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How Cuba’s Movie Posters Influenced Its Revolutionary Art

A new exhibition explores a lesser-known side of Cuban design history.

In 1959, a Cuban artist, silkscreen printer, and journalist by the name of Eladio Rivadulla Martínez made the very first political poster in celebration of the Triumph of the Revolution. In Martínez’s poster, Fidel Castro is front and center, wearing a stern look and holding a gun. Text that reads “26 de Julio,” the name of the movement led by Castro which overthrew Batista, floats above his head. Silkscreen-printed and graphically striking, the poster is not unlike a film poster of the same era–with Castro as the star and the name of the movement appearing as the film title.

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Julio Eloy Mesa, Retrospectiva De La Cinematografia Chicana/Retrospective of Chicano Cinematography, 1979. Silk screen, 29 15/16 x 20 1/16 inches. Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC). [Image: courtesy of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics]
That’s likely because Martínez was one of the first graphic artists to start working with Cuban Institute of Art and Film Industry (commonly known in Cuba as the ICAIC), and is a pioneer of the silkscreen film poster tradition in Cuba. In the months directly following the 1959 revolution, the new government had created the institute to bring cinema to the Cuban people, which mostly meant smuggling in the popular Hollywood films of the day and bringing them to countryside villages through an effort known as “cines móviles,” or mobile cinemas.

But the Cubans found the American promotional posters boring—not to mention inaccessible—so they made their own. Through the cinema program, Martínez and a cadre of other Cuban graphic designers helped define a style of Cuban poster art, which went on to influence better-known Cuban political posters, and which is still celebrated today.

This lesser-known group of brilliant, silkscreened Cuban poster design is the subject of an upcoming show at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (opening August 20). The posters in the show, which were made from 1960 to 2009 and produced by the ICAIC, depict bold, artful, and unexpected designs for familiar subjects, like Charlie Chaplin movies and Singin’ in the Rain. According to the exhibition’s curator, Carol Wells, the ingenuity and experimentation that defined the graphic style of those movie posters flourished thanks to a man named Saul Yelin, one of ICAIC founders. “He was a visionary,” she says. “He encouraged a sense of imagination and breaking the rules that allowed the designers to go wild.”

Yelin recruited many of the big Cuban designers we now know for their revolutionary Cuban poster art in the 1960s—like Martínez, René AzcuyEduardo Muñoz Bachs, and the artist Antonio Pérez (known as Niko).Martínez had started experimenting with silkscreen printing in 1943, well before the revolution, and before it became widespread as a way of making political posters. After the revolution, these designers began silkscreening movie posters as a way to make them in small print runs, as opposed to the offset movie posters many larger countries used that required print runs too large for a Cuban audience. This allowed them the flexibility to make the posters their own. As Wells points out, while it was popular for American movie posters at the time to feature the big stars and starlets—the star system was what made Hollywood money—Cuban designers didn’t have to adhere to the same constraints. They could make them into art.

“In Cuba they started to develop a visual language that asked people to interpret what it meant,” says Wells, who is also the founder Center for the Study of Political Graphics, which loaned the museum the posters for the exhibition. “When you’re asked to interpret visuals, you become a critical thinker and develop a visual literacy.”

This mind-set was also in line with what ICAIC was trying to do with its mobile cinema program. While the agency did at times use movies to push the government’s political agenda, it also valued movies as pure entertainment—a way to make Cuba more modern, progressive, and cultured. The same sense of visual imagination and the same modes of production that emerged from the cinema program went on to influence Cuba’s famed revolutionary poster art—much of which was fueled by the same artists. A click through the slide show above shows how culture and cinema can be revolutionary, too.

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A previous version of this article credited the Cuban graphic artist Olivio Martinez as the designer who started the silkscreen film poster tradition in Cuba. That is incorrect—it was Eladio Rivadulla Martínez. This new version of the article reflects the correct information.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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