A Revolutionary Project: Explorations of Cuba from Walker Evans to Now

Walker Evans, Havana Cinema, 1933

Walker Evans, Old Havana Housefronts, 1933

Walker Evans, Mule, Wagon and Two Men, Havana, 1933

Virginia Beahan, Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs), 2004

Virginia Beahan, Panaderia (Bakery), 2004

Alex Harris, 1951 Plymouth, Old Havana, 1998

Alexey Titarenko, Untitled, Havana, 2003

Alexey Titarenko, Dilemma, Havana, 2006

A Revolutionary Project: Explorations of Cuba from Walker Evans to Now

A Revolutionary Project: Cuba from Walker Evans to Now is a photographic exhibition recently on display at the Getty Museum. The collection of photographs looks at three critical periods in the nation’s history as witnessed by photographers before, during and after the country’s 1959 Revolution. Cuba’s attempt to forge an independent state has been a project under development for more than 100 years and a source of fascination for nations, intellectuals and artists alike.

The exhibition juxtaposes Walker Evans’s 1933 images from the end of the Machado dictatorship, with views by contemporary foreign photographers Virginia Beahan, Alex Harris and Alexey Titarenko, who have explored Cuba since the withdrawal of Soviet support in the 1990s. Walker Evans is one of the photographers most responsible for the way we now imagine American life in the 1930s. His distinctive photographic style was nurtured by New York in the late 1920s, but it was fully formed by his 1933 experiences in Cuba. The photographs that Evans made in Cuba reveal the influence of the French photographer Eugène Atget.

Virginia Beahan, Alex Harris and Alexey Titarenko are the three contemporary photographers in the exhibition, who look at Cuba in very different ways. In 2001, Virginia Beahan began a multiyear project on Cuba, photographing its topography in search of remnants of the island’s diverse past. Beahan’s Cuba is a land of contradictions, full of disappointments and hope, decay and rejuvenating beauty, simultaneously anchored to the past while looking beyond the present.

Through distinct vantage points, Harris probed the country’s propensity for ingenuity as it underwent great transition. His 1998-2003 photographs focus on three icons of the island, the American car, the beautiful woman and the revolutionary hero, as metaphors to explore the distortions with which Cubans and Americans see one another. Harris’s car photographs, for example, capture a view of Cuba through the American lens: imported U.S. cars that literally frame the way many Cubans see their island.

Alexey Titarenko’s 2003 photographs of life in Cuba depict people persevering amid varying states of ruin: collecting food rations, fixing long-outmoded cars or playing baseball. Titarenko was drawn to Cuba following years spent photographing his home town of Saint Petersburg, like Havana a once-grand city transformed by revolution and slow decay under Communist rule. Titarenko deliberately photographed Havana in much the same way he’d photographed his native St. Petersburg, as a communist kind of Cold War city that has suffered very much from the communist policies and communist rule. And so his black-and-white and very dusty gray imagery removes any spark, any color from Havana, which is in fact very colorful.

Alex Harris, Virginia Beahan, and Alexey Titarenko on Photographing Cuba‬

The Cuban Revolution

The Cuban Timeline: 1960-2008

Photo-Gallery: Explorations of Cuba from Walker Evans to Now

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Castro’s Cuba: Revolution unto Decay

Castro’s Resignation: Historic Change or Symbolic Act

Last Tuesday, Fidel Castro, who has been confined to his bed by illness for the last 19 months, gave up the almost unlimited power that he has wielded in Cuba for nearly 50 years. Although Castro’s statement wasn’t totally unexpected, it has received considerable attention in the media and from numerous American politicians. In his letter of resignation, the 81-year-old Fidel Castro reported that he was too ill to continue as head of state and would not stand in the way of others who were ready to take over. In the letter to the Cuban people written under his name, Castro said, “I am not saying goodbye to you. I only wish to fight as a soldier of ideas.”

However, it’s not clear whether his announcement truly represents a historic change, rather than simply a symbolic political act. For example, it was not clear what future role Fidel Castro might play in the new government, or whether he would retain other powerful positions, such as head of the Communist Party. Nevertheless, he did indicate that he was not yet ready to completely exit Cuba’s political stage.

His brother Raul, 76, officially has been named president, and some observers consider him to be more sensible and businesslike. In the past, Raul Castro has talked about bringing more accountability to government and possibly working to improve relations with the United States. Political analysts in the U.S. are saying that Raul Castro, will find himself under tremendous pressures to sustain his brother’s legacy, while at the same time trying to work to break it down and provide a measure of economic and political freedom for the Cuban people. However, long-time critics of the Castro regime claim that this change will do nothing to change the human rights situation, which continues to be unfavorable, or to end the one-party state.

In Havana, many of the older generation of Cubans who have maintained their admiration for Mr. Castro and his revolution, despite the crumbling conditions of the city, were disappointed by his announcement. However, it’s also being reported that members of the younger generation, who have become weary of what they saw as promises for a better life that never materialized, are hoping that there might be significant changes, although their hopes might be based more upon wishful thinking than on a realistic view of the political situation.

