A revolution in photographs

Art: An exhibit at the Grimaldis of photos by Alberto Korda and Jose Figueroa depicts the changes Cuba has undergone

Fine Arts

February 08, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

It's difficult to view the photographs of Alberto Korda and Jose Figueroa at C. Grimaldis Gallery outside the context of the Cuban revolution and its aftermath.

Korda was for many years a sort of official photographer of the revolution and a privileged member of Cuban leader Fidel Castro's personal entourage.

The photographs he took of the Cuban leader and his associates during the first years after the revolution are masterful propaganda; in them, the benevolent dictator presides over the grateful masses.

Of course, there was a darker side to Cuba's revolutionary upheaval. Yet on the evidence of the pictures, it's impossible to tell whether Korda really believed in the communist utopia that was Castro's ostensible goal or whether he realized that it was likely to be corrupted by the very means adopted to achieve it.

Korda presents Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevarra as charismatic, larger-than-life figures, which they certainly were. The Cuban people themselves are represented almost solely in terms of popular militancy.

The most arresting photographs in the show invariably are those that show ordinary people either carrying guns or cheering on those who do.

There's a wonderful picture of a female revolutionary carrying her rifle at some official function, perhaps a parade or a rally. Her beauty serves to underline the implicit message that this is a society in the process of being thoroughly militarized from top to bottom.

Korda himself became a victim of ideological excess in 1968, when his commercial photo studio in Havana, along with all his negatives and prints from the pre-Castro era, was siezed and destroyed by revolutionary zealots who denounced their "capitalist" decadence.

The truth is that before the revolution Korda seems to have been mostly interested in beautiful women and Havana's wide-open night life.

His pictures from the pre-Castro era are mainly fashion shots using his wives or girlfriends as models.

Yet Korda didn't exile himself as did so many other Cubans after the communist takeover. He stayed on to document the new regime, and in the process created a persuasive paean to the revolution's early years.

Figueroa, a generation younger than Korda, was the latter's studio assistant for a time until the Korda studio was expropriated by the revolution.

Later, Figueroa became a photojournalist for a Cuban newsmagazine and began producing photo-essays to illustrate the official revolutionary line.

His pictures, however, are less epic portaits of leaders and masses than quiet studies of everyday life among ordinary Cubans who had decided to stay on the island and make the best of the new situation.

Figueroa's work has a piquancy and a quiet authority that owe almost nothing to politics and everything to the photographer's eye and the native genius of the Cuban people who are its subjects.

Sci-fi art on display

The Art Gallery of the University of Maryland at College Park is presenting "Possible Futures: Science Fiction Art from the Frank Collection" through March 4.

The exhibit presents 64 works of science fiction art, many of them created for the cover illustrations of paperback novels.

The paintings include "Newscast," a 1939 picture of a woman being mechanically transformed from "ordinary" to "beautiful," and 1950s-vintage landscapes of Earth's Moon and the planet Saturn.

All the works are from the collection of Howard and Jane Frank of Great Fall, Va., who have been collecting science fiction art and books for more than 30 years.

For more information about the show call the UMCP Art Gallery at 301-405-2763 or visit its Web site at www.inform.umd.edu/ArtGal.

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