The multidisciplinary exhibition Cuba. Art and History from 1868 to Date presented at the Pavillon Jean-Noël Desmarais at the Musée des beaux-arts in Montreal, Canada, from Jan. 31 through June 8, 2008, generated a magnificent name-like publication. This exhibit of 328 artworks –penciled in as one of the most riveting cultural developments of recent years in that city– was organized by the National Museum of Fine Arts (MNBA is the Spanish acronym) and Cuba’s Photographic Library, both in Havana.

The curatorial project was theoretically based on a journey through the 19th and 20th centuries that, stressing on the formation and strengthening processes of our national identity, embraced some 200 exhibitors from the MNBA, representative of the four historical periods we have divided our study goal. “Colonial Art” from the 16th to the 19th centuries, a stage in which it’s easily to trace the dawn of that identity process in painting and engraving by the hand of landscapes and traditional scenes; “Turn of the Century” from the late 19th century to the first decades of the 20th century, characterized by the prevalence of a traditional discourse in such topics as portraits, landscapes, still life and social themes that reveal the advance toward a more updated language in both painting and drawing; “Modern Art” from 1927 to 1963, a period in which a crystallization of the co-called new art trends in painting, drawing, engraving and sculpture is seen as an unprecedented of inquiring about the Cuban character. The evolution that came later on flows into the 1950s with the coming of diverse abstractionist trends.

And finally, the diverse visual work of the “Contemporary Art” the last four decades of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century. The start of this historic period is decisively marked by a return to figuration alongside the prevalence of such trends as abstractionism and pop art. Its ulterior development comprised other artistic trends like photorealism and more current trends such as conceptualism, minimalism and postmodernism, among others, expressed through painting, drawing, engraving, posters, sculpture, installations, photography and video art.

The exposition was divided in five huge sections: Cuba Images in the search of a national expression (1868-1927); New Art, avant-garde and recreation of an identity (1927-1938); A Cuba style, affirmation and consolidation (1938-1959); For the Revolution, everything, against the Revolution, nothing (1959-1979) and Revolution and me, the individual and history (1980-2007).

The most outstanding thematic lines in this lengthy essay on the goings of the Cuban art home in on the different forms of expression of the Cuban identity. The search for the roots commences with landscapes and historic themes, followed by the visual character of modernism expressed by the heavy influence of Mexican murals, social realism and apprehension for history, myths, different cultures and the universal concerns of the human being.

The curatorial process of the exhibit took more than three years of collaboration and was directed by Nathalie Bondil, director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, together with Stéphane Aquin, contemporary art curator in that Canadian institution, and both assisted by Ileana Cepero, a freelance curator. The trio conceived an interdisciplinary project together with the team of curators from Cuba’s MNBA, under the leading coordination of Hortensia Montero and curators Olga Lopez Nuñez, Ernesto Cardet, Roberto Cobas, Elsa Vega, Liana Rio and Corina Matamoros. Aylet Ojeda chipped in a major chronology while Rufino del Valle curated the thesaurus of Cuba’s Photographic Library. The publication contains the list of artworks, a biographic summary of the artists represented there and a selection of bibliographic references, the basis of the curatorial effort that were eventually enhanced in different expression variants of the Cuban culture.

Made up by over a hundred paintings, a similar number of posters, 200 pictures and archival documents, over 30 installations and videos and movie clippings, thanks to the collaboration with such Cuban institutions as the Havana City Historian Office, the Jose Marti National Library, the National Fine Arts Council, the Center for the Development of the Visual Arts and the Cuban Institute of Moviemaking Industry (ICAIC), among others. Little more than 40 contributions were sent from Europe and America, among private and public institutions that kindly lent their collections in a bid to guarantee the deployment of different stages and profiles related to this museological conception.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, offered “Hurricane” by Mario Carreño and “Rooster” by Mariano Rodriguez; a private collection from Chicago lent “Mofumba” by Wifredo Lam, plus a painting on paper contributed by the George Pompidou Center and works from private collectors in Cuba and elsewhere. Likewise, major cultural centers like the New York Metropolitan Museum offered important compilations related to the Crime in Cuba series, featuring Walker Evans’ original pictures taken in Havana during the iron-fist rule of tyrant Gerardo Machado. Contemporary artists like Carlos Garaicoa, Manuel Piña and René Peña must be thanked as well for lending artworks of their own.

