Havana 2008 - At the heart of the art exhibit was the striking image of a pale Castro rendered with powerful and exaggerated features that capture his commanding presence and forceful personality. His piercing gaze, at times lost in itself, is in multiple portraits of the "Fidel Series" by mulit-faceted artist Fiona Murphy.
In another take, Fidel's eyes are closed.
The next moment, the image of the bearded man and the forehead so familiar for so long, transforms as if they deceived your eyes. What at first glance was so certainly Fidel wanes and reels, it is a ghost on an unseen saddle. The artist's work beholds the sunken, sleek face— Don Quixote at the edge of a cliff. You can almost hear the sound of passing time. Could this be Fidel at the precipice of his life?
A sudden shiver runs down your spine, and you feel enclosed within a tolling bell. You look again at the portraits and see an unharmonious chime; at once, the images encompass a far more burdened world. But the weight of the world is outside.
Created as a response to the deep sense of unease and general anxiety felt in Cuba in 2006 in the face of a worsening illness that for the first time took Fidel away from public view, the portraits seem to question the very nature of perception and reality, challenging the public to reconsider assumptions about the iconic figure and his role in Cuban life.
With techniques unapologetically avant-garde and experimental Murphy manages to reflect a deep sense of existential angst in the uncertain world.
The enigmatic figure of Fidel Castro, a man whose influence on Latin America is as profound as the shadows cast by the mighty Andes, is as alive in the political context of Latin America today as it unfolds a second Pink Tide movement, echoing Fidel as a symbol of resistance and direction for those who hope to challenge the status quo. His presence in the collective consciousness of Latin America makes his legacy as relevant today as he was in the early days of his revolution.
The Fidel of Murphy's series is not the romanticised hero of popular imagination but an enigmatic and nuanced figure whose legacy is as much about his flaws as his successes, one who is also larger than life and an enduring myth for new generations; significantly, for today's Latin American leaders.
The portraits are Fidel-centric, allowing viewers to hone in on Castro and the details. Each portrait is an individual in the larger canvas of the series. The series is a deeply moving work that speaks of the Cuban experience with distortions that give a sense of a collective strain and pain embodied in Fidel.
While observing these portraits, viewers feel as though they are catching a glimpse of Fidel's final solitude and are drawn to explore their own feelings about him. That is the power of Murphy's art; her mix of styles creates an almost instant relationship between the observer, the subject, and the Cuba of 2006.
The conceptual model of the series has aged well. In 2023 it is is immediately clear that they amount to a fascinating exploration of emotions that sparks curiosity about the ever looming Fidel. What is more, viewers feel compelled to express their own subjective feelings as they become acquainted with Fidel and his impact.
Fidel's legacy is a complex one, marked by both admiration and criticism. Murphy was able to capture this complicated duality using the expressive power of her art to reflect the political and social context of the time when Cuba began its transition from Fidel into an uncertain future.
The importance of the series lies in its ability to capture the complexity of Fidel's legacy, and to convey a message that is both earnest and critical.
By using the expressive power of art to convey a message that transcends the boundaries of language and culture, the artist makes an important contribution to the cultural legacy of Cuba. The series is also a testament to the enduring power of art to capture the essence of a moment in time.
Murphy is masterful at reaching deep into the viewer's psyche and drawing out strong feelings to a truth many wanted to forget.
The hue of blue she chose has a peculiar, almost indescribable effect on the eye. It immediately brings an emotion of melancholy, perhaps on the border of despair, at once demystifying and clarifying Cuba's cultural climate in the crucial aftermath ofFidel's serious health problems.
With a keen eye for detail and an the ability to capture the human psyche, Murphy's Fidel series offers a nuanced perspective on a historical figure who has long been shrouded in controversy and mythology and whose influence still affects life in Latin America.
Murphy painted images that convey the struggles and pains of the Cuban people set against the backdrop of Fidel's grandiose speeches and monumental figure. She places him on a transparent mirror which does not merely reflect Fidel's image, but also reveals the harsh, unfiltered realities of life in Cuba at the time.
In one portrait after another, she peels the layers of myth and distortion that have accumulated around the leader. She elicits feelings in the viewer that add to a more nuanced perspective on one of the most consequential figures of the 20th century.
The very existence of the series, painted in Havana while Murphy lived and worked there, captures the essence of creative courage in a city where Fidel himself had decreed artists need to follow a prescribed cultural order.
There, at the beginning of his ongoing revolution, Fidel had words of warning to artists and intellectuals: "The artist, the writer, the intellectual in general, is a man who has great influence on society, and above all on the younger generations... He who is not with the Revolution is against the Revolution. And he who is against the Revolution must be silenced, must be quieted, must be illegal."
