barely known beyond the island.

Hence our excitement with the latest show at the Museo Nacional de Arte Cubano. Two Impulses of the Erotic: Santiago Armada and Umberto Peña unveils the provocative and controversial work of two essential Cuban artists. Curator Liana Rios has selected 36 works on paper by Armada (1937-1995)—better known as Chago since his days as a guerrilla fighter in the Sierra Maestra with the column led by Fidel—and by Peña (b. 1937), who currently lives in Madrid. If the photographic image of the Revolution has been reduced to euphoric militants raising their rifles in triumph, Chago and Peña show the dark side of utopia. They slowly immersed themselves in the unbridled use of street eroticism, mixing it with strong doses of caustic humor and making it flow, literally and corrosively, over the “respectable” conventions of the epoch.

Both artists already occupied exhibition space in the permanent galleries of the museum. But the works on display in Two Impulses were recently purchased through a longstanding acquisitions program. In the catalogue, curator Rios explains the reasons behind the exhibition’s dialogue between the two artists:

“Both of them based most of their work on sexual symbols in order to establish a dialogue with the context of their time from an existentialist perspective—a dialogue full of questions and uncertainties in the work of Chago, and anger and protest in Peña’s…. Both took freedom as an artistic premise, as well as expressionist language, and the combination of abstract and figurative aspects…. Both artists were misunderstood and their work marginalized, so a considerable amount of their production remained unseen at that time.”

The styles of Chago and Peña were deeply influenced by the intellectual humor of cartoonists Jules Feiffer and Saul Steinberg in the United States and by the New Figuration of painters Francis Bacon and Willem de Kooning. The works in the exhibition reveal a profound graphic sense capable of shattering the conventions of prints and comic strips.

Long before Stonewall, before the works of Matthew Barney or the Chapman brothers, Chago and Peña depicted enormous penises ejaculating with olympic vigor, bodily glands functioning rhythmically, condoms turned into comic characters—images that were often set in dialogue with excerpts from “cultured” literary sources as well as popular slang. In an ink drawing, The Key to the Gulf (1967), Chago portrayed a reclining nude, his penis absolutely erect. In this image, the artist merged everyday macho sexism with the geographical condition of the island (Cuba, key to the Gulf) and a political slogan of that time: “Cuba, lighthouse (faro) of America.” Artist and historian Antonio Eligio (Tonel), a Chago scholar, has explained that Chago “…changes the sentence, through a visual play on words, into ‘Cuba, phallus (falo) of America.’” The politics of the body were placed on a par with the anti-imperialist Revolution.

Peña’s lithographs in the exhibition were printed in 1970, the year of the failed Ten Million Sugar Harvest. In them, the artist experimented with techniques such as stencils to create halftones. His intensive printmaking work began with Oxen, a series created at Havana´s Experimental Graphic Workshop, founded in 1962—an activity that Peña carried out simultaneously with his vast output as a designer at Casa de las Americas. Curator Rios explains: “In Peña´s works, sex symbols inhabit all of the space and become absolute protagonists of his scenes, which he titles with poetic phrases, many taken from the work of José Martí.” The hegemony of such male physical attributes places the work in a “foul-mouthed” (maldita) tradition of Cuban literature (exemplified by such authors as Virgilio Piñera, later followed by Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls). The profane appropriation of phrases by an author as “official” as Martí contributed to the low visibility of these works during the “Gray Five Years” (1971-76), an era characterized by a Stalinist cultural policy.

Two Impulses of the Erotic: Santiago Armada and Umberto Peña runs through May 18 at the Museo Nacional de Arte Cubano in Havana.