Set along the broad avenues that fill the relatively open spaces on the western edge of Habana Vieja, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is the most impressive and spectacular of Havana’s museums and by far the largest art collection in the country, with its collection divided between two completely separate buildings, two blocks apart. The museum stands head and shoulders above the vast majority of its city rivals, presented and put together with a degree of professionalism still quite rare for this kind of attraction in Cuba. The large and rather plain-looking Art Deco Palacio de Bellas Artes is the showcase for exclusively Cuban art, offering a detailed examination of the history of Cuban painting and sculpture, including everything from portraits by Spanish colonists to Revolution-inspired work – though pre-Columbian art is notably absent. Artists from the rest of the world are represented in the Centro Asturiano, with an impressive breadth of different kinds of art, including Roman ceramics and nineteenth-century Japanese paintings.
No English translations have been provided for any of the titles in either building, which can be a hindrance to fully appreciating some of the works on display – particularly in the ancient art section, where it’s not always clear what you are looking at. Both buildings have bookshops where you can buy good-quality, Spanish-only guides to their collections, invaluable if you have an interest in the context and background of the paintings.