In that crucible, in Havana and with the alchemy of time, Murphy took up her brush and painted this series of portraits that defied the state's gaze. With each brushstroke, she imbued the canvas with an intrepid spirit in the service of art, using satire and expressionism to elicit an undercurrent of feelings about life in Cuba under Fidel.
The series pierces through the official front and shows the voice of the silenced in powerful alternative depictions and the emotions validated through her art.
Murphy's adroit evocations in a series of expressionist paintings of Fidel in flailing health —with echoes of Cervantes’s Don Quixote— quietly unmuzzled an undercurrent of feelings in mid-2000s Havana.
Murphy's opus makes an important contribution to the understanding of Cuba and its leader beyond the larger narrative of the Revolution and Communism.
Somewhere in deep Havana, Murphy's friend Ariel had kept a lonely and deep pain in his gut. It was a wretched anguish and grief for the underground artist, an impotence and bitter surrender at learning that the hospital's nurse had discarded the lifeless body of his baby child, tossed away so as to not show a death in the country's "impressive" health system's statistics.
In formal bones of Fidel's face, Murphy's artwork draws such sorrows of life in Cuba, despair that was hard to express. The people of Fidel's Cuba, their pain, their rituals of compliance, the settled comfort that came through their fears but often only in the smallest coins, and the feelings that are so much a part of the collective inner turmoil in Cuba, are extracted from the viewer on the canvas of each portrait, unleashed by the artist in a fury of brush strokes around his image.
Since 1959, Fidel had been the head that ran through every aspect of Cuban life. In 2006, Murphy in Havana began to capture the Cuban spirit as Fidel's deteriorating health unsettled the island.
The resulting series validates Cuban resilience and at the same time serve as a quiet indictment of his glaring failures; she extracts powerful emotions at the chasm between his ideology, soaring rhetoric and reality.
Fidel's ideals were delivered to the Cuban people in ubiquitous, passionate televised speeches in which he would frequently point his finger towards the audience or the camera. But the harsh realities of his rule would leave Cubans to bear the weight the incongruence between high sounding words and hard life in the island.
It was a time rich in images and meaning, too good for the artist in Murphy to pass up. She painted the series of portraits and captured the contradictions of Fidel's rule, juxtaposing his grandiose image with elements that conjure raw, vacillating emotions.
As an artist and an expat, she was uniquely positioned to elicit the quirky nuances of Cuban life, the country's relationship with Fidel, and feelings that were often hidden from each other, thus providing a basis for people to make a more honest evaluation.
Of soul and art
Fiona Murphy's soul is Irish green. You can see it in her eyes. Her Irish spirit is intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking, as is this series.
Born in Cork County in southern Ireland, she was drawn to art at an early age, sketching fish and other things and focusing on the details, annoying her father with her artistic persistence. Her passion for arts led her to study at one of Europe’s finest art schools, the Limerick College of Art and Design.
Her next stop was the creative environment of Florence, the city that celebrates the triumph of the power of art. There, among the marble of Michelangelo’s David and some of the finest paintings of the Renaissance, she transitioned from being a student to a teacher and went on to teach orphans in rural, agricultural northeastern Brazil.
Her transformation continued as she neared the turn of the century with a turn at the International school of Havana, teaching and interacting with children from around the world, and her personal growth moved from Monet impressionism and realism to experiments that forged her own style.
She saw the harsh, gray Havana with its grand old buildings and their forlorn faces, and turned that disappointment into a community project to add color to the city by painting murals on schools, hospitals, and other Havana walls.
Murphy walked the city with sure steps, carrying a sense of familiarity and belonging that belied her foreign roots. Her long hair flowing back, she was seen by the locals as one of them.
It was in there that her life took a personal turn when she met Reuters Havana bureau chief Anthony Boadle. The man behind the news, with his tousled hair and intense questions, would become her husband.
The two of them, passionate, creative, and full of life, would soon become an intellectual and artistic force that brought together her experience in off-tourist-areas Havana with the news- and issues-immersed intellectual and political ferment of the international community which was Boadle's milieu.
Influenced by the art of Ecuadorian master painter Osvaldo Guayasamin, a friend of Fidel and frequent visitor to Cuba in the '70s and '80s, Murphy was now equipped to imbue in her paintings the intense emotions of pain, sadness and despair often found in people who feel powerless and struggle in life.
As a subject, Fidel is as complex as the melting watches in a Picasso painting, Murphy's Fidel series sees through his image a reflection of the condition of life in Cuba, and a mirror of its subconscious.
As the series progresses, the Fidel portraits add to a tapestry of contradictions, a fusion of the real and the visionary. On the whole, it is a fascinating portrayal of the duality of Fidel's character, the interplay between his revolutionary ideals and the harsh realities of his regime. It is this tension that gives rise to the power to the portraits, power that transcends time and Cuba's boundaries.
