Nostalgia and Cuban Interiors

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cubanelegance.jpgNostalgia and Cuban Colonial Interiors

Now that everything is hypertrophic, made to the measure of the prehistoric buffalo or the mammoth, let us turn back to the numbers of delight, the beautiful measure and proportion, the response to the caress of the hand that Havana still reaches.
Jose Lezama Lima, November, 1949

Cuba is a sure source of bestsellers and lovely coffee table books. The Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon has transcended music and mojitos into a generalized Cubanophilia. Travel restrictions, the interest in architecture and an exotic environment that seems frozen in time pique the curiosity of Western photographers, artists, historians, journalists and critics

A survey of bookstores reveals that there are, in large format, an average of 35 readily available titles (in English and Spanish). One of the latest arrivals is Michael Connors’ Cuban Elegance (Abrams). The book follows the pattern established by Llilian Llanes in The Houses of Old Cuba (Thames & Hudson, 1999) and Maria Luisa Lobo y Montalvo’s Havana: History and Architecture of a Romantic City, as well as the illustrated architectural history monographs by Eduardo Luis Rodr iguez .

Magnificently photographed and designed, Cuban Elegance affords a glimpse into Cuban interiors from Colonial times to the 20th century. Michael Connors, a New York University graduate and antiques marchand, is best when confining himself to his metier: furniture and design. The book provides some memorable inaccuracies and oversimplifications. ”Finally, many exiles fled from Saint Domingue [now Haiti] to Cuba, particularly to the neighborhood of Santiago, but also to other places in the island.” Does Connors mean to the neighboring city of Santiago de Cuba?

Cuba was a leading source of mahogany for English furniture makers during the 18th century but Connors glosses over the possibility of a Cuban influence in carving techniques and styles over Sheraton and Hepplewhite. He does address the possible Cuban influence — from 1740s sacristy chests — in block front New England chests. His discussion of the development of roperos and Cuban versions of planter’s chairs is indeed enlightening.

The reader is left thirsty for a lengthier analysis of the “sillon” or “balance” (rocking chairs) that Connors traces to the 1830s as a North American import. Things Cuban, even in the arts, entail a political dimension. Many of the environments that so mystify the author may well be reconstructions or approximate reconfigurations of the original milieus. The only exception may be the Museo Napoleonico, Julio Lobo’s collection where Natalia Bolivar may have played a role in the preservation of the collection and the interiors.

Any person concerned with history and a certain sense of accuracy must keep in mind that during the 1960s the contents of most mansions and palaces ended up in the warehouses of the Fondo de Bienes Culturales (Institute for Cultural Resources) and redistributed to the houses of the new government elite, foreign embassies, official government residences, or sold for hard currency in auction houses. The office of the city historian, Eusebio Leal, has had access to the inventories of things taken from these houses. Not even the resourceful Leal can undo the systematic sale and abuse of the national heritage of which art experts have accused the Cuban government. The book is a wonderful alternative to the trite compendia of neocolonial photographs of jineteras (Havana call girls) leaning against dilapidated buildings or skimpily dressed youths contorting their bodies to the music of Los Van Van. It is a hymn to the sense of quiet grandeur, measure and proportion that so enthralled Lezama Lima. Connors deserves credit for going where others fear to tread: the exploration of the European subtext in Cuban culture.

Art critic and historian Justo J. Sanchez has taught art history at Miami-Dade College and the New World School of the Arts
(c) THE MIAMI HERALD

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