Graphic arts emerged as the artistic result of the invention of the printing press, a technological advance that would contribute to creation of more informed and aware societies and citizens. The term “graphic arts” includes various forms, such as lithography, collagraphy, silkscreen, etchings in relief and photography. It is an art form expressed through ink and impression.

A survey of the mark made by the graphic arts in the Caribbean requires, as Alonso Lorea states, a recognition that the visual arts in the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico – in the middle of the 1920s – advanced toward modernity at a similar pace to other intellectual processes that took shape in Latin America. Influenced by the artistic trends out of Europe, Mexico and the United States, artists in the Spanish-speaking Antilles established a creative form that fused imported avant-garde influences with local, popular elements, thus creating an unusual artistic language.

In the history of graphic arts in the Caribbean, some of the most outstanding examples of this form of art are found in Cuba and Puerto Rico. For example, the poster movement in Puerto Rico went beyond local fame to find a spot on the international artistic map, both for its contributions and for the caliber of its artists. The Puerto Rican Digital Library asserts that some accounts say the poster in Puerto Rico emerged along with the arrival of the printing press, in approximately 1806, with the production of promotional posters and flyers, while others say that the Puerto Rican tradition of poster making began in the 1930s.

Puerto Rican graphic arts developed and grew in the 1950s through centers such as the Community Education Division (known as Divedco), the Center for Puerto Rican Art (known as CAP, for its Spanish acronym) – the entity responsible for the first graphic arts portfolio: La estampa puertorriqueña − and the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture’s Workshop, where artists developed a range of techniques including silkscreens, illustrations, wood engravings, linoleum reliefs, portfolios and posters. Artists recognized for their work, such as Lorenzo Homar, Carlos Raquel Rivera, Félix Bonilla Norat and Antonio Maldonado – to mention just a few from a long list – focused on images that spoke of Puerto Rico through political, cultural and social discourses.

Later, beginning in the 1960s, artists broke from the Puerto Rican norms to base their works on expressionist and surrealist trends, among others. Over time, other famed creative nuclei were formed, such as the Taller Alacrán − founded in 1968 by Antonio Martorell − and the Taller Bija − established in 1970 by artist Rafael Rivera Rosa − from which works by artists such as Nelson Sambolín and Carmelo Sobrino would emerge.

Ramírez emphasizes that the shape of graphic arts went through a change in the 1980s and 1990s due to a renewed interest in the visual language of photography, painting, installation art, the internet and digital images. These changes did not necessarily mean that graphic arts disappeared, however. On the contrary, graphic arts grew stronger and fed the new techniques that redefined them.

An example is the work of Dominican architect Belkis Ramírez. Despite being known mainly as an installation artist, she decided to incorporate language and graphic techniques into her body of work. In Ramírez’s work, in which a feminine universe rules, the engraving has its own separate identity that unfolds to converse with the installation.

The poster: awakening nationalities

Few forms of art go beyond the boundaries of artistic centers – such as galleries and museums – in the same way as the poster does in the daily life of the community. This artistic message, an announcement located in public spaces, gets its identity from the combination of the image and the written word.

This democratization of art was born in Europe in the middle of the 19th century, according to Tió. In Puerto Rico, beginning in 1946, it came to be used as an advertising medium not for bombarding the public, but rather to show a desire to represent images of the national discourse. A discussion of the Puerto Rican tradition of posters must include a review of Divedco, which was a division of the Public Education Department. Its beginnings date to an initiative by Luis Muñoz Marín, the first elected Puerto Rican governor, after meeting with artists Edwin Rosskam and Jack Delano.

Beyond art, education and public health were the centerpieces of the project, which impacted communities through the creativity of a solid group of artists such as Puerto Ricans Lorenzo Homar, Rafael Tufiño, Isabel Bernal, Antonio Maldonado and Irene Delano from the United States, to mention a few. The importance of voting and other issues, such as healthy practices, were taken to 1,200 Puerto Rican communities battered by unemployment, illiteracy and poverty. Iconic posters advertised the movies produced by Divedco, which in turn were evidence of a prolific era in Puerto Rican cinema.

