Havana Public Sculpture in the Painstaking Path of Modernization
Since in 1634 La Giraldilla was placed on the tower of the new construction in the Castle of the Royal Force – and the graceful figure became the first symbol of the city – Havana grew and consolidated in its monumental profiles as a sculptural city. The importance the Spanish government granted to public sculpture with the purpose of endorsing the symbolic dimension of its colonial power in an urban scale is perfectly well known. But the number of fountains and statues displayed in the main squares and avenues (especially throughout the 19th century) attests a very limited conception, yet, of environmental sculptural production.
Overcoming substantial distances among the pieces, in the last instance they were unified by the rigidity of the academic language with which they were created, and the improvisation with which their insertion in the environment was usually solved. The transit to the 20th century, closely associated with the new political status of the nation and the proclamation of the Republic on May 20, 1902, did not interrupt the upward presence of public sculpture in the urban space of the capital city and many were the oeuvres erected in the first half of the century, including great monumental systems set in the most important thoroughfares, as G or Avenida de los Presidentes Street, and the privileged symbolic space of the seafront (Malecón). In formal terms, however, an academic bent still prevailed, whose repetition in the Cuban soil was only the reflection of the stagnant taste of the clients and the aesthetic ideal of the creators, mostly foreigners and closely attached to neoclassical patterns. Apart from a handful of exceptions, there was barely chance for national artists; the few Cuban sculptors who were able to undertake works in the area of commemorative art – Juan Jose Sicre, Teodoro Ramos Blanco, Ernesto Navarro, Florencio Gelabert, Fernando Boada – had to settle for productions with a minor reach in various neighborhoods in the capital and with isolated commissions for funeral monuments in the Christopher Columbus Cemetery. (…)
The invaluable merit given to these oeuvres by national artists who, swerving the lack of commissions, as well as the taste of clients sticking to academic models and with an obvious favoritism for foreign firms, derives from the above. They were able to transmit to their punctual incursions into public sculpture a vocation of aesthetic renewal equivalent to that which since the end of the twenties was patently obvious in the avant-garde sector of pictorial production and drawing room sculpture. (…)
Under the protection of the postmodern perspective encouraging the highly praised (re)evaluation of the productions of our past, today we are better equipped to assess the value of this fertile legacy embracing everything: from works grabbing hold of the historicist cannons of European ascendance, almost always reproduced by foreign authors and on the fringes of their original contexts of reference, as well as others gradually encouraged by the modernizing eagerness of our public scene which stimulated the most daring of our sculptors. In any case, sculpture has been able to accompany this exemplary process of expansion, configuration and consolidation of profiles in Havana, endorsing with its multiple charms the seductive image of this great modern and monumental metropolis.