Cuba Under Fidel Castro’s Power

Castro first attracted attention in Cuban political life through his nationalist criticisms of Batista and United States corporate and political influences over Cuba. He began to attract an avid following, but also soon began to draw the attention of Cuban authorities. He eventually led the failed 1953 attack on the Moncada Barracks, after which he was captured, tried, incarcerated and later released.

He then traveled to Mexico to organize and train for the guerrilla invasion of Cuba, which took place in December 1956. The final phase of the Cuban Revolution occurred in January, 1959, and he assumed power immediately. Since that time, Castro has evoked both praise and condemnation (at home and internationally). Castro is frequently described by opponents as a dictator and accused of gross human rights violations, including the execution of thousands of political opponents, while his supporters have hailed Castro as the charismatic liberator of Cuba.

Domestically, Fidel Castro has overseen the implementation of a wide range of economic policies, which in turn led to the rapid centralization of Cuba’s economy: land reform, collectivization of agriculture and the nationalization of leading Cuban industries. The expansion of publicly funded health care and education has been a cornerstone of Castro’s domestic social agenda. Some credit these policies for improvements in the lives of Cuba’s citizens. Others, however, view Castro and his policies as being responsible for Cuba’s general economic depredation, and they harshly criticize him for the criminalization of political dissent and free speech, as well as for provoking hundreds of thousands of Cubans to flee the country. In addition, many have blamed his policies for the extremely decayed state of structures in Cuba’s cities, as well as for the appalling living conditions of many Cubans.

The first video presented below focuses on the 1959 Cuban Revolution, while the second one takes a follow-up look at Castro’s Cuba in 1964, five years after the revolution had taken place. The third video shows Earnest Hemingway’s home in Cuba and describes the serious state of disrepair into which it had fallen. The concluding photo-gallery contains photographs taken during the 1959 Cuban Revolution, as well as other striking photographs of the urban decay that prevails in much of Cuba today.

The 1959 Cuban Revolution

Fidel Castro’s Cuba in 1964

Finca Vigia or Lookout Farm was the only house that Hemingway ever owned outright. He bought it in 1940. From its full staff of servants to its secluded swimming pool, the finca fitted Hemingway like his favorite guayabera, the traditional Cuban shirt. But feeling devastated by the political upheaval of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, he abandoned his longtime home where he had lived in somewhat shabby baronial luxury at a 19th-century estate in San Franciso dePaula, 10 miles east of Havana. The writer and his fourth wife sailed from Cuba in July 1960, leaving behind the silver, Venetian glassware, eight-thousand books, a small collection of paintings (a Paul Klee, two Juan Gris, five Andre Masson, one Braque), along with 70 cats and at least nine dogs. Hemingway never returned.

Not too long ago, the finca and its contents were in serious decline. Conditions were so bad that the National Trust for Historic Preservation named it as one of its 11 most endangered landmarks in 2005, the only building outside North America to make the list. The roof leaked water into the interior walls, causing mold to grow throughout the house, which lacked basic climate controls like dehumidifiers. The foundation was shifting, the stucco was peeling and steps were crumbling. The property even lacked a modern security system.

For now, through a unique partnership of Americans and Cubans, the main house has undergone renovation and is said to be in good shape, but there’s still much work to be done. The swimming pool, Hemingway’s landlocked fishing boat and the Guest House all remain in a severe state of disrepair.

The Bell Tolls: Hemingway’s Cuban Home in Decay

Music/The Buena Vista Social Club:

Castro’s Cuba: Revolution and Decay

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Fidel Castro: The Cuban Revolution

Fidel Castro Assuming Power in 1959

Castro first attracted attention in Cuban political life through his nationalist criticisms of Batista and United States corporate and political influence over Cuba. He began to attract an avid following, but also soon began to draw the attention of the authorities. He eventually led the failed 1953 attack on the Moncada Barracks, after which he was captured, tried, incarcerated and later released.

He then travelled to Mexico to organize and train for the guerrilla invasion of Cuba, which took place in December 1956. The final phase of the Cuban Revolution occurred in January, 1959, and he assumed power immediately. Since that time, Castro has evoked both praise and condemnation (at home and internationally). Castro is frequently described by opponents as a dictator and accused of gross human rights violations, including the execution of thousands of political opponents, while his supporters have hailed Castro as the charismatic liberator of Cuba.

Domestically, Fidel Castro has overseen the implementation of various economic policies which saw the rapid centralization of Cuba’s economy: land reform, collectivization of agriculture, and the nationalization of leading Cuban industries. The expansion of publicly funded health care and education has been a cornerstone of Castro’s domestic social agenda. Some credit these policies for improvements in the lives of Cuba’s citizens. Others, however, view Castro and his policies as being responsible for Cuba’s general economic depredation, and harshly criticize him for the criminalization of political dissent, free speech, and provoking hundreds of thousands of Cubans into fleeing the country. On July 31, 2006, Castro temporarily transferred duties to his brother Raúl during an expected long recovery period due to serious intestinal surgery.

An interactive essay on the final days of the revolution can be viewed here: The Cuban Revolution

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