Posters are products of the industrial era, and rapidly became a medium of dissemination, not only in manufacturing but in all walks of life of life. This artistic genre has given rise to visual, cultural, ideological, and autonomous discourses. In Puerto Rico, poster-making began to develop in the late 1940s and flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. Since then, there has been a significant steady production in the medium, which has kept this visual form alive. Our artists have used their poetic perspectives to allow our society to demarcate and reinterpret important events in Puerto Rican life. This has had the positive effect of enabling our people to maintain, and at times to recover, our historical memory. In fact, the poster has become a formative instrument of our particular psyche and has helped to sustain the values that distinguish us, while not discounting positive influences from abroad.
As with other Latin American countries, the negative experiences we have suffered from the time of the European occupation until the present have forced us to sustain an attitude of vigilance. In many instances a spirit of resistance has developed while diversity strategies have been adopted. Frequently, economic, political, religious, and other interests have been somewhat successful in their attempts to virtually eradicate any memory of the past, as for example, as has happened with regard to pre-Colombian cultures. A case in point is that the theoretical rescue of the customs of these groups has been largely based on their archeological remains. When we look back into our history, we become aware of the importance of keeping records in forming a collective vision of who we are. Art thus becomes an absolutely essential element of dissemination. In the Puerto Rican context, the poster became part of the first line of defense of the ethos that defines us.
The circumstances of daily life are constantly producing situations that undermine the coherence of our community. We share with the international community the experience of novel situations that require shared solutions. Puerto Rico cannot remain aloof from these circumstances and as at other critical moments, we need to act to preserve our cultural achievements. When we consider the role the arts in Puerto Rico during the 20th century, we observe that the poster has been present in all aspects of our lives, although it has had a very particular place in the development of our visual arts as it became a widely-used form.
Among other functions, the systematic practice of poster-pasting provided the practicioners of this form with experimental possibilities that allowed their insertion in the esthetic currents of their times. The development of the poster opened the way not only for participation in isms, still in vogue, but also to establish connections with the effervescence of new currents in post-World War II New York and Europe, influences which continue to be felt to this day.
The poster is a multi-faceted art form: it originates an advertisement or an announcement, later being transformed into a historical document. And, if its aesthetic quality stands the test of time, it is ingrained in the imaginary of the collective memory. A topic that is yet to be explored is how these artists were able to interest the general public in vanguard expressions of the time. In Puerto Rico, the pioneering workshops in this regard were at the Community Education Division (1949) and the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, both of which were government institutions, part of official efforts directed at developing educational and cultural campaigns to improve the quality of all aspects of life. By the end of the 1950s, a political trend arose, which include the Galería Campeche (1959-1962), under the direction of Domingo García. As the trend grew, other workshops flourished, such as Bija, Alacrán, Quinqué, El Seco, Cangrimán, and others.
The Museum of the University of Puerto Rico and the Office of Cultural Activities at that institution created collections of posters that were distributed on the campus. These have had a significant impact on generations of students, but because of their more restricted dissemination, thet have been less influential than the other workshops. In addition, the Museo de Arte de Ponce, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and events such as the Casals Festival, the Claridad newspaper festival, bomba and plena festivals and the Heineken Jazz Festival have also contributed to poster production, and there have been significant private, commercial, and municipal government initiatives.
In 1978, the Puerto Rican Endowment for the Humanities (the FPH) came into being at a critical moment for the art of poster-making in Puerto Rico, since official support had subsided. At that time the board of directors and the first executive director of the FPH, Arturo Morales Carrión, made the wise decision of announcing each project with a poster. This initiative in the development of poster-making drew in artists from all over the island as well as established figures with a view to continuing with the evolution of the medium. The effect was a reaffirmation of the importance of the medium among the general public, and in many cases, the production of posters that have set standards.
The exponents of this medium have incisively selected images that create awareness of social, political, cultural, economic, and environmental issues for Puerto Ricans. The poster as it has been used in our circumstances has been converted into an effective means for garnering the attention of significant sectors of the population. FPH-sponsored posters for the projects it funds have contributed to increasing community awareness of issues that affect us in different ways while constituting permanent reminders of the ideas that have been expressed in activities, which by their nature are ephemeral. The material survival of the poster is a resource for perpetuating efforts that should not be forgotten. Thus, the visual and literary content of these advertisements are also calls to action or heightened awareness, making the poster an ideal means for achieving and maintaining contact with social and spiritual values. At times, these words provide essential guidance for an appreciation of the values that identify a community. In addition, the poster has been a means for denouncing all sort of injustice.
For many of those who work in this medium, the poster is a way of maintaining a distinct ethos, sustaining national coherence. This thrust has been consolidated by the presence of the FPH in Puerto Rico. Artists have resonated with a historic process to mobilize the minds of their fellow citizens in the consolidation of a general spirit. We have stated that the poster is in the first instance a means of dissemination, which is later transformed into a historical document, and that it is in this latter function that it nourishes the collective memory. Yet a poster maintains its contemporaneity when it becomes widely recognized, and its aesthetic presence reinforces its currency with the passage of time. Subject to the criticism of later generations, frequently a poster will arouse the sensibilities of the viewer regarding certain topics, reinforcing the persistence of their awareness.
