The Artwork and Caricatures of Conrado Walter Massaguer

This Thursday and Friday, The Wolfsonian–Florida International University will celebrate a promised gift by Vicki Gold Levi of artwork and ephemera with the opening of Cuban Caricature and Culture: The Art of Massaguer, an installation of works by the celebrated Cuban artist, caricaturist, and publisher, Conrado Walter Massaguer (1889–1965). In the process of organizing an installation, the curator begins with the widest range of works for possible inclusion, and slowly winnows down that selection to just those items that best support the central themes and the physical limitations of the exhibition space. Inevitably, many excellent works and much text gets culled. This post will include some items from the installation, but will also feature some items that deserved inclusion but did not make the final cut.


Loan, Leonard Finger, Private Collection

Born in Cárdenas, Cuba, Conrado spent his formative years freely moving between his homeland, Mexico, and the United States. To escape the hostilities of the Cuban Independence wars, the Massaguer family fled to Mérida, Yúcatan, México when Conrado was only seven and returned after the establishment of the Cuban Republic in 1902. Believing their son would benefit from an education in the United States, his parents sent him to the New York Military Academy.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift

Throughout his life, Massaguer easily crossed national borders, internalizing and synthesizing the social trends and artistic movements of North America, Europe, and Latin America, and becoming a trendsetter and taste-maker in his native Cuba.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

In the early 1900s, Massaguer’s artwork graced the covers of El Figaro magazine, where his illustrations first explored many of the themes that would interest him throughout his life: imaging the “new woman” (or flapper) ideal; promoting Cuba as a tourist destination; and satirizing and caricaturing public figures.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift

As early as 1910, Massaguer turned his artistic talents to profit when he co-founded “Mercurio,” his first advertising agency. Six years later, he founded the Instituto de Artes Gráficas and another advertising firm, “Kesevén Anuncios.” Together with his brother, Oscar, Conrado co-founded the short-lived Grafico (1913–1918) and two of Cuba’s most influential magazines, Social (1916–1933, 1935–1937), catering to and shaping the cultural tastes of the island nation’s elites, and Carteles (1919–1960), aimed at a more popular audience.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift

Ads designed by Massaguer’s advertising firms often depicted nationally and internationally recognized politicians and celebrities (such as Charlie Chaplin and Cuban president Gerardo Machado) hawking Cuban products or promoting local establishments; these typically appeared in the many magazines he and his brother published.


Massaguer ad for chocolate using a caricature of Charlie Chaplin

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift


Keseven ad with Massaguer caricature of Cuban President Machado

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

Library Havana Mag Bk Cover

Loan, Emilio Cueto Private Collection

After the Great War ended and Cuban officials decided to promote the island as a tourist destination for North Americans, Massaguer represented Cuba at the World Convention of Advertisers meeting in New Orleans. In the decades that followed, he provided artwork for hotel brochures, advertisements, and posters promoting his homeland as an island paradise for the Cuban Tourist Commission.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

While the Great Depression and political strife under the Machado dictatorship dampened enthusiasm for tourism in the 1930s, Massaguer continued to keep the Cuba dream alive.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Massaguer painted a mural for one of the principal salons of the Cuban pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair that depicted world leaders and celebrities ogling a Cuban rumba dancer. A scandal arose after someone in the Cuban government denounced it, claiming it had caused offense with the American public; Cuban President Laredo Bru preemptively ordered it painted over.


As art director and publisher, Massaguer mingled with local politicos, foreign dignitaries, and visiting celebrities, many of whom he parodied in his syndicated caricatures. In Cuba, he was responsible for disseminating modernist aesthetics and graphics and mentoring and promoting avant-garde artists such as Jaime Valls.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

During Massaguer’s early stays in New York, he drew inspiration from the American artist Charles Dana Gibson’s popularization of late Victorian high society and debutantes with his “Gibson Girls.”


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

As an unapologetic modernist, Massaguer made Social a vehicle for shaking up conservative Cuban society. In first year of the publication of Social, Massaguer introduced an illustrated feature, wryly captioned “Massa-Girls”—a play on the sound of his surname, but also having bawdy connotations since “masa” was the Cuban slang word for describing female flesh.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

On its covers and within its pages, Massaguer promoted the “new woman”  in his portraits of beautiful, young Cuban women who dared to “bob their hair,” discard constraining Victorian corsets and values, and embrace social and sexual liberation.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Though Massaguer frequently produced idealized illustrations of beautiful women, he rarely caricatured the female sex in the same way that he regularly exaggerated the features of male celebrities and leaders.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

In fact, after the noted American composer Mana-Zucca introduced Massaguer to members of the Miami Music Club in April 1926, The Miami News quoted him as modestly claiming to be a better husband than caricaturist. Having described himself as being on excellent terms with his mother-in-law, he admitted that he hadn’t “done her caricature—perhaps that’s the reason we get along.” When pressed, he told the reporter that “I don’t mind making a man’s caricature” but that he was “timid about making a woman’s.” There were some rare exceptions.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift

Massaguer frequently traveled back and forth between his homeland, the U.S., and Europe, exhibiting his work in galleries, contributing to magazines, and establishing his reputation as one of the most celebrated caricaturists of world leaders and celebrities. He adopted a modernist approach to caricature, believing that a simple, fine line and a spontaneous, secretive hand better captured the essence of a subject than a studied and highly edited portrait made of a posed or posturing subject. As early as 1911, Massaguer had gained recognition for his popular caricatures with a solo exhibition of this work at the Havana Ateneo. In 1921 he founded La Primera Exposicíon de Humor and the following year published Guignol [Puppet Show], a collection of his most popular caricatures.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift

Full-page color caricatures of Cuban politicians and world leaders and celebrities were a regular feature of the “Ellos” section of Social.




The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

As an illustrator and publisher, Massaguer was directly involved in shaping the art scene in Cuba and in promoting avant-garde aesthetics. He was an active member of the Minoristas and provided a caricature portrait of the group for a spread in his Social.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

Massaguer straddled the worlds of Havana and New York City during important moments of his career. Determined to make a name for himself in “populosa Manhattan,” Massaguer created a calling card to introduce himself to New York society, describing himself as “yet young, single and easy to look at.” When he disembarked in New York in November 1924, however, he arrived with his new bride, a niece of the former Cuban president Mario G. Menocal. After honeymooning at the Waldorf-Astoria, Massaguer established a studio in the city and contributed cover art and caricatures to many quintessential American magazines.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Some of Massaguer’s artwork celebrating Cuban life and culture was exhibited at the Delphic Studio in New York City.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gifts

A page in his Social proudly noted that “The reviews in the newspapers and the art magazines have all had praise for Massaguer, whose New and Noisy triumph in the great Yankee metropolis so difficult for the foreign artist to conquer, fills those of us working for this magazine with intimate satisfaction and pride because it signifies triumph not only for our compatriot, but also for our publication and for Cuba.”


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

Cuban president Gerardo Machado’s repudiation of a campaign promise not to seek a second term, coupled with economic chaos and ruthless repression of dissent, pushed many early supporters like Massaguer into the dissident camp.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift

In 1929 Massaguer eschewed political strife at home by sailing for Paris. There he exhibited 40 color caricatures before traveling to the League of Nations conference in Geneva, Switzerland to make caricatures of the world leaders in attendance for the King Features Syndicate. News of the Stock Market Crash and violence and repression in Cuba convinced Massaguer to returned to New York City in 1931 as a political exile; he remained there for much of the decade in far more humble circumstances. Economic and political difficulties necessitated the suspension of Social and Carteles, and he concentrated on providing cover art and humorous portraits of celebrities for American magazines and books such as Cosmo Hamilton’s People Worth Talking About (1933).


Massaguer caricature of Rudyard Kipling

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift

As political turmoil in Cuba and global economic depression forced him to suspend publication of Social, Massaguer provided American magazines and publications with cover art and illustrations.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift

Once Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to office, Massaguer began supplying witty caricatures of his controversial National Recovery Administration (NRA) program aimed at reviving the economy.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift

Massaguer was back in Cuba during the Second World War, where he put his caricature to use in the service of the Allies.

villaverde world leaders in car 1945

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift

The U.S.-Cuba tourist trade flourished in the post-war 1950s, and Massaguer greeted and sketched visiting foreign dignitaries and celebrities in his capacity as public relations director of the Instituto Cubano de Turismo.


Massaguer painting Maurice Chevalier, Loan, Ramiro Fernández

Towards the end of his long career, Massaguer self-published an illustrated autobiography reproducing some of his most popular caricatures.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift

Towards the close of the decade, Cuba’s thriving tourist trade was once again interrupted by political strife as revolutionaries sought to depose President Batista, who had assumed power by a coup. Following the overthrow of the Batista regime in 1959, Massaguer published a book providing the first caricatures of Castro and his triumphant revolutionaries.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift

Ironically, many of the advertisements within depict the bearded revolutionaries enjoying and hawking classic American products, like Coca-Cola, Buick, Jell-o, and other brands soon to be taboo once Castro nationalized businesses and relations with the U.S. grew strained.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift

But Fidel Castro’s revolution would soon prove to be too radical for Massaguer and the social order he once knew, influenced, and celebrated with his long-defunct magazine, Social. The last of Massaguer’s popular magazines, Carteles, would stop being distributed in 1960 and the former publisher would finish out his remaining days quietly working in the Cuban National Archives.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift

We hope to see you at the opening party (free to the public) one week from today. The event, co-presented by The New Tropic, features live music by Son Cubano, dancing, and Bacardi mojitos. RSVP here.


~ by "The Chief" on May 31, 2019.

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