A report by Julia Wick for LAIST. Click on the link to the original report for a gallery of photos.
Film posters and a revolutionary government’s drive for cultural awareness don’t typically go hand-in-hand, but for decades that was the case in Cuba, where artist-made screen printed posters helped create visual literacy in the decades following the Cuban Revolution.
On August 20, the Pasadena Museum of California Art will mount Hollywood in Havana: Five Decades of Cuban Posters Promoting U.S. Films, an exhibit with more than 40 posters made in Cuba to publicize Hollywood films. The posters, which were produced by the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográ cos (ICAIC) or the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry, were designed as part of an initiative of the revolutionary government “to develop cultural awareness and consciousness” after Fidel Castro and the guerrilla forces overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgenico Batista in 1959. The designs are incredibly striking, and often simple and bold.
We spoke with Center for the Study of Political Graphics Founder and Executive Director Carol Wells, who curated the exhibition, about the posters and what they mean. The exhibit’s posters are from the CSPG collection.
According to Wells, the posters, which were silkscreened in small runs, were made to promote films being shown at the time in Cuba. Much in the way that “film posters here or billboards here are being used to advertise the newest film or TV show coming out.”
“The posters in Cuba were doing the same thing,” she explained, “but they didn’t have films posted on billboards. They had no billboard advertising in Cuba. In fact, all the billboards are for traditional propaganda.”
“Before the revolution, the films that were shown were primarily from the U.S., Mexico, and a couple of other countries. After the revolution, you started adding a lot of Eastern Bloc, Soviet films, but they continued to show American films,” Wells said. “I was really moved by how many posters dealing with U.S. films there were. It’s such a stereotype breaker on every level.”
And how, you might be wondering, did all this work with the embargo? “You know, I’ve asked that question to at least a half a dozen people, and everybody just smiles, or shrugs, or says, ‘Anything is possible in the revolution.’ It’s kind of like an in-joke that they’re not going to share with somebody that’s from the outside,” Wells said.
“But some of [the films] were smuggled, some of them were bootlegged, and some of them the filmmakers gave them themselves, because Cuba has this great film festival every December and a lot of American filmmakers attended,” she explained.
The Cuban film institute valued experimentation, and that same ethos carried over into poster design. There was also one very notable difference between Cuban posters and those seen in the rest of the world: movie stars, or a lack thereof.
“All film posters—with the excerption of the Polish film posters, and exception of Saul Bass, because his design of film posters obviously didn’t fit in this stereotype mode either—but [the vast majority] of all film posters focus on the movie star,” Wells said. “It’s the movie star and the horse, if it’s a cowboy movie. Or it’s the movie star and a weapon. Whether it’s a photograph or a painted image, it’s a likeness of the movie star” being shown, she explained. “But the Cubans didn’t do that at all.”
There were a number of reasons for this stark departure. “First of all, the movie stars weren’t so important to them. What was important to them was what the film was about—the concept. But it was also a very interesting, creative way of teaching visual literacy. Because you had to look at these posters and you had to figure them out. And they do describe, in symbols and images, what these films are about. They give you all these clues, about who the murderer is or who the main characters are,” she explained.
The rule, however, had one notable exception: Charlie Chaplin. Cuban posters for Chaplin movies almost aways depicted Chaplin himself on them. “They love Charlie Chaplin. The main movie theater in Havana is the Charlie Chaplin theater. The first poster that the film institute ever produced featured Charlie Chaplin,” she continued.
Movies, according to Wells, provided more than just entertainment in revolutionary Cuba. They were used to educate the public, and to create a kind of cultural awareness and literacy.
“When the revolution happened, you had a 40% illiteracy rate, education was not free, and there were big parts of the country that didn’t have electricity. Many people had never seen a film, unless they visited Havana or a big city,” Wells said. “What the Cubans did is they developed mobile cinema brigades. They took generators and projectors by boat, by burro, into some of the most remote areas of Cuba. And they showed films.”
“Hollywood in Havana: Five Decades of Cuban Posters Promoting U.S. Films” will be on view at the Pasadena Museum of California Art from August 20, 2017 to January 7, 2018. The Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA) is located at 490 E. Union Street in Pasadena. Admission is $7 for adults; $5 for seniors (62+); $5 for students & educators; and free the first Friday of each month (12:00-5:00pm) and the third Thursday of each month (5:00-8:00pm).