Charlie Chaplin once stated, “The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people.” Statements like this — along with the fact that Chaplin left the United States in 1952 after the FBI opened an investigation on him — have led plenty of people over the years to believe that Chaplin was probably a Communist.
The Hollywood star made an impact in Cuba, where the Instituto Cubano del Arte Industria Cinematograficos (ICAIC) produced many movie posters featuring the star. The Pasadena Museum of California Art and the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG) have teamed up for an exhibition that sheds light on the connection between graphic art, politics and film.
Featuring about 40 posters, “Hollywood in Havana: Five Decades of Cuban Posters Promoting U.S. Films” will be on display as part of the Getty’s 2017 project, Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA. The exhibit delves into the work of ICAIC and the connection between Cuba and the United States through film.
Not that it was easy for Cubans to watch movies during the revolution. Carol Wells, founder and executive director of CSPG, explains that some groups would find a generator and travel however they could — mule, boat, truck — in order to bring films to “some remote village” for viewing. They climbed up “rocky trails” and set up a sheet outside to project films such as Chaplin’s Modern Times. That film in particular made sense to screen, Wells explains, because it required no translation.
The Cuban revolution also meant that the ICAIC needed to work with very few materials to create the movie posters. The silkscreen posters, however, show that creativity flourished even under an embargo.
“Often they had to get very creative with one color or two colors,” Wells says. “There was a period where there wasn’t any of a certain color … because they just didn’t have it.”
But the designs also came from a desire to capture the essence of the film in a new way — using symbols and saturated colors rather than the faces of celebrities.
“The Cuban film posters don’t focus on the star at all — they focus on the concept, the design elements” Wells says. “One of my favorites is Moby Dick — the tail is totally art nouveau. It’s just the tail of the whale but done in [a] psychedelic [style], and it’s like it becomes its own art statement. Often the poster is better than the film, and people even joke about that in Cuba.”
"Psychedelic" very accurately describes the Moby Dick poster. Orange, red, yellow and pink stripes create a kaleidoscopic background for green letters spelling out the movie title. The letters expand and shrink to fit into the sharp black outline of a whale’s tail. The poster is a far cry from those that currently dot the streets of L.A.
Yet Hollywood’s stars left an impact on Cuban communities in a different way than they did back home. Chaplin became “the Everyman to identify with them” while Marilyn Monroe became the subject of a Cuban documentary. Those two stars are the ones whose faces actually do make it onto the posters.
For Wells, it's also interesting to think about why Cuban communities especially like specific U.S. shows and films. She argues that each film, at its very core, carries a political message that can be untangled by the viewer.
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“The MGM movie logo — the roaring lion — has in Latin around the circle around the lion 'ars gratia artis,' which is 'art for the sake of art,' 'art for art’s sake,'” Wells says. “And every movie, all art, has a political message. It may not be overt, it may not be intentional, but it’s always there.”
“Hollywood in Havana” ultimately sheds light on artistic production that might otherwise go unseen in the United States. In September 2016, flights from the U.S. to Cuba began, but a short trip only gives visitors so much history. The posters give a glimpse into an important cultural history, both aesthetic and political.
“It’s also a really fun exhibition because it's unexpected,” Wells says. “People know very little about Cuba because of the embargo, and all you get in the U.S. press is usually anti-Cuban propaganda. To see that they’re so joyfully creating art about U.S. films almost breaks every stereotype around.”
“Hollywood in Havana” will be on view from Aug. 20, 2017, through Jan. 7, 2018. Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena.