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A Miami collector’s fascination with cigar cutters sends ‘smoke signals’ at Wolfsonian-FIU

Art Burst Miami
The Wolfsonian-FIU’s “Beauty Bar” cabinet is a perfect showcase for some of the more than 360 cigar cutters given to the Wolfsonian-FIU by Miami collector Richard Kronenberg. An exhibition, curated by Lea Nickless, titled “Smoke Signals: Cigar Cutters and Masculine Values” is at the Miami Beach museum through Sunday, Sept. 29. 

Sometimes, as the immortal Freud reportedly said, a cigar is just a cigar. Yet the sentiment isn’t true for cigar cutters, which, as revealed in the Wolfsonian exhibit “Smoke Signals: Cigar Cutters and Masculine Values” are a kaleidoscope into the West’s fin de siècle and early 20th century cultures.

Ranging from strictly utilitarian to ornate works of art, the cutters are from the more than 360 snippers donated to the Wolfsonian by Miami collector Richard Kronenberg. He and his wife, Margaret, spent decades searching out the objects. Taken together, these cutters evoke a time when men, from working stiffs to uptown swells, enjoyed a stogie at the bar, at work, at social clubs and during leisure time. They tell of an industrializing society where men gathered at private clubs, leagues, associations and union halls, while high society with its operas, yachting, balls and hunts had its own cultural markers.

The proliferation of these cutters – which smokers use to snip off the cigar’s end for greater draw – came about after public health issues arose, explained Lea Nickless, the Wolfsonian curator who created the exhibition. As smoking’s popularity grew, tobacco shops, general stores and saloons offered communal cutters. However, officials discovered the cutters were transmitting disease because smokers would lick the cigar’s end before using the device.

“The cutter became a vector,” says Nickless. In 1913, officials issued a health warning about the communal cutters, and notes Nickless, the explosion of personal cutters followed. “That was the golden age of cigars,” she says. “Ninety percent of men smoked cigars to pass the time and socialize.”

Arrayed in an intimate room on the Wolfsonian’s first floor, visitors can see the cutters displayed in ways that reveal function, craftsmanship and, in some cases, pure fantasy. “Looking at these objects it’s like getting a snapshot of the world at that moment,” says Nickless.

For example, one case shows a group of working-dog cutters (collies, wolfhounds and retrievers). There are cutters that look like birds of prey. One is a boar tusk. There are firearm-formed cutters. In another cabinet elephant cutters caper. There are bears and ducks and a profusion of pigs. Meanwhile, others are associated with professions or trades symbolized by water valves, anvils, and railroad signals. Some are designed to boost brands. It’s not always obvious how every cutter functions, and sussing out their inner workings is part of the show’s fun.

That mechanical aspect was in part what fascinated Kronenberg, who with Margaret had long enjoyed scouting antiques. One day, he asked a store clerk about the usage of an intriguing object. It became the first in his cigar cutter collection. For years the couple sleuthed out cutters at shows and shops, meeting people from all walks of life. Later, they scoured the internet.

“For the most part they are intricate and things of beauty, and, not quite an art form but mechanically brilliant,” says Kronenberg, noting that the aesthetics of each piece is the first attraction. After 60 years of collecting, the couple had cigar cutters everywhere, “in every drawer and shelf and it was time to let it go.”

The Wolfsonian, with its focus on Modernist arts and design was a perfect fit, he says, noting how the museum’s collection illustrates many historical narratives. And Kronenberg says he’s pleased to share the objects with others. “Most have no idea what they are.”

Women in the Cigar World

Entwined with the somewhat picture-book view of earlier times are troubling legacies when it comes to women. One display reveals the women-related cutters; one is a garter-topped leg. A prone women conceals the cutter between her legs (Freud!).

One vitrine holds The Nautch Girl, a watch-fob cutter linked to a comic opera of the same name, itself based on professional Hindu dancers. Under British rule in India, according to Nickless’ research, their ceremonial role was degraded into prostitution.

“A number of cigar cutters express the disrespect . . . toward women that went hand-in-hand with male-only smoking rooms,” Nickless writes in the exhibition catalog. “Several cutters portray women sitting on a chamber pot or naked on a toilet in an outhouse.”

WHAT: “Smoke Signals: Cigar Cutters and Masculine Values”

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday, open until 9 p.m. Friday. Through Sunday, Sept. 29, 2024

WHERE: The Wolfsonian-FIU, 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach

COST: Admission is free for museum members, Florida residents, visitors with disabilities and their accompanying caregiver, children under 6, students, faculty and staff of the State University System of Florida; otherwise $12 for adults $8 for seniors, students with ID and visitors ages 6 to 18. Free on Fridays 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. each week.

INFORMATION: 305-531-1001 and wolfsonian.org

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit news partner of WLRN, providing news on theater, dance, visual arts, music and the performing arts.

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