Cuban illustrator, publisher and tastemaker Conrado W. Massaguer, born 1889, spent his 50-year career exalting Cuba’s tropical appeal in his famous prints and scrutinizing political figures through caricatures. His work inspired the signature look of Cuba for decades.
Yet following political turmoil in his homeland during the 50s, many of Massaguer's works were forgotten.
This summer, the Wolfsonian–FIU is displaying many of his works in the museum's latest installation, Cuban Caricature and Culture: The Art of Massaguer. The collection showcases Massaguer's vast body of work in the hopes of sparking a conversation on Cuban culture before and after the revolution.
“The idea behind this exhibition was to revivify his work to all audiences. It takes on a new meaning in 2019,” says Frank Luca, the museum’s chief librarian and the show’s curator.
“Aside from his own exhibition in 1931, there hasn't been a major exhibition in the U.S. exploring him and his work,” he adds. “Though, he won his international acclaim century ago, his style remains fresh and imaginative in a way that still feels incredibly modern to us today.”
The installation offers visitors a look into his playful sense of humor, which lies at the heart of every piece.
“I conceive the art of caricature as one calling for instantaneous execution.” —Massaguer, 1923.
“Conrado Massaguer’s art left an indelible mark on Cuba, helping to define not only what Cubans considered ‘in vogue,’ but also informing day-to-day culture and politics,” says Luca.
All of the items featured in the installation are a gift from historian, collector and longtime donor to the museum Vicki Gold Levi, who began collecting his works in the 2010s.
Levi first discovered Massaguer’s work while doing research for Cuba Style, a book she co-wrote on Cuban graphic design.
“I was immediately captivated. As I continued studying, collecting and traveling to Cuba over the years, I only fell deeper in love with Massaguer’s witty graphics and simple, pure, evocative lines,” says Levi.
“There is no Massaguer archive or gallery or anything like that. These items all came randomly and serendipitously into my life and out of the blue,” she adds. “I’m honored to collaborate with The Wolfsonian on raising awareness about such a versatile, talented artist.”
A modernist, Massaguer was the publisher and designer of two major Cuban magazines at the time, Social and Carteles.
As the head of Social, he pushed what were at the time, controversial views on the ideal “new woman” or flapper. His art often starred these sexually-liberated, bobbed-haired women, with the artist even coining the term “Massa-girl” — a play on his last name and the Cuban slang term “masa,” meaning flesh — to represent their Cuban counterpart.
“Every time I return to the states, I find the girls’ hair shorter and their cigarette holders longer.” - Massaguer, 1924.
Massaguer spent many years living in exile in New York City in the 1930s during Gerardo Machado’s rule in Cuba. He made his mark on the Big Apple, designing covers and illustrations for publications like Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan and Literary Digest by day and socializing with movie stars and politicians by night.
“He’d mingle with all the celebrities that came to Cuba and did caricatures of them when they came to [New York] to promote tourism to Cuba,” says Luca.
Luca adds Massaguer thought of his caricatures as “vivisections,” or live dissections of people.
He is famous for humorously capturing notable figures like former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Walt Disney, Benito Mussolini and Christopher Columbus.
Massaguer was also a strong believer in Cuba’s potential as a tourist attraction. He designed colorful promotional brochures and ad campaigns to attract visitors to the nation and boost its economy.
“He played a lot with the idea of ‘it's so close but it’s so exotic and foreign to Americans,’” says Luca.
But though he was well-known in his time, following the revolution, Luca says his magazines stopped being published and his work “disappeared from people’s consciousness.”
“Tourism, if well cultivated, could become Cuba’s most important harvest and could steal the scepter away from our sugarcane" - Massaguer, 1931.
“After the revolution, his work became associated with a different time when Cuba was sort of an appendage to the U.S., and it was considered too bourgeois past that point,” he explains. “The only people who remember him are the Cuban-American exiles who remember the magazine.”
Luca and Levi see the installation as an opportunity to resurrect his legacy in a city shaped by Cuban culture.
“It’s an homage to a great illustrator. It’s a real labor of love to make him visible again to both the Cuban-American community and the American community. He happens to be Cuban but his art is universal,” says Levi.
“This new material marks an exciting addition that proves how our cultural exchange was indeed a two-way street paved in large part by Cuban artists and tastemakers,” said Tim Rodgers, director of The Wolfsonian–FIU.
“Sharing Massaguer’s story right here in Miami—the gateway to Latin America—is remarkably fitting.”
Cuban Caricature and Culture: The Art of Massaguer will be on view at The Wolfsonian–FIU until Feb. 2, 2020.