Ciego de Ávila 1927–Havana 1995
Raúl Martínez is one of the most important figures in the history of Cuban art. His energetic, multifaceted career was not limited to painting, but extended with equal vigor to photography; publicity; book, newspaper, and poster design; public art murals; set design; and teaching. He was, in all senses of the term, a “multidirectional” creator.
Driven by a restless temperament, Martínez experimented with different approaches to painting. A founder of the art collective Grupo de los Once (Group of Eleven), by the mid-1960s he had explored many variations of abstractionism in a quick succession of stylistic periods that culminated around 1964. At the same time, he started working as a publicist and photographer.
In 1964 Martínez’s work took a sharp turn with his anthological exhibition Homenajes (Tributes), in which he boldly broke with abstractionism to enter a figurative universe in the vein of Pop Art. In the manner of Robert Rauschenberg’s combine paintings, his pieces flared with the energy of an aggressive collage sensibility in which, for the first time, Martínez alluded to the Cuban social environment and street graffiti in a context strongly influenced by the Revolution of 1959. This exhibition was widely discussed and was a hit among the public and critics alike.
Two years later, Martínez started working on what could be considered his greatest innovative achievement as a painter: an extensive iconography of Cuban heroes and leaders. If there is an oeuvre that embodies the image of the Cuban Revolution, it would indeed be Martínez’s. Without intending to, and sometimes even working against the grain, his works gradually constituted a re-envisioning of the most arduous moments in contemporary Cuban history. Far from a propagandistic art bowing to ideological demands and pre-established icons, Martínez’s paintings re-invented those icons, as well as the face of a people undergoing a process of marked social change. In his images, several generations of Cubans have recognized themselves, reaffirming Martínez’s role as a foundational figure in contemporary Cuban art.
The piece El abanderado (The Standard-Bearer)—originally untitled—dates from 1970, during one of the most lucid, innovative, and optimistic periods in Martínez’s artistic development. That year he also painted Isla 70 (Island 70), one of his masterpieces. El abanderado shares with Isla 70 its vivid colors and one-dimensional poster look, its hope in a transformed future, and a realism inspired by the spontaneous popular paintings that were even then surfacing on street banners and walls, to the beat of the public marches and new manifestations of a triumphant Revolution. It may even be said that El abanderado could be one of the figures depicted in Isla 70. At the very center of the first panel of the triptych comprising this mural (in the collection of the National Museum of Fine Arts, in Havana), there is a very similar figure, also a standard-bearer. Like El abanderado, he is dressed in the uniform of the popular militia; the contours of his face are identical, and his torso and head are in an identical position. With the same concentration and gravitas, the same man marches in a crowd through the streets of Havana, in the year of the utopian Ten Million Ton Sugar Harvest.
As in many of his paintings, the figure of the standard-bearer could be based on a photo taken by Martínez himself. It was not unusual for him to populate his canvases with individuals whom he’d previously photographed. At the same time, he frequently adapted photographs from magazines and newspapers—images already shaped by publicity—in his canvases, a formal strategy related to Pop Art.
A few years before El abanderado, Martínez had begun repeatedly painting the face of José Martí—first in ink on cardboard, and later in vast expressionistic canvases, in which he repeatedly painted the same image of Martí, the Apostle of Cuban Independence, in absurdly gaudy hues. This was a marked departure from the white statues of Martí that had been popping up all over the island. It was an impressive body of work that was not initially understood. Martínez later started including the likenesses of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, Fidel Castro, and other Cuban leaders, as well as globally known figures such as Ho Chi Minh, Lenin, and Marx. These paintings were distinguished by a stern, dark, mysterious quality.
Rosas y estrellas (Roses and Stars) dates from 1972. It was painted after the hero portraits done between 1966 and 1970, and it is quite different in tone. Here, the austere portraits of Martí or Che have been transfigured into idealized versions of themselves. Even though they are impossibly one-dimensional and brightly colored, these heroes are represented as the pantheon of a myth called Revolution. They have lost the roughness and imperfections of popular street paintings and have been elevated, visually and conceptually, to a state of grace, an idealized status.
This canvas can well attest to Martínez’s allegiance to the deepest revolutionary convictions, beyond his issues with the Revolution and the fact that his personal life had been negatively affected. It was painted at a hostile moment: with the 1971 Congress of Education and Culture, the most orthodox and dogmatic faction in power had taken charge of ideological debate in Cuba. Homophobia was on the rise, ideological intransigence was rampant, and everything that did not easily conform—politically, religiously, morally or artistically—to a narrow and supposedly revolutionary pattern was summarily rejected. Many people suffered discrimination because of their religious beliefs, artistic styles, or sexual orientation. It was a time of normative uniformity and widespread purges, the so-called “Gray Quinquennium” (Ambrosio Fornet), the “Gray Five Years.” It is paradoxical that at this particular moment Martínez chose to paint Roses and Stars, so infused with spirituality and allegiance to the cause of the Revolution.
The canvas is a collective portrait of heroes, bringing together seven leaders of Latin American independence. The back tier features Simón Bolívar, Camilo Cienfuegos, the Dominican General Máximo Gómez, and Antonio Maceo; the front row, Fidel Castro, José Martí, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara. There is a familiarity among them that bonds them beyond time and space—like friends gathered for a photograph—reinforced by Che’s hand resting easily on Martí’s shoulder, and by what seem to be the straps of a guerrilla backpack bringing Martí’s attire into current times.
In Roses and Stars Martí is the central figure, as indicated by the roses on his lap and his placement in the painting’s composition. His visual identification with leaders who never met each other in real life was a response to an official slogan of the time: “Cien Años de Lucha” (One Hundred Years of Struggle), expressing the continuity of the battle for independence from 1868 to the present day, united in a common purpose. The presence of continental leaders stresses the Latin American vocation of their nationalistic efforts.
The painting should have been considered an exemplary work in its complete identification with the precepts of the Revolution. Instead, it was met with a certain degree of reserve. It was exhibited at the House of the Americas as part of the Latin American Art Conference in 1972, and in Chile as part of an important show of Cuban art that toured there during Salvador Allende’s presidency. But the painting was perceived as portraying its heroic subjects in a too-casual intimacy, without the martial attitude of warriors, and to top it off, among roses and stars. Given the context of the times, it is not surprising that the work was not shown in many circles, and despite its beauty and strong visual qualities was excluded from many traveling exhibitions during those years.
In a Havana weekly cultural magazine of 1972, Roses and Stars was reproduced in black and white to promote that year’s Latin American Art Conference. At the bottom of the photograph, Martínez wrote in ink, by hand: Martí y la libertad, 1972 (Martí and Freedom, 1972), an amendment of sorts. It makes one think that this casual, handwritten inscription may very well be the real title, while Roses and Stars could be just a convenient moniker for the painting—something all too frequent in the world of art. Further, it should be taken into account that the phrase “Martí and Freedom” is much more consistent with Martínez’s art as a whole and his devotion to Cuba’s National Hero.
Martínez’s stylistic resources were closely associated with art trends that have dominated since the 1960s, chiefly American abstract art, Pop Art, hyperrealism, and European narrative figuration. As an artist, he was relentless in his efforts to stay abreast of current trends and practices. Beyond that, Martínez’s work as a whole owes a great deal to the influence of Cuban street painting, to his work as a designer and publicist, and to his amazing talent as a photographer.
— Corina Matamoros Tuma