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.
To see anything from this century, check the single room on the top floor by the lifts, where temporary exhibitions are hung, or visit the bookshop (the best in the city for books on Cuban art, with a decent selection of posters too) on the ground floor, where you’ll also find a simple café and the pleasant open courtyard, dotted with a few modern sculptures. Before leaving, check the notice board in the entrance hall for upcoming events in the museum, often in its 248-seat theatre.