In the realm of surreal, Murphy's depictions of an ailing Fidel become a symbol of the Cuban condition and a representation of a struggle between public life and the subconscious. They manage to transform the carefully managed and extraordinary image of Fidel into the mundane, and his sublime speeches into visuals of pedestrian mimic that everyday Cubans could identify in themselves and in their world.
A moment of crisis and transformation
The existential questions that Fidel's illness raised are exposed on canvas as an introspection and reflection on the nature of life in Cuba. They can be seen as a distillation of one's most profound feelings and emotions, expressed in a artistic manner, exploring one of the most complex and controversial political figures of the 20th century
In releasing the true nature of emotions and expressing beyond what was preventing Cubans from fully experiencing them, Murphy allows intense emotions to express a deeper understanding of the world around us, and perhaps even finds a measure of the ability of art to transcend the limitations of our own subjective experience.
She captures insights of the spirit of the time in nuanced and thought-provoking images of Fidel that go behind to understand how Fidel managed to be much more than a historical figure and embody the aspirations of a people even as many said he limited them.
The expressionist portrait series is a poignant and captivating exploration of the subjectivity of the Cuban experience. In exaggerated strokes and intense, emotive close-ups, Murphy conveys a sense of raw emotion and introspection, inviting the viewer to contemplate not only Fidel's legacy, but also the larger questions of identity, power, and Revolution.
Murphy's use of bold, exaggerated strokes and blunted colors show a foreboding sense of intensity and fragility, as if Cuba itself were struggling to express its innermost emotions and feelings with each canvas, each portrait seeming to capture a moment of existential crisis and transformation.
By stripping away the artifice of state puffery, Murphy's work reveals a more real dimension of Fidel and the complexities of the Cuban experience in a way that resonates quietly with Cubans as well as with a global audience.
Inflection point in Cuban history
When in 2006 Fidel faced a series of health problems that ultimately led him to temporarily cede power to his brother, his presence on state TV was maintained by a programming mix of old speeches and new takes in which he often appeared frail and weak, noticeably thinner and clearly fragile.
The hours-long speeches of a dynamic Fidel were now juxtaposed to much shorter televised speeches in which he was now seated and appeared to be reading instead of his classic extemporaneous style.
That was a moment in history that brought to the surface myriad feelings among Cubans and inspired the perceptive, analytical Murphy to pursue the feeling of the times, and put it on canvas.
Her unique 'Fidel Series' depicts the emaciated Cuban leader looking like the archetypal Don Quixote across multiple works. It is a collective work of art that can function as a mirror of mid-2000s Cuba for the world, magnified through Murphy's own experiences with underground artists and the close-up political insight of her journalist husband.
The Cuban leader as the worn windmill fighter evokes feelings of romanticism, chivalry, and idealism but also of naivete, impracticality, and delusions, of ideals that could sound noble in theory but harsh in reality.
That is perhaps why when the first of the series, the Blue Fidel, was hung in Boadle's office in the Reuters Havana bureau, Cuban officials who came to see him would avert their eyes. "They would never look at the painting, fearing it was a satire they should not be taking in," recalls Boadle.
The blue portrait itself bears a striking resemblance to the melancholy and introspective character of Don Quixote in his later years as he grapples with is own limitations. It captures a sense of isolation, introspection, and vulnerability.
A swirling mass of shades of blue in the background plus Murphy's adept mixing of fine and thick brushstrokes create a feeling of artifice, of tension, and unrest around the emaciating Fidel: Cuba's political turmoil and struggle, writ large.
Fidel dominates all the compositions, often distorted, with elongated fingers and exaggerated features, giving them a surreal quality that is central to the emotional impact of each piece, allowing feelings to come to the surface even if denying to oneself that it is Fidel in the frame.
Murphy chose to portray him in various poses of authority, like "I’m the only man on earth," with a raised hand, pointed finger, as he often was seen on Cuban television, wearing his image like bones, like skin and beard plus cigar. As the series evolves, the pointed finger becomes more distorted, nails outsized, shoved into the tips.
Whether taken as a satirical device or a serious commentary on power, the portraits suggest a degradation of authority, as if even the physical body of the leader was succumbing to the weight of his own power. This exploration is magnified and in some of the portraits, we can see it become a garish, intellectually honest tribute to the time.
The ominous caricature of long, slender fingers gnarled like tendrils over Fidel's face give him the appearance of a praying mantis, and brings feelings that alert us of the primal instincts and drives that lie within us.
That Fidel's face comes through from behind the interlaced fingers is a reminder that his likeness is deeply ingrained in our contemporary psyche; the index extended upwards resembles a church spire eliciting a turmoil of emotions before the brutal force of a predator as well as an unexpected reverence and devotion.
