With over 20,000 works (by ICAIC alone), Cuban film posters became an extraordinary heritage of imagination and creative skill

Unidentified author 1915Ever since moving pictures were first brought to Havana in 1897 by Gabriel Veyre, French filmmaker and emissary of the Lumière Brothers, there has always been a real passion for watching movies on this island. At first, people were dazzled by the tremendous magic of those silent shorts; then, by the first attempts to tell stories on celluloid. Soon, there was an avalanche of films made in Hollywood and a great deal of Mexican and Argentine productions. Having reached maturity, when the people were well-read and open to the world, we eagerly filled the darkened movie theatres to watch our own films and the best of world cinema. Thus, since 1978, Havana is headline news every December when the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema becomes a grand event for the public. The rest of the year, we would go during the weekend to watch the movies that had been released on Thursday. Especially on Saturdays, we would go to the movies and then have a drink, walk, sit on the Malecón. But it was always about the movies.

Latin Americans, who are so emotional and idealistic, live intensely the stories they watch on the screen. Some people make comments out loud about the film’s plot and most of them do not even refrain from concealing their fright, laughter or anger at what they are watching, turning the theatre into a promiscuous place. Surrounded by strangers, we share our emotions candidly. Two hours of someone else’s joys and sorrows but lived as our own. Pipe dreams that the cinema brings us when we let ourselves be carried away to other places and times, to other worlds.

The “heralds” of those pipe dreams born in darkened theatres have always been posters. Although both technique and aesthetics have changed, their role remains unchanged: to lure passersby into going in and watching the movie. In the past, posters were exhibited along with stills displayed behind glass, embellishments that took up the front of the theatre for premieres, and press announcements. Barely more. This was all aimed at gaining public attention and ensuring the production of the “merchandise.” Posters were a sales tool and their creators were part of the essential commercial makeup.

 

During the second half of a century of posters—it had kicked off with La Manigua or La mujer cubana (the oldest remaining poster of unidentified author, 1915)—their role took on a different slant following the educational and cultural transformation of the Revolution in power. The creation of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) in 1959 broadened the scope and provided maximum coherence to a production, distribution and promotion policy that conceived cinema not as a business but as an art. The change—easier said than done—for poster art faced significant challenges, detractors and partial setbacks, until it embraced Edmundo Desnoes’ definition from a 1969 article: “Poster art by ICAIC is both information and an aesthetic explosion.”

Umberto Peña, 1969In the necessary balance between communicative function and aesthetically qualified expression, over the past 60 years, Cuban film posters (the so-called ICAIC posters) have reached their greatest splendor.

“The most important change in ICAIC posters took place around 1964: symbols replaced human figures; the film was indirectly made reference to through graphics. Cuban designers gradually began to get rid of paintings and illustrations to enter into the specific field of graphic design posters, to think in terms of posters and not of oil paintings or drawings. ‘Harakiri’ (by Reboiro), a red spot, following the abdominal cuts of the Japanese ritual suicide on the white background of the poster, gives us, all at once and as a result of the magnification of the detail, the whole. A pistol, together with a clock, can become a symbol of time and death. A flower is love, a colored ball a child” (E. Desnoes: “Posters in Revolutionary Cuba,” in Casa de las Américas, Havana, No. 51-52, 1969).

Posters—“the art of Revolution” according to Susan Sontag—became, along with documentary photography, the hyper-disseminated image of a society in permanent transformation. And within poster art, film posters were for a long time a vanguard of extraordinary quality and diversity. For Antonio García Rayo, “Poster designers…were undoubtedly free artists or craftsmen, abandoned to their inventiveness, to their creativity….This is one of the great successes of Cuban film posters: in having put their money on forms and reflections that make them unique, at least in terms of the cinematographic message and poetic veneer” (Prologue to the book El cartel de cine cubano [Cuban Film Posters], Editorial El Gran Caid, Madrid, 2004).

With over 20,000 works (by ICAIC alone), Cuban film posters became an extraordinary heritage of imagination and creative skill, as well as commitment to the same form of reproduction: screen printing on 51 x 76 cm paper. This technique, which was incorporated into film advertisement in Cuba by Eladio Rivadulla around 1940, continues to give our posters a mark of distinction. In a completely manual and almost archaic way, posters have continued to be printed at the same workshop for more than 60 years, and new designers come to that site as pilgrims to a sanctuary. A powerful force that stems from true respect, makes today’s young poster designers followers of the tradition.

The most illustrious forerunners, which are many and of wide-ranging worth, are headed by five magnificent poster designers: Eduardo Muñoz Bachs, Antonio Fernández Reboiro, René Azcuy, Antonio “Ñiko” Pérez and Alfredo Rostgaard. Together, they are responsible for many of the jewels of our Cuban film posters, each one of them with an unmistakable style. It is safe to say that every Cuban has a poster by any of these designers in their emotional memory—posters were always exhibited in the streets, and we made them enter our homes and offices to decorate our walls.

Cuban cinema today has other designers with proven talent, although less known. Moreover, both the city’s movie theaters and audiences have dwindled, while showings in private spaces—a widespread and irreversible trend in the world in our day—are not accompanied by posters, it has other heralds. The Cuban economy will have to grow a great deal to allow the country to foster a love for the darkened theater by bringing it closer to the viewer with modern, dynamic facilities. Nevertheless, we are still film lovers. So why give up, and be content only with our pride in this wonderful past? By preserving our valuable poster heritage and preventing their decline, current and future Cuban designers will continue to be inspired by what a critic of the stature of Steven Heller has said: “[The posters] are so conceptually stunning it is hard to believe they are advertising films. Movie posters are typically mired in clichéd imagery that unimaginative marketers believe will pique an audience’s interest. These Cuban film posters could never have been market tested or run through the typical approval wringer. If so, they would never look like this. Their very existence raises the question: Why are these Cuban posters so visually inventive?… And what a model of excellence these posters are for all to see—maybe even someone in Hollywood USA. Maybe someday, they’ll catch up with Cuban film posters” (Introduction to the book Soy Cuba: Cuban Cinema Posters from After the Revolution, by Carole Goodman and Claudio Sotolongo, Trilce Ediciones, Mexico City, 2011).

 

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