Incubadora recently shared an interview of Cuban graphic artist Félix Beltrán—“Pepe Menéndez: Interviú a Félix Beltrán”—previously published in Artcrónica (March 30, 2020). We now “repeat” a few excerpts in translation.
At 81 years old, Félix Beltrán continues to be a challenge. The most multifaceted of the great masters of Cuban design, creator with full command of style with an efficient functionalist vocation, he was and continues to be impossible to pigeonhole. Always so avantgarde, his way of projecting and projecting himself so particular, he can be seen alone and controversial at times—shining with his own light—in our design landscape.
A highly educated man, surrounded for years by honors, projects, and students in his adopted Mexico City, he has agreed to a long-distance interrogation. [. . .]
Your career begins more than seven decades ago. What would you say is the biggest difference in our profession then and today? Making, producing, today is faster than ever before in history. The speed with which everything can be done is incredible.
You lived for a time in the United States, then in Cuba and, finally, in Mexico. What prompted those journeys? My parents were socialists, especially my father. I went to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts. At the time, I had problems with the police several times because I supported the July 26 Movement: I was the founder of a branch. And when Fidel Castro went to speak at the UN in 1960, when he had to move to the Hotel Theresa, we were on the picket line there. Later, the family decided that I would return to the Island.
Due to personal disagreements in the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) I left Cuba again twenty years later. I say this very sincerely, without resentment or anything.
It is often said that by the mid-1960s a way of designing with its own characteristics was already observed in Cuba. Do you agree with that criterion? Yes. There were several causes for what is considered the graphic arts of the Revolution. First, in the advertising of the republic, realism was the trend. After the advent of the Revolution, several of the main executors of that realism left Cuba. Then arose the fear that another realism, socialist realism, would prevail. This trend is often criticized, but I think it was necessary to some extent. Consider, for example, that the Soviet flag has the sickle and hammer, not the hammer and sickle. It is understood that the priority was the enormous mass of poor peasants, less prepared than the sector of the workers, who had more education. It is not the same to be in the countryside—in the almost feudal conditions of that era in Russia—than the life of the worker, who was exploited but had some access to culture. So, realism helped to communicate better with those who were lesser educated. In painting, for example, if you take a painting like “White on White,” by Kasimir Malevich—in my opinion the most representative painting of the 20th century—would it have been understood by those who lacked education? Although I do not defend the socialist realism of peasants who look like gods, I nevertheless understand that the best realism was preferable at a certain time. It played a role. Communication is not what one emits but what the other interprets.
As for the messages of the Revolution, the ideas were the main thing, the phrases supported everything. I must say that the highlight for me in the graphic design of the Revolution was not the movie poster, but rather, the political poster. Although many of the films promoted by the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) were Cuban, the vast majority were not. Instead, the posters had, for example, “All to arms!”, a phrase specific to Fidel Castro, one of many compelling phrases, of incredible power.
[. . .] Tell us about your work for political graphics and social content. I worked for a time in the Ministry of Construction and was in charge of the designs for the Cuban pavilion at the Osaka Expo in 1970. Upon my return from Japan, the Party asked me to join the design team of its Revolutionary Guidance Commission [Comisión de Orientación Revolucionaria—the acronym COR appears at the bottom of the posters of those years] housed in El Vedado, on 11th and 4th Streets. There, María Angélica Álvarez gave me a task. “A lot of oil is being wasted,” she told me. So, I asked to meet with specialists, because if I didn’t understand the problems well; I couldn’t help solve them. This is how historical posters arose: “Ahorrar petróleo,” “Ahorrar electricidad es ahorrar petróleo,” El aceite usado es útil otra vez” [Saving oil, Saving electricity is saving oil, Used oil is useful again] among others. Many other projects followed. I came to lead a team with various designers and filmmakers. By the way, I also founded a gallery in that same house and exhibited a collection of Japanese posters that I had brought from my trip. That was probably the first exhibition of posters from Japan in Latin America.
[. . .] In Mexico you have already worked for more years than in Cuba. What are your greatest professional satisfactions in that country? For me the most important is the stage in Cuba. They were few years, but of a high social consequence. I am interested in the content. And it doesn’t make sense to separate my work just for aesthetics, choosing between attractive and unattractive.
In Mexico I have worked for powerful clients, like Apple, but little by little I have separated myself from traditional clients. And I prefer to focus on less lucrative issues, but of more interest. I have made posters against the abuse of women, against addictions—all very pressing issues. [. . .]
[Poster above by F. Beltrán.]
Excerpts translated by Ivette Romero. For full post (and spectacular graphics!), see https://in-cubadora.com/2022/12/29/pepe-menendez-interviu-a-felix-beltran/
See original interview in https://www.artcronica.com/revista/edicion-no-16/felix-beltran/