On the acquisition stories of Cuban art at the Kupferstich-Kabinett 28. February 2024

The fate of Cuban culture depends on the fate of the revolution. Therefore: Defending the revolution is equivalent to defending culture.

Gert Caden [Einführung], in: Grafik aus dem neuen Cuba, Ausst.-Broschüre Museum für Deutsche Geschichte, Berlin-Ost 1961, Berlin 1961, o. S. – Zum Zitat des Aufsatztitels: deutsche Übersetzung »Wir sind der Welt ein Beispiel«, Titel des Plakats eines unbekannten kubanischen Künstlers im Dresdener Kupferstich-Kabinett, Inv.-Nr. A 1963-25.

This combative call to action ends the introduction to a brochure published in 1961 for the first exhibition of Cuban artists in Grafik aus dem neuen Cuba (Graphic art from the new Cuba) in the Museum of German History in East Berlin. Cultural relations were intended to support the GDR’s efforts to gain recognition from other countries as an independent, sovereign state. Revolutionary Cuba was an ideal partner for this; diplomatic relations commenced in 1963.1 As a result, the way that had been paved with exhibitions like that mentioned above was continued at a political level.

1 Vgl. Marcus Kenzler, Der Blick in die Welt. Einflüsse Lateinamerikas auf die Bildende Kunst der DDR, Berlin 2012, S. 116–118.

The small collection of just under 70 Cuban artworks in Dresden’s Kupferstich-Kabinett exemplifies the impact of cultural policy on the collecting activities of GDR museums. They came to be part of the collection in three different ways during the 1960s. Inspired by the preparations for the Revolutionary Romances exhibition in the Albertinum, for which planning began in autumn 2020, and which examines artistic ties between the GDR and the countries of the Global South, more light is now being shed on this collection. The fact that it received little attention is also apparent from a conservational perspective: Until now, most of these works had been stored loose in folders or rolled up as bundles under the heading ‘Not displayed’.

The acquisition documents reveal that the first two batches were probably received for diplomatic rather than art history considerations. Lea Grundig (1906–1977), at the time Professor of Graphic Art at the University of Fine Arts in Dresden, likely brought numerous graphic prints back to Dresden from a trip to Cuba and donated them to the Kupferstich-Kabinett.2 Most of the works deal with the revolution. In 1962, she wrote the following Werner Schmidt (1930–2010), the then Director of the Kupferstich-Kabinett:

Please find attached the list of the Cuban graphic prints I am donating to you. It is with great pleasure that I do so and hope they will help to strengthen our cordial ties to revolutionary Cuba and the friendship between our nations through art.3

The list comprises 65 works by 27 artists. However, Werner Schmidt only chose ten works and replied to Lea Grundig as follows:

You must understand that we can only accept what we consider, to the best of our knowledge, the most artistically important works into our collection, to give an impression of Cuban graphic art at its best.4

2 The chronological correlation between Lea Grundig's journey and the donation to the Kupferstich-Kabinett suggests that she brought these prints back from Cuba.
3 Lea Grundig to Werner Schmidt, 26.9.1962, Archiv der Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden (SKD), 02/KK 63, Bd. 1, o. Bl.
4 Werner Schmidt to Lea Grundig, 6. 2. 1963, ebd.

What is revealing about the selection is that it includes two monumental woodcut prints, 280 cm in width, which probably impressed Schmidt both based on their size and their expressiveness. The woodcut mural Zur Erinnerung an den 26. Juli (Remembering 26 July) by Lesbia Vent Dumois (*1932), comprising eight wood blocks, shows the rebel military camp in the Sierra Maestra.5 The white contours of the depiction contrast with the deep black surface; in the foreground, a large militiaman can be seen with the revolutionary flag. As a patch on his uniform shirt shows, it is Camilo Cienfuegos, one of the leading revolutionaries and commanders of the rebel army after Che Guevara, Fidel and Raul Castro.

5 SKD, Kupferstich-Kabinett, Inv.-Nr. A 1963-21.

The second woodcut, by Umberto Peña Carriga (*1937), is thematically and formally influenced by the art of Pablo Picasso in the 1930s, and in particular Picasso’s 1937 large-format painting Guernica. The work entitled Las Dictaduras en America is an allegorical depiction of the rebels’ struggle against dictator General Batista.

Probably influenced by Mexican murals, these monumental woodcuts were created as a rapidly and inexpensively reproducible method and were used for political agitation as in Mexico. Displayed on the walls of schools and gathering places, they were intended to promote the goals of the revolution.6

6 Vgl. Gerhard Pommeranz-Liedtke, Die Revolutionäre »Asociación de Grabaderos de Cuba«, in: Kubanische revolutionäre Graphik, Dresden 1962, S. 5–28, hier S. 12.

