Universal Talent

Artist Julioeloy Mesa Has Left Communist Cuba for Austin, but for This Film Poster Master, the Artistic Struggle Continues

Julioeloy Mesa
Julioeloy Mesa (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

It is rare to have talent endorsed by a government, rare for a citizen to be privileged not by wealth or firepower but by skill. Rarer still is a talent endorsed by a government and decorated by critics opposed to that state. Jesse Owens had talent that strong, so did Maxim Gorky, and so does Julioeloy Mesa.

<i>No Pasaran (They Will Not Pass)</i>, 1996
No Pasaran (They Will Not Pass), 1996

From 1961 to 1992, Mesa worked in Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC), the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry. Cloistered in one of Havana's most hallowed state offices (Fidel Castro regularly watched movies in the same building), he practiced communism's most hallowed art: the poster. In Soviet Russia and her more willing disciples, no art spoke more to the people. Mesa's film posters won awards in international competitions, including the Cannes Film Festival, and were exhibited not only in film conferences and exhibitions from Europe to Africa to Asia but in museums such as the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, and the George Pompidou Center, Paris. In the U.S., Mesa's art is acknowledged with a permanent collection in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. "For me," he says, speaking through interpreter Amandine Briseño, "making a movie poster was the best way I could spend a day."

The silver ghosts of film had enchanted the artist since boyhood. "I would take money from my mother's purse, sneak out of the house, and go to the cinema," Mesa recalls. Through the rigors of the University of Havana's art program and an art instructor's degree from the Cuban Ministry of Culture, the magic survived.

<i>El Principio</i>, 1974
El Principio, 1974

The gateway to immortality as a painter swung wide open when the 25-year-old Mesa won a prize at the definitive Salon de Mai in Paris, 1968. The following year, his paintings won him another accolade from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City. But painting was a pastime. Nothing could take Mesa away from his job.

Mesa watched a film a day at the institute, sometimes two. He then created an image to go with each film as a poster. The only restrictions on his work were that he could not criticize Castro's government with his art or show explicit sex. The artist never broke these rules. Some pieces, however, like the 1989 poster for La Bella de la Alhambra, which features a Moulin Rouge belle undulating over the upturned arm of a chair, showed the impossibility of censoring art.

<i>Henry VIII and His Six Wives</i> (won best poster at Cannes Film Festival, 1976)
Henry VIII and His Six Wives (won best poster at Cannes Film Festival, 1976)

Having digested the film, Mesa would paint his poster by hand on a silkscreen, using high-contrast colors to serve as a negative. He would then set up the screen in a darkroom by hand and serigraphically project the image onto another screen. Even the text was done freehand. Without the aid of equipment, creativity was vital. The whole process would take three or four days.

Mesa saw almost all films before their general release in Cuba. He previewed the stars of French, Italian, and British cinema. His poster for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf won him an award in the First International Contest of Film Posters in 1975. Liz Taylor's face moves in the foreground; behind her freezes a sterile moon. The yellow of the moon moves through Taylor's lunatic head to shine out her gorgeous eyes. Clouds, objects beloved of Mesa, change color as they cross the moon. But these clouds take the form of text, film credits.

<i>Tierra (Land)</i>, 1977
Tierra (Land), 1977

Some films elicited personal reactions from the artist. Clandestinos (Hiders) dug into his skin. "I identified with that film," says the artist, "so all my feeling went into that poster." It is a story of two lovers crossing the divide during the Cuban revolutionary war. The poster is stark. On a black background, two hearts float side by side, each riddled with bullets and washed with blood.

Mesa's poster for Henry VIII and His Six Wives won the Cannes Film Festival award for best film poster in 1976. A charred figure, arching backward, has a corolla flaming through his chest. In revolutionary style, the artist dispels the cliché of Henry VIII as a fat frump. He imagines the youthful king who could ride at the crest of the calvary and beat all comers in jousts. More importantly, he captures the doubts and the syphilis, which wracked many famous decisions from Tudor. "Henry VIII was a man who suffered much from love, so he has fire inside," says Mesa.

