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.
Palacio de Bellas Artes
Palacio de Bellas Artes
No other collection of Cuban art, of any sort, comes close to the range and volume of works on display in the beautifully lit, air-conditioned Palacio de Bellas Artes, a two-minute walk north along Agramonte from the Parque Central. The collection spans five centuries but has a far higher proportion of twentieth-century art, though given the dearth of colonial-era painting around the island the museum can still claim to best represent the country’s artistic heritage.
The best way to tackle the three-floor, chronologically ordered collection is to take the lifts up to the top floor and walk around clockwise. From a set of relatively ordinary colonial-era portraits and landscapes there is an abrupt leap into the twentieth century, the most substantial and engaging part of the collection. Among the most famous of the paintings is Gitana Tropical (Tropical Gypsy) by Victor Manuel García (1897–1969), one of the first Cuban exponents of modern art. His evocative yet simplistic portrait of a young native American woman is a widely reproduced national treasure. Paintings by other Cuban greats such as Wifredo Lam (1902–82) and Fidelo Ponce de León (1895–1949) are succeeded by art from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s respectively, and then finally a section dedicated to works produced since 1979. This includes installation art, sculptures and, in the work of Raúl Martínez (1927–95), an example of a very Cuban take on pop art.
It’s worth having a drink at the caféteria on the ground floor just to sit beside the pleasant open courtyard, where there are a few modern sculptures dotted about. Before leaving, check the notice board in the entrance hall for upcoming events in the museum, often in its 248-seat theatre.
In contrast to the Art Deco simplicity of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the interior of the stately Centro Asturiano, on the east border of the Parque Central, is a marvel to look at in itself. Housing the international collections of the Museo de Bellas Artes, this grandiose building is plastered with balcony-supported columns and punctuated with carved stone detail. The entrance hall with its wide marble staircase is a real knockout, punctuated by thick pillars and, looming above, spacious balustraded balconies from which you can admire the stunning stained-glass ceiling.
The exhibits are divided up by country of origin, with the largest collections by Italian, French and Spanish artists, on the fifth, fourth and third floors respectively. There are one or two standouts among the more mundane British, German, Dutch and Flemish collections, all on the fifth floor, such as Kermesse by Jan Brueghel (the younger), one of the only internationally famous artists in this section. The painting depicts a peasant scene with all sorts of debauchery going on, a focus typical of his work.
Elsewhere you can see ancient art from Rome, Egypt, Greece and Etruria, including vases, busts, and most notably the coffin from a 3000-year-old tomb; a small room of nineteenth-century Japanese paintings and, sketchiest of all, a haphazard set of Latin American and North American paintings.