The Kupferstich-Kabinett received another donation of Cuban graphic art in 1965. The Association of Visual Artists (VBK) of the GDR handed over 31 woodcuts (one was presented subsequently) by Carmelo González Iglesias (1920–1990), Professor at the Art College of Havana, and one of the most important representatives of revolutionary art, to the Directorate-General of Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. The latter passed them on to the Kupferstich-Kabinett.7

7 It can be assumed that this donation was also arranged by Lea Grundig, who had been chairwoman of the VBK since 1964.

Once again, Werner Schmidt wrote to the Directorate-General, expressing his reluctance to accept the donation and referencing the difficulty of storing these woodcuts, which were also large in format:

I do not think it is right that all 30 woodcuts should be part of our collection as the works would only be rolled up in our depot and it would be almost impossible to give even to visitors to the study room access to them as there are no cardboard backings large enough for these woodcuts.8

8 Werner Schmidt to the General Directorate, 28.10.1965, Archiv der SKD, 02/KK 68, S. 103.

In the same letter, he suggested keeping just ten of the works and distributing the rest to the other collections of graphic art in the GDR. However, a few days later he withdrew his suggestion as he had noticed “that the woodcuts were to be considered part of a continuous series, from which it would be difficult to separate individual works.”9 He also noted that the donation had already been mentioned in the Cuban press, and then added the works to the collection. The strikingly long and very narrow portrait format of these woodcuts was for propaganda purposes, not only in their realistic depiction but also in the eye-catching poster format. Besides the revolutionary struggles of the Cuban people, their subjects include concepts for an ideal society: workers, sugar cane farmers, teachers or happy families with father, mother and child.10

9 Werner Schmidt to the General Directorate, 9.11.1965, ebd., S. 106.
10 From July to September 1975, the Gemäldegalerie Neue Meister organised a solo exhibition of paintings, drawings and prints of Carmelo González Iglesias.

The last addition of Cuban art – for the meantime – was a combination of donation and acquisition and is dated 1969. It was both an official occasion and a private matter. In May 1969, the Cuban embassy in East Berlin passed on an invitation from the National Cultural Council of the Republic of Cuba to Christian Dittrich (1934–2016), curator at the Kupferstich-Kabinett in Dresden from 1964 on, to support the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes Habana in its research and to hold lectures on Rembrandt at the university. He referred to himself as “the first European art historian who came to Cuba after the revolution [...].”11 In his travel application to the Directorate-General, he also justified the invitation by writing that it was made “based on a long-standing cooperation with Cuban art scholars who studied here in the GDR and with whom I maintain an academic exchange.”12 Unofficially, his stay involved his wedding to Consuelo Meza-Paz – a Cuban colleague he had come to know during an internship the former student of art history at the Humboldt-Universität Berlin did at the museums in Dresden.

11 Christian Dittrich, travelogue, 6.11.1969, Archiv der SKD, 02/KK 204, o. Bl.
12 Christian Dittrich, travel application, 28.5.1969, ebd.

During his visit from 9 August to 14 September 1969, Dittrich assessed in particular the museum’s graphic collection, specified attributions and dates of European works and advised on the system for arrangement and storage of the collections. He also visited many other museums as well as institutions and graphic design workshops and gained an overview of contemporary Cuban art by touring galleries and studios. With the support of the National Cultural Council of Cuba, Dittrich was able to purchase some graphic prints, and received others as gifts from the artists. After his return, these 21 graphic prints were added to the collection of the Kupferstich-Kabinett.

Dittrich’s selection differs from the previous donations, being more varied in form and content. The works include both abstract art and bold colours as well as figurative and realistic lithographs and woodcuts in black and white. This collection is entirely devoid of revolutionary motifs.

He also brought many silkscreen-printed film posters back to Dresden. It is astonishing that they were not added to the inventory at the time, as Dittrich highlighted their formal quality, which was inspired by pop-art:

Especially the ICAIP film posters (the Cuban film distributor) are exceptionally colourful and rich in interplay of shapes, so that almost every poster seems worthy of collecting. It is actually a pity that these artistically significant serigraphs, generally printed in small runs, are only intended for short-term use. Their loss is doubtless also a loss of part of contemporary Cuban art, as they make an independent contribution, even more so than traditional woodcuts and conservative lithography.13

Dittrich’s acquisitions were the last additions of Cuban art to the Kupferstich-Kabinett collection, with the exception of three individual works which were later added to the inventory.14 The last work received – the only drawing in the collection – was a gift to Erich Honecker on his state visit to Cuba in 1980. The 1976 work by René Portocarrero (1912–1985) shows the head of a young woman in profile, overgrown by a sea of colourful flowers. It bears no resemblance to the new political dawning evident in the graphic art of the 1960s.

13 Vgl. Christian Dittrich, Kubanische Kunstnotizen. Im Museo Nacional, in der Experimentierwerkstatt für Graphik und in Künstlerateliers von Havanna zu Besuch, in: Dresdener Kunstblätter 15 (1971), Nr. 4, S. 122–125, Nr. 6, S. 170–177, hier S. 173.The film posters were inventoried in the course of the research for this article in May 2020.
14 SKD, Kupferstich-Kabinett, Inv.-Nrn. C 1981-231 (Zeichnung von René Portocarrero), A 1983-53 und A 1983-54 (Lithografien von Rafael Zarza).

In the context of decolonial investigations focusing on the art of the Global South, collections like that presented here become increasingly relevant, perhaps for the first time. As an ambassador for cultural policy, art was collected in the GDR for political motivations, rather than choosing based on quality criteria as would have been the case had those involved had the freedom of choice. Today, however, the Cuban collections in the Kupferstich-Kabinett are an exemplary demonstration of the influence of contemporary events on collection activities: the influence of political frameworks and personal relationships, of government-commissioned art and highly personal ‘revolutionary romances’.

* The author would like to thank Consuelo Dittrich for the interviews and important information.

This text was first published in issue 3/2020 of Dresdener Kunstblätter.

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