It is a powerful image that encapsulates the complexities of the country's longtime leader and translates them into feelings that can be understood without saying a word.
It is clear that the subject is a man who has shaped the course of history through his sheer force of will. There is the calm and serenity of one at the top of the food chain. Even in these distorted and exaggerated forms, Fidel's image commands attention. That it also provides a strange comfort is confirmation that the world is often confusing and terrifying.
It is this juxtaposition of the primal and the civilized, the uncontrolled and the controlled, the intellectual and the chaotic, that makes the series emotionally impactful, eliciting fear, contempt, and respect as the portrait of a man who has left an indelible mark on history.
The paintings depict each a haunting moment on its own, an angst in the air in Cuba that Murphy managed to capture in the series. The portraits show an evolution and marked differences in style and technique in the series as they differ in style and technique at times and in context.
Whereas the majority of the pieces in the series are of the modernist expressionist genre, some daringly venture into the surreal and impressionistic realms, resulting in a truly dynamic collection.
The contextual nuances that arise from this multi-genre approach provide a rich tapestry of visual storytelling, illuminating the many facets of Fidel's persona and legacy.
In the surreal elements, viewers can see and get lost in the dreamlike quality of Fidel's revolutionary ideals and the Utopian vision he pursued for Cuba. In the bulk of the collection, expressionist elements capture the duality of his intense and passionate personality and its unpraisable traits.
In portraits with impressionist elements, Murphy draws out the romance of Cuba itself and how the impressionist brushstrokes doth capture the woes and grief of those beneath the rule of Fidel Castro.
As a whole, the combination of styles add to the powerful and complex presentation of Fidel and life under his power in Cuba.
The coloring is different even in two "blue" Fidels with some more vivid, some blurry and others well defined. There is a strong composition across the series, with slight shifts from one portrait to the next. The cigar in the fingers, so central to the series, is also depicted differently in an evolution of slight. But significant changes, the eyes from wide open to squinted to shut, are a poignant allusion to the darker aspects of the Cuban Revolution.
The blue portrait is itself a haunting image, rendered with a sense of melancholy that is amplified by the elongated fingers and nails. The figure is depicted in a state of contemplation or introspection, with a furrowed brow and downcast eyes that convey a sense of sadness or despair. The monochrome color scheme adds to the somber mood of the painting, with shades of blue that suggest a sense of isolation or detachment from the world
Don Quixote is an introspective character, particularly in his later years as he grappled with his own limitations and the harsh realities of the world around him. In the paintings, Murphy captures Fidel in a similar sense of isolation and introspection, with the elongated fingers and nails serving as a visual metaphor for the internal struggles of the figure portrayed.
The comparison brings him down from the pedestal of heroism and exposes his flaws and shortcomings. Don Quixote is often portrayed as a misguided idealist who is out of touch with reality, and Murphy uses the analogy to draw attention to Fidel's idealism and the ways in which he may have been out of touch with the needs of the Cuban people.
The critical nature of the series finds is focus on the similar aspects of Fidel with Don Quixote—prone to delusion and exaggeration, and with the tendency to see the world in black, quick to judge and condemn those he considers his enemies.
Don Quixote is stubborn and unwilling to listen to reason and whose actions often have unintended harmful consequences and may be motivated by self-interest or a desire for recognition or praise. It is no wonder the visitors to Boadle's Reuters bureau office were reluctant to take in Murphy's ambiguous Don Quixote-cum-Fidel on the wall.
By distorting Fidel's features, Murphy was able to strip away the grandiosity and myths that had been built up around him, and reveal deeper layers of a visionary, charismatic leader and a flawed and imperfect human being. Through her art, she was able to show that Castro was not above the struggles and pains of his people, but rather a central part of them.
In doing so, she brought him down from his pedestal allowing Cubans to see their lives reflected in his distorted features. This was a powerful statement on the nature of the power he held over their lives.
As time passes and emotions surrounding Fidel Castro mellow but his influence remains. This stunning series challenges the simplistic hero-villain dichotomy that has long defined popular perceptions.
Through the masterful use of distortion, Murphy has created a powerful, emotionally charged collection of images that capture the complicated and multifaceted nature of Fidel himself, as well as the Cuban Revolution and its place in the public imagination.
For history fans, scholars, and for art aficionados Murphy's Fidel Series is an experience that will challenge preconception, expand understanding, expose them to the emotional power of Castro and how art can put it all in front of your eyes.
For the world, the Fidel Series is a window on the charismatic personality and the tumultuous times in Cuba, a must-see for anyone interested in the emotions and feeling of living in the communist country and the legacy of Fidel Castro.