Cubism in Havana

/ 2 June, 2015

(…)It was not until the Salón de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Salon) in 1918 that, finally, there was an idea of what could be, in this case, the much-hackneyed futurism of which people generally talked combining it with cubism.

The Salon was the third and it was held in very favorable circumstances for the country. It was the beginning of the “fat years” and many artists came to the island attracted by its flourishing economic situation, and many were invited to take part in the event. One of them was North American Curtis Moffat, named “Moffat, the Cubist”1 by Social magazine. As time went by, he reached an exceptional place in the history of contemporary photography, but his presence in Cuba was in the prolegomena of his career as a painter. Born in Brooklyn, he had done his early studies on painting in New York and continued them, between 1913 and 1914, in the School of Fine Arts in Paris. In 1916, the date of his first exhibition in New York, he experimented with cubism and the work he brought to Cuba and exhibited in the already mentioned Salon belonged to this stage. It is interesting to know, as a curiosity, that Moffat, who in 1916 had married actress and poet Iris Tree, had his first son, Ivan, precisely in Havana, during this visit. In 1919 he returned to Paris, where he remained during the early 1920s, becoming involved with the main personalities of the literary and artistic avant-garde, particularly with those of the surrealist and Dadaist movements. During those years he began to seriously experiment with photography. That was the time of his collaboration with Man Ray, when many of the portraits made carried both of their signatures. From then on, he developed a surprising career in photography where, among other things, was a pioneer on setting out abstract compositions with the camera. Considered one of the most creative artists of North American art in the first decades of the 20th century, his photographic work was included in the famous MoMA exhibition Photography 1839-1937, and a large part of his photographic files is preserved in The Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Although his most important contributions are to be found in the area of photography, he also was a talented painter, promoter of modernist design in furniture and collector of Chinese and African objects.

He was in Havana right when he was excelling as an artist, and of his stay, unfortunately, very little is known. The works he exhibited in the Salon were identified in the catalogue with the following titles: Paisaje y figuras (Landscape and Figures), Proyecto decorativo(Decorative Project) and Entierro (Burial), of which no details were offered, unlike the one named Camposanto (Churchyard) which had the word “futurista” (futurist) as an appendix. With this information, of course, we can hardly speculate on the qualities and values of the paintings Moffat exhibited on the island, apart from the confusion created by recording one of them as futurist, while the comments on his works in the press insisted on their cubist nature.(…)

Unfortunately, there is no idea at all of how those paintings by Moffat were, but the holy word of Barros should have closed a discussion topic among Cubans that had not even been opened. When he said “Draw a veil of oblivion over these paintings by Mr. Curtiss Moffat,” that was what happened. In fact, there is a total void on this topic that was never mentioned again in the history of Fine Arts salons. If someone had the intention of seeing Moffat’s proposals with better eyes, he should have been questioned, called to follow the guidelines of the writer who recommended to everyone: “Look for spirituality, nobility and aesthetic poise in the other canvases in the Salon.”2

However, this was the first time that there was a visual testimony of modern painting in Cuba. (…)

  1. En Social, enero de 1918, p. 25.
  2. Barros, Bernardo G.: «El Salón de 1918», Revista de Bellas Artes, enero-marzo de 1918.

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