<i>Clandestinos (Hiders)</i>, 1987
Clandestinos (Hiders), 1987

Another work of suffering, Alexander Duvchenko's 1930 film Tierra (Land), marked a departure in communist artistic expression. Mesa must have pleased socialist theorists with his stirring Tierra poster for a Cuban festival celebrating the October Revolution. A red, cracked sun rises above land split by arid veins. In the foreground, a child stands with his back to the viewer, staring at the sun. The shadow of the child's heels and legs could be a pair of vultures.

A number of symbols form a pattern in Mesa's posters. The horizon appears on many, adding physical perspective to abstract images. The motif of the flag is also recurrent; the artist uses the national flags of Bulgaria, Mexico, Cuba, and the U.S. as everything from film reels to carpets.

<i>Vive Che</i>, 1997
Vive Che, 1997

As these symbols became part of the Cuban mind, Mesa enjoyed celebrity and comfort. As well as winning the national awards for his posters in 1970 and 1971, he served as artistic director of The Cuban Cinema magazine and put together a retrospective book on Cuban cinema. He had all the luxuries that Castro allowed: air conditioning, modern appliances, access to foreign art and popular culture. Between 1971 and 1992, Julioeloy's posters were exhibited at film conferences and exhibitions in Czechoslovakia, Vietnam, Mali, everywhere! His posters became paradigms for art students throughout Latin America. But his studies of suffering foretold his own fate.

"I was in Spain for an art exhibition in 1992," he remembers. "I was notified over the phone by some of my colleagues at home of a rumor going around that I had made declarations against Fidel Castro. That would make my life very difficult."

The artist never made the declaration, but that might not have satisfied the secret police. Mesa decided not to return to Cuba and the job of his life. This choice has tortured the man and the artist to this day. "There was always censorship," he says. "But if there were no political problems, you could paint what you wanted. I would go back to that job in a second."

During their son's nine years of exile in the U.S., Mesa's parents both died. Although he has enjoyed many solo exhibitions in that time, the artist's output has also slowed dramatically. The art world of the Rolodex suits his temperament less than that of state sponsorship.

"Austin has no tradition of poster art," he says. American film posters strike him as commercial, apart from four or five, including the X-Men poster, that engage with the film's theme, as he does. Still, he finds work in Austin. This year, Mesa will design the poster for the Austin Film Festival. Last year, he designed the poster for Jose Greco's visit to One World Theatre. Thirty-one years of boiling films down to a single image did not dilute Mesa's passion. "I am delirious about films," he insists.

Recent pieces by Mesa are distilled masterpieces. No Pasaran (They Will Not Pass), originally intended for a Mexican film festival in 1996, rips through the mind. A deep green cactus reaches out a prickled paw to tear the corner of the Stars and Stripes, descending to its right. As a Cuban, Mesa wanted to send a message to Mexico to resist U.S. imperialism. Later in 1996, he printed more editions of this work at Sam Coronado studios for a solo exhibition at Galeria Sin Fronteras. Could it represent the agony of Cuban immigrants in the U.S.?

Sin Fronteras (1996) and Vive Che (1997) begin as political statements but find wings above the issues. Both comprise pastel colors, clouds, doves, and the horizon. Sin Fronteras shows two flags as the Stars and Stripes heads for the horizon in the right half of the painting, the lacerating stars turn into doves, the doves descend onto the flag in the left half of the painting, to form the white of the Mexican flag. Crossing from one flag to the other, the doves cross the border of a double perspective (the U.S. flag shrinks toward the horizon; the Mexican flag grows from it).

Vive Che, commissioned by UCLA, shows Che's effigy on the horizon, rising from trees and flowers. Why did Mesa pick such a pastoral image of the militant doctor?

"Che was a universal personality. He is related to nature and poetry, more than just politics." Mesa imagines Che in the Bolivian forest where the freedom fighter was killed. When the artist met Che Guevara in Mesa's hometown during the Cuban revolution, they talked of the weather and each other's health. Neither anticipated the suffering or glories down the road, as a government espoused and then distanced their respective talents. Sending a message to Austin filmmakers, Julioeloy Mesa intends to target U.S. walls for his art. Hasta la Victoria Siempre. end story

Thanks to interpreter Amandine Briseño.

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