Beginning in 1957, another facet of the posters took form through the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture’s Graphics Workshop, where posters were created about a wide range of cultural events, including theatrical performances, literary competitions and contests in art forms such as traditional carvings of saints. Because of these efforts, the poster tradition played a promotional role in affirming Puerto Rican traditions and daily life.

In Puerto Rico, the development of posters as an art form responded to the island’s political and social evolution. Tió showed that the protest poster originated in the late 1960s and in the 1970s, when the country began to counterpoise local and global volatility. There was a surge of posters that raised a voice graphically against the presence of the U.S. Navy in Culebra, one of Puerto Rico’s small islands, and others that confronted issues such as Puerto Rico’s colonial status and strikes by students and workers.

In Cuba, meanwhile, poster art addressed culture and politics in similar measure. Morales Campos asserts that poster artists during the Republic (1902-1958) were influenced by art deco and cubism, among other visual arts movements. That being the case, the poster in Cuba, as part of a blunt artistic discourse, focused on advertising, promoting shows and cultural events, and election campaigns. As expected, with this kind of work, the messages were subject to the needs of the customers who paid for the creation of the art and its reproduction.

During the 1960s, the Cuban government supported engraving and graphic design workshops to spread its messages and ideology. These posters created by Cuban artists Raúl Martínez, René Azcuy, Félix Beltrán, Umberto Peña, Alfredo Rostgaard and Spanish artist Eduardo Muñoz, who was living in Cuba, combined politics and culture.

According to De Juan, the movie poster played a leading role in Cuba and came to be considered a specific “school” because of its stylistic elements. For example, the text – printed or drawn – that was incorporated into the image, the integration of the photography and the use of color were all used by the artists to express an interpretation of the film presented by the poster.

Cultural institutions such as the Casa de las Américas were involved in much of the artwork of the Cuban poster tradition. Graphic designer Alfredo Rostgaard was responsible for creating one of the most emblematic works that was produced by that cultural center. The work, which announced the 1967 Protest Song Festival, is a tremendous example of the symbolic force that can be found in a drawing and its colors. In this case, a rose embodies the culture, while a drop of blood, coming from one of its thorns, represents the power each human being has to protect it.

History made into image

Another way to view the course of history, apart from words, is through photography. Beyond artistic considerations, images have served as witness to urban and community evolution, or simply as a portrait of daily life that in the future will show us the past.

The Caribbean is no exception, and its photographers tell a story of social change. Weyland notes that the colonial situation is one topic of this documentary art. Weyland quotes Thompson as noting that in the late 19th century more than 25 books of photos were published about Cuba, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands for the purpose of showing them as U.S. possessions.

These photographs formed a description of the resources of these so-called “new possessions.” Anyone who saw them had an idea of the economic and geopolitical potential of the Caribbean territories.

But while photography can have a certain agenda, there are other lenses that helped to understand a country better. Such is the case with the work of Hungarian-American photographer Jack Delano, who worked for the History Section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and in 1941 began documenting the living and working conditions of the rural communities of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. His photographic contributions to Puerto Rico did not end there, however, as Delano won a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation and created a book of photos about the island that he and his wife, Irene Delano, adopted as their home.

In Puerto Rico, his legacy transcends the art of photography as he contributed to the full range of cultural life, from the production of educational films for Divedco to writing music for those films. In the late 1970s, Delano won a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and created a portrait of Puerto Rico in the 1980s to compare it with the Puerto Rico his lens captured in the 1940s. Various exhibitions and books such as Puerto Rico mío: cuatro décadas de cambio were, therefore, sequels to his photography project.

Photojournalism, of course, is one of the most important contributors to historiography anywhere in the world. In the Caribbean, specifically in the Dominican Republic, Bernard Diederich, a journalist from New Zealand, set the goal of bringing an end to the dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo through the use of text and photography. Through the pages of the book, Una cámara, testigo de la historia, Diederich created a visual chronicle of the Dominican Republic from 1951 to the time of the revolution in April, 1965.

But few photographs reach the level of myth, such as the one take by Cuban photographer Korda (pseudonym for Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez) of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Guerrillero heroico is the name of the portrait, which has become both an ideological icon and has been printed on T-shirts, handbags and other pop culture accessories.


Author: Carmen Graciela Díaz
Published: December 26, 2011.

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