In Puerto Rico, where poster making is one of the most important means of artistic expression, the cultivation, conservation and exhibition of the medium is a well-spring of feeling. It is a tradition that has served, among other things, to maintain the continuity of our distinguishing features. The medium has awakened feelings that bring us into contact with the spiritual process of the hemisphere. In its early days, it played a role similar to that of Mexican muralism, a movement that caught the attention of the world, making the transformations of the Mexican Revolution comprehensible. Analogously, the poster in Puerto Rico stirred patriotic sentiment among the people. Our country has been represented in many international exhibitions by our poster makers.
The driving forces behind the dissemination of the poster medium were the Commonwealth government (1952) under the leadership of Luis Muñoz Marín, along with the Nationalst uprising of 1950, accompanied by the effervescence of this movement headed by Pedro Albizu Campos. These events focused worldwide public opinion on the situation of Puerto Rico and were in fact closely related, as the failed uprising was a consequence of the new political relationship in the making. Poster-pasting was used by separatist activists to disseminate their ideas, and later activists intensified the use of the medium. It was also important at the time to consolidate a means for making our presence felt in the international community. There was diversity in these expressions, some of which were antagonistic to each other -an interesting subject for interdisciplinary study, since literature, film, theater, music, as well as visual arts thrived during this period.
The poster has the advantage of being reproducible ( the currency of a poster does not depend on the medium employed but rather is a function of its quality and the forcefulness of its message), and the number of copies that were published allowed for the medium to reach the most remote locations. Direct contact with people and the simultaneity of distribution made them effective; they were put up on power posts, on displays in stores, on bulletin boards in public and private schools, and on the walls in homes. Unlike other visual media that, to be contemplated, require the public to come to visit, the poster appears before the pedestrian when least expected. In the first instance, the poster owes its effectiveness in part because of this surprise factor.
The theoretician who most appropriately expressed the quality and power of our poster makers was the Spanish historian and art critic Juan Antonio Gaya-Nuño, who affirmed that this work had been created by “excellent painters.” This assertion is a reflection of his discernment, as it was precisely the excellent training that many of these artists had that lead them to capture images that resonate with Puerto Ricans at all levels. Formal education, along with knowledge of the psyche of their compatriots, allowed them to present significant events of the past and the present in a natural manner, the shared characteristic being their ability to convince and inspire.
A question that bears examining is how Puerto Rican artists were able to extract what they needed from the practical principles of the initiators of the genre in Europe and the Americas. In my view their initial achievement was their translation and adaptation of these principles to local circumstances. Without any conscious effort, they imparted a particular imprint to their work, since their individual styles were based on their vital circumstances. These artists knew that their work would be effective if it was grounded in an inspiring imaginary accompanied by brief and comprehensible texts; they were able to fuse words and plastic language to great effect. The result was that their work has had a deep impact on all sectors of society.
The telegraphic nature of these compositions allowed the artist to address issues of transcendental relevance to the nation, while also revealing the inner life of our people. It was necessary to reach into the past to rescue questions that had long been silenced. The visual messages of these works needed to reflect a simplicity that was analogous to their textual content. The economy of color and the immediacy of the image become the factors that guarantee the effectiveness of the work. In using the poster as an art form, only the most essential features are to be selected in order to capture the essential and eliminate the superfluous. The excellence of the work is grounded in the artist’s insight into the characterizations and issues being portrayed, deliberately directed at engraving them in our memory. Some time ago I became aware of the visionary function of these artists. Their work “…allows for the healing of existential wounds that time has conspired with the negligence of certain interests to leave unhealed.”
Another aspect that cannot be overlooked is that Puerto Rican artists since the 1950s have identified with a diversity of international aesthetic currents, although these artists did not divert their gaze from pressing circumstances and immanent experiences. Examples include the use of cubism in the posters of Rafael Tufiño and José Meléndez Contreras; and calligraphy (which he called “letrismo”) by Lorenzo Homar, who for a while was closer to synthetic cubism. Carlos Raquel Rivera and Luis Maisonet Crespo notably injected their own brand of surrealism, whereas Antonio Maldonado, Isabel Bernal, Eduardo Vera Cortés, and Manuel Hernández Acevedo were practitioners of social realism. Domingo García has been an outstanding exponent of expressionism, while pop art influences were developed by Rafael Rivera Rosa and Nelson Sambolín in the Bija workshop. Independent voices such as Antonio Martorell, Luis Alonso, José Alicea, and many others, have also been active.
If we were to create a retrospective catalogue of cultural, political, social, and other activities from the mid-20th century to the present, we would see that the poster has been a very effective means for recording these events. The function of a historical document has been added to its initial function as an advertisement, while the incisiveness of the medium resulting from the visual concepts of its creators is intact. The FPH has been a standard-bearer from its inception in recognizing the importance of the poster and possesses a substantial collection as evidence of this cultural contribution. The collection illuminates the historical and cultural reality of Puerto Rico from the time of the founding of the institution to the present.
Author: José Pérez Ruiz
Published: August 28, 2014.
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