Images as revolutionary art

Grimaldis exhibit examines influence of uprisings on artists

Art Column

April 09, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The Americas witnessed only a handful of successful agrarian revolutions during the 20th century, most notably those that occurred in Mexico during 1910-1920 and in Cuba from 1956-1959. Both left an indelible mark on the hemisphere both politically and artistically.

In Mexico, the ideals of the revolution were immortalized in the grand frescos of painters like Diego Rivera, David Sequeiros, Jose Clemente Orozco and others of the great school of Mexican muralists.

In Cuba, by contrast, the triumph of the revolution was documented primarily by photographers, among them Alberto Korda and Jose Figueroa, two seminal photographers of the era whose work was the subject of a fascinating and historically significant exhibition at C. Grimaldis Gallery two years ago.

Korda, who photographed the early days of the revolution and who took the heroic photograph of Ernesto "Che" Guevarra that became one of the world's most recognizable images when it was reproduced on everything from posters to T-shirts and coffee mugs, is today regarded as a national treasure by his government.

Figueroa, a generation younger than Korda, worked as a photojournalist for leading Cuban magazines and produced an equally memorable body of work that sensitively documented the day-to-day lives of ordinary Cubans after the revolution.

Now Grimaldis has mounted another show of Cuban photography, this time featuring more than 75 works by the legendary Raul Corrales, who, like Korda, photographed the revolution from its earliest days, and a younger photographer known as Gory, who conveys his sharp impressions of contemporary life on the island with wry humor and a piquant postmodernist twist.

Corrales' pictures have the grand sweep of Mexican mural painting, presenting the historic events of the revolution as a political morality play in which the masses overthrow their oppressors under the charismatic leadership of Cuban president Fidel Castro. Corrales' picture of Castro's triumphant entry into Havana at the head of a ragtag rebel army packs the emotional punch of such iconic images as Washington crossing the Delaware or Gen. Douglas MacArthur's return to the Philippines.

Like Korda, Corrales presents Castro and Guevarra as larger-than-life figures and the Cuban people as enthusiastic followers ready to endure any sacrifice to defend their movement. And like Korda, Corrales' most arresting photographs often show ordinary people either carrying guns or cheering on those who do, making the photographs revolutionary paeans to armed struggle.

This is surely how Cuba's desperately poor rural and urban dwellers wished to see the early days of the revolution after the overthrow of the corrupt, decades-long dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, and the pictures were cunningly employed as propaganda by the new government.

Corrales' images functioned as the modern equivalent of history painting, reflecting the boundless optimism and hope for a better future of those heady days, which even now are hard to resist despite all that we know of the grim realities of Communist rule that followed.

What keeps these pictures from being mere propaganda is the moral authority of Corrales' artistic vision, which although it appears to overlap seamlessly with that of the political leadership, in fact owes far more to a poetic sense of light and shadow and an intuition for the decisive moment than to ideology. Ultimately, Corrales' pictures convince because they seem to come straight from the heart, and that is the source of their enduring value.

Gory, by contrast, seems as little interested in politics as Corrales was obsessed by it. Skillfully employing a technique that involves coloring black-and-white photographs with selenium and blue toners, Gory's images of contemporary Cuba poke gentle fun at the surreal juxtapositions of old and new left in the revolution's wake.

I Saw Her Standing There (1994), for example, depicts a miraculously preserved life-size cut-out of Marilyn Monroe next to a store window filled with decorative knickknacks and adorned with credit card logos - a slyly subversive pictorial commentary suggesting, perhaps, that even the most fervid revolutionary movements eventually must make their peace with these ubiquitous symbols of capitalist consumption.

The show runs through May 4. The gallery is at 523 N. Charles St. Hours are Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Sunday 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Call 410-539-1080.

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