As an illustrator and publisher, Conrado Wilson Massaguer helped sear the image of Cuba as a tropical paradise into the minds of American tourists in the first half of the 20th century, until the Cuban Revolution. It's an image that lives on in reprints of his works that line the walls of countless Cuban-American family homes.
Take for instance, the timeless image of a Cuban woman dressed in puffy white clothes, eyes closed, head back, shaking her maracas. “Visit Cuba,” the tourism advertisement reads. “So Near, and Yet So Foreign.”
The last time Massaguer had a solo exhibition in the United States was some 80 years ago, says collector Vicki Gold Levi. Now the Wolfsonian Museum on Miami Beach has opened its doors to an exhibition titled Cuban Caricature and Culture: The Art of Massaguer. The exhibit is showing until February 2, 2020.
“This is the first time -- that I know of -- that he’s being shown in the United States, at least since 1931 when he had a show at a gallery in New York,” says Gold Levi, who gifted the bulk of the material on display to the museum.
“Before you had all these t-shirts of Che Guevara’s face on it in the post-Castro revolutionary period, this was the kind of thing Cuba [presented] to the world,” says Frank Luca, the exhibit curator. “And now people are rediscovering these images [Massaguer] produced and these have become really iconic images of that earlier relationship between the United States and Cuba.”
Massaguer was born in Cardenas, and lived for years in Mexico and New York, the latter during a period of exile during the dictatorial regime of Gerardo Machado in the late 1920s and early 1930s. During his time in the United States his illustrations appeared in magazines like Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, The New Yorker and Life.
One of his biggest contributions to Cuban art was the monthly magazine Social, for which he was both a publisher and artist. Luca says the upper class magazine played an outsized role in helping push Cuban art away from classicism, and more into the realm of Art Deco modernism. He started publishing it in 1916.
“Cuba was a very conservative place in those days, and Social was designed to really shake up that conservative society,” says Gold Levi. “It was more or less based on Vanity Fair.”
“He was depicting the new woman of the 1920s, who cut her hair short, and is no longer constrained with corsets. And really -- they’re running around half naked,” says Luca.
"Cuban Caricature and Culture" features over 100 advertisements, magazine covers, original paintings, sketches, and a few multimedia pieces. The time frame of the pieces range from the 1920s travel magazine Havana -- aimed at bringing American tourists to the island -- to the rarely seen book "¿Voy Bien, Camilo?," created during the brief period when American-style capitalism co-existed with the Cuban Revolution.
The book shows images of smiling, bearded men in Jell-O and Buick advertisements; serenading a young girl in a Coca-Cola advertisement; and puffing a cigar in a H. Uppman tobacco advertisement, among other things.
“It’s a very positive reaction to the Revolution. This is in the very earliest stages when many Cubans embraced this. After the sort of kleptocracy of [former dictator Fulgencio] Batista, they were thinking: ‘well maybe this could be a good change,’” said Frank Luca, the museum’s curator. “But very soon thereafter, of course, things unravel.”
Before long, Fidel Castro shut down Massaguer’s magazine Carteles, revealing himself as a communist, and cracking down on independent media and other private companies. Massaguer lived only a few more years, until 1965, and spent his last days working in the Cuban National Archives.
“Massaguer was always a character who loomed in my head as this brilliant, witty, artistic character that I really wanted to give a reintroduction to for people here in Miami,” says Gold Levi, the collector. “They know him in Cuba, but here a lot of Cubans don’t know him.”
“This is a very intellectual show, you have to read about it and know the history of it, you can’t just glance at it,” she says. “But I hope it sparks some interest and sparks some new conversations.”