A remarkable mention goes to the May Exhibit mural, conducted in Havana in July 1967 when Cuba hosted the first presentation in the Americas of the 23rd May Exhibit thanks to the intervention and support provided by Wifredo Lam as an active player in this project. This addition clinched both the validity and relevance of a work carried out by a group of nearly a hundred painters, sculptors and writers from Europe, Latin America and Cuba and that eventually showcased one of the most important murals of the contemporary arts worldwide.

The concretion of the ambitious project entitled Cuba. Art and History…, turned into a major cultural development, laid bare the avant-garde artistic trends that transformed Cuba’s visual arts in the first decades of the 20th century and stood for a genuine renovating trend for the Latin American arts. In the same breath, it also bore out how Cuba’s current arts nourish on socio-cultural, religious, political, literary and artistic topics and imbricate the ties between art and society only to join the international artistic discourse without losing the consciousness of its own identity. Film showings were included and the exhibition propped on the sonority of Cuban music in an effort to further open the window of possibilities. The event also paved the way for the buttressing of the arts as cultural icons from a sustained promotional endeavor and the safeguarding of the national art’s history, thus underlining that culture is no doubt a valuable letter of introduction for friendship, fraternity and knowledge among the peoples.

Out of the critical and appreciating analysis of the publication –marked by formal virtuosity– the foremost element to underscore is its importance in the defense of our nation’s cultural heritage and the need to preserve the historic memory. The nature of the presentation can be inscribed in the interest of head curator Nathalie Bondil to include in the catalog a broad volume of information that goes far beyond the thesaurus previously presented and that was eventually enhanced through the addition of far more photographic documentation and critical texts penned by 20 intellectuals: Luz Merino, Ernesto Cardet, Roberto Cobas, Olga Lopez Nuñez, Corina Matamoros, Elsa Vega, Liana Rios, Hortensia Montero, Rufino del Valle, Timothy Barnard, Nathalie Bondil, Ambrosio Fornet, Rosa Lowinger, Gerardo Mosquera, Graziella Pogolotti, Jeff L. Rosenheim, Günter Schütz, Antonio Eligio Fernandez (Tonel), Ileana Cepero and Ramon Vazquez. Of course, this catalog and this exhibition would have never been possible without the hard work of numerous people linked to other fields.

The exposition unfolded in a chronological fashion the most significant pieces of the Cuban arts, equally contained in a spectacular 424-page book published in independent editions in English, French and Spanish. The leadership was in the hands of Natalie Bondil, a woman who always encouraged the possibility of making “North America harbors for the first time so many artworks to tell the story of the visual arts in such an extraordinary country as Cuba.”

This catalog has been recognized by the American Library Association (ALA) as one of the best books published in 2008 in the art book category. ALA gathers librarians and associations from around the world related to the realm of books. This opinion was endorsed by the high compilation of essays written by Cuban curators from the MNBA, other experienced experts from the turf and overseas, as well as 450 illustrations included in this volume.

To top it all off, from May 17 thru Sept. 20, 2009, a bridged version of the exhibition was mounted at the Groningen Museum in the Netherlands in which the NAi Uitgevers Publishers undertook the publication of the catalog in Dutch language. In this version, the cover picture features the image of Portrait of Mary by Jorge Arche, while in the other three the images boast The Intellectual by Marcelo Pogolotti, two icons of the national fine arts.

Cuba. Art and History from 1868 to Date, the exhibition and the book, stress how the arts can actually knock down barriers and prevail no matter what, this time around to show us the universe of a rich heritage whose nitty-gritty essence is the Cuban identity.