Tropical heat and color

‘Violet Isle’ exhibit presents all the lushness and liveliness of Cuba

‘‘Havana,’’ a 2000 photo by Alex Webb, shows two children in an empty swimming pool. ‘‘Havana,’’ a 2000 photo by Alex Webb, shows two children in an empty swimming pool. (Museum of Fine Arts)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / May 31, 2011

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Normally, meteorology doesn’t enter into museum-going decisions. The art’s displayed indoors, after all. The relevance of weather to the experience of seeing “Violet Isle: A Photographic Portrait of Cuba by Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb’’ at the Museum of Fine Arts is just one of the things that makes the show exceptional. Try, if you can, to go on a rainy day. Or wait until late fall or early winter (the show runs through Jan. 16), though that would mean putting off a good thing for a long time. Either way, the sense of relief from grayness that’s conveyed by the luscious vibrancy of the Webbs’ color images will be transporting, guaranteed.

Cuba has long attracted photographers, from Walker Evans’s visually chaste images from his 1933 visit to the exactingly textured decay in Robert Polidori’s 2001 book “Havana.’’ Conversely, it’s given the world Abelardo Morell, who’s done impressive work of his own in his native land. The Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, just opened an exhibition titled “A Revolutionary Project: Cuba From Walker Evans to Now,’’ and there was last year’s excellent “Cuba in Revolution’’ show at the International Center of Photography, in New York.

The island is at once so different from the United States, yet so close geographically, making it a nearly unique blend of the exotic and accessible. Accessible, that is, until politics intervened. Politics, of course, lent the island a further fascination. Add in natural beauty; tropical lushness; cityscapes, courtesy of Havana; and, courtesy of the Caribbean, miles and miles of coastline as well as coastal light (more important for the camera): How could photographers not be drawn to Cuba?

The Webbs are a case in point. A married couple, they visited the island 11 times between 1993 and 2008. He’s been a member of Magnum, the celebrated photojournalism agency, since the ’70s. Her work, as she puts it, has focused on “the complicated relationship between people and the natural world.’’

The 19 photographs in “Violet Isle’’ (the title comes from a poem by Reina Maria Rodriguez) are the product of those trips. Eleven are by Alex, the rest by Rebecca. Close examination reveals differences between the two. Rebecca’s tend to have animals in them (roosters, cats, monkeys, birds). Alex often does striking things with the play of picture planes. But the examination has to be close, and sometimes it requires peeking at a label to be sure. Maybe their images meshing so well comes from the overpowering visual unity (which, paradoxically enough, derives from an overpowering visual diversity) of Havana and environs. Maybe it’s testimony to the convergent artistic power of matrimony. Whatever the reason, “Violet Isle’’ feels very much of a piece, and splendidly so.

Lovely as the title is, “Violet Isle’’ is a bit of a misnomer. A profusion of blue emerges here: blue skies, blue water, blue walls, blue eyes (belonging to Siamese cats). Most startling perhaps, two chil dren climb into an empty pool. The blue of its sides is so alluring, like a David Hockney awaiting water. The debris scattered across its bottom indicates a much harsher reality.

There’s nothing political about these pictures, unless the sense of a city slowly crumbling counts as politics. Like that emptied pool, the room glimpsed in Alex Webb’s “Regla’’ does not bespeak prosperity. What one notices, though, has nothing to do with economics and everything to do with form. It’s a room, yes, but also, as Webb presents it, an array of rectangles: mirror, chair backs, picture frame, another picture frame and length of counter seen in the mirror. Piet Mondrian was famously fond of boogie-woogie. Looking at Webb’s photograph, one wonders what Mondrian would have made of merengue.

The people in these images are even livelier than the color, which is really saying something. More accurately, one should say the creatures. The bird Rebecca Norris Webb has captured just as it’s started to fly looks as though it could make it all the way to Miami without a stop. Yet notice the white egg (or is it a ball?) in the cake pan, to the left. The juxtaposition of stillness and motion is perfect — and, in its way, as incongruous as that of Cuba 90 miles away from 310 million yanquis.

The Webbs’ pictures are big, ranging from 20 inches by 30 inches to 30 inches by 40 inches. Along with the gloriousness of the color and energy of so much of the subject matter, that size gives the show an impact far greater than one would expect from 19 images. Perhaps it’s a good thing that “Violet Isle’’ is so small. It packs such a punch, chromatic and otherwise, that the show would be overwhelming were it larger. Put any closer to the Dale Chihuly exhibition, it might shatter all the glass there through sheer artistic osmosis (not necessarily a disturbing prospect).

Mark Feeney can be reached at

VIOLET ISLE: A Photographic Portrait of Cuba by Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb

At: the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Jan. 16. 617-267-9300,