Félix Beltrán was one the most popular graphic designers in his native Cuba following Castro’s revolution; he was also a powerhouse of Latin American corporate design after leaving Havana for Mexico City. Although his work bolstered certain ideals and personalities of the revolution, it was not so ideologically dictated as to be slavish propaganda, but it did establish an empathetic brand. “Unlike the graphic arts introduced to Cuba by the U.S. before the revolution, the new poster [in Cuba] aimed to engage the viewer as a thinking person, not as a passive consumer of commodities,” the website Cuba50 states. “The posters of past days with easily digested soundbites were rejected—instead, the goal was to ‘raise and complicate consciousness—the highest aim of the revolution itself.'”
Beltrán’s work (like many Cuban designers) was antithetical to Communist-Socialist realism (which also was receding in the ’60s). He studied in the United States during the Midcentury Modern era, between 1956 and 1962—graphic design at the School of Visual Arts, painting in the American Art School and lithography at the Pratt Graphic Art Center in New York City. He also took classes at the New School for Social Research, where he met the theorists/philosophers Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, amongst others.
He died in December 2022 at his home in Mexico City. Had he stayed in the United States, his design thinking would have been hand-in-glove with the Bauhaus-inspired, geometry-driven Moderns that influenced his own grid-locked simplicity, and occasionally subtle, witty work.
In 2022 Sonia Diaz and Gabriel Martinez wrote and published a two-volume compilation and analysis of Beltrán’s life and work: Félix Beltran Inteligencia Visual and Siempre el Diseño. A career-inclusive exhibition, Félix Beltrán Visual Intelligence, has also been launched at the Complutense Art Centre in Madrid, now through March 16. I asked the duo to explain Beltrán’s legacy through the lens of this show.
When was the exhibition conceived?
In May 2022, [Isabel García,] the vice chancellor of culture of the Complutense University of Madrid, proposed that we present an exhibition project because the books Inteligencia Visual and Siempre el Diseño were already published and had already been a great success, both in the international edition published by Optik Books and the Spanish edition published by Ediciones Complutense. In this sense, it seemed logical that the publishing project should evolve towards the exhibition, given that we already had all the graphic material and a very elaborate and well-defined conceptual proposal after more than 10 years of research. What is very clear is that without the support and trust of García, the project would not have gone ahead, because she values Félix Beltrán’s work very highly and knows that the importance of his work as a designer and teacher is an example to be followed.
Was Félix involved in the selection?
To tell the truth, like all creative people, Félix was very critical of his work and always wanted us to eliminate much of the material he considered “imperfect.” But we always told him that it was important to see the work as a whole because it gave us many clues to understand his influences, the times he lived in and his philosophy of work.
Félix and Teresa Camacho—his partner—were very involved in the whole process we followed to produce the publications, and they were involved in the possibility of putting on an exhibition with all the material. In fact, in September we visited Mexico City to present the books and we talked about the project, although Félix’s already deteriorated health made us think that it would be complicated for him to travel for the opening.
What is it about Félix’s life and work that is so compelling?
The intellectual consistency and commitment he maintained throughout his life in a political, social, conceptual and graphic sense. Félix’s life is unique because he lived through important moments in history; the fact that he was able to study at the School of Visual Arts in New York in a flourishing era of design and advertising; being the person in charge of the corporate and institutional image of the Cuban Revolution for 20 years; and, finally, from Mexico, his contribution to the culture of design through his university work.
Félix’s work is methodical and systematic, but it also stands out because he is capable of combining without complexes a colorful optimism coming from his Hispanic culture and the rationality and Modernist intellectuality discovered in New York and in his travels around Europe. As the designer and artist Raúl Martínez pointed out, “Félix Beltrán is the most intellectual, universally intellectual designer in Cuba.” His intellectuality makes him worthy of a place in the history of design, but he also had the quality of being close and very human in his social relations. As Félix himself said: “The only thing I can boast of is having human qualities.”
Before he passed away did you have the opportunity to show him any of the plans or preparations?
We had telephone conversations with him and Teresa until a few days before his death on 28 December. Despite his illness, he kept alive the illusion of being able to be at the opening. We sent him sketches of what the exhibition would be like and he was very happy that his “design in a social sense” could reach the maximum number of people. The truth is that he always respected our proposals and there wasn’t a day that went by that we didn’t receive a new and surprising graphic document that, motivated by the progress of the project, he was discovering in his archives. This exchange has allowed us to rescue some 700 images, some of them of very poor quality, but no less important for that.
What has the response been?
The response to the exhibition has been surprising, as was the response to the publication of the books beforehand. This is because Félix is a very well-known personality who appears in design history books. Yet much of his work is unknown even to specialists. For us it has been a journey into the past, a priceless contemporary research of “visual archaeology.” For this reason, it seems to us that to be able to present Félix’s work to all types of the public is an opportunity to update and revalue the work of a lifetime, and also to bring to light part of the history of Ibero-American design—something that for many is a truly unknown subject.