The Washington Post
September 6, 2001

Cuba's National Art Museum Once Again Displays Its Treasures

Thursday; Page C04

HAVANA -- From works left behind by rich families who fled Cuba after the 1959 revolution to paintings rumored to have been sold off during hard times, the
complete cultural richness of Cuba's national arts museum is finally on display.

The art heritage of the newly expanded and reopened Cuban National Museum of Fine Arts is valued at more than $600 million and consists of 47,268 works, from
an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus to contemporary Cuban paintings.

After closing for five years, the museum in early August threw open the doors of its two buildings -- the 1954 Fine Arts Palace, now restored and modernized to
host the Cuban art collection, and the 1927 former Asturian Center, redesigned to house the international collection.

The jewel of Cuban art is 20th-century painter Victor Manuel's "Tropical Gipsy," according to museum director Moraima Clavijo. "It is the symbol of the Cuban
vanguard," she said.

As for the foreign collection, she chose as the most remarkable item an ancient Greek amphora from the 5th century B.C. "It is completely unharmed," she said.

The museum first opened in 1913, then closed in 1996 because of its deplorable condition. Restoration work started in 1999 at a total cost of $14.5 million.

Expectation ahead of the reopening rose with rumors, mostly from Cuban exiles in Miami, that President Fidel Castro's government had sold some works during the
economic crisis suffered by the island after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

"In Miami, people were wondering what we were going to exhibit at the museum, if everything had been sold," Castro said at the official inauguration of the museum
in July.

"Maybe I'll send them some videos so they can appreciate everything, because those who have sold their homeland think we can sell the cultural soul of our country,"
he added.

An important part of the heritage is formed by the private collections left behind by rich families who, soon after the 1959 revolution, fled the Caribbean island,
leaving everything behind, but hoping to return soon.

"They donated us their properties," a smiling Castro added with his characteristic sarcasm. "Thank you very much!"

Among the collections are those of the Lobo, Gomez Mena, Falla and Bacardi families, who had, among other treasures, paintings by Spanish artists Sorolla, Murillo
and Zurbaran.

Clavijo said the museum had maintained cordial contact with some of the descendants of those families. "We are in touch with some of them and the origin of the
works is mentioned in the catalogues," she said, adding that some had traveled to Cuba to see their families' former possessions.

There are also works that belonged to members of former dictator Fulgencio Batista's government, who fled the island with him in 1959.

In the Fine Arts Palace there is an overview of Cuban painting, starting in the colonial era with the masterpieces of Nicolas de la Escalera and Victor Patricio

Modern-era Cuban painting is also well represented with various rooms dedicated to highly rated artists, such as Rene Portocarrero, Amelia Pelaez, Victor Manuel
and Wifredo Lam.

The museum has also opened its door to more recent arrivals on the arts scene, like Alexis "Kcho" Leyva, Roberto Fabelo and Zaida del Rio. And it has also
exhibited the works of some artists who left the country, such as Tomas Sanchez and Gustavo Acosta.

"Cuban art is the art made by Cubans, wherever they are," Clavijo said, explaining the selection of the works.

In the Asturian Center, Egyptian, Greek and Etruscan works can be admired, together with an impressive collection of European painting.

The museum also has a room dedicated to Latin American art and another to 18th- and 19th-century painting from the United States -- whose government has been
Castro's arch-enemy for the last four decades.

"There is so much more than I ever expected. . . . I think this is a first-class museum. Cuba should be very proud to have something like this," American art dealer
Alex Rosenberg said after touring the museum.

                                               © 2001 The Washington Post Company