Rare Photographs, Advertisements & Posters from Pre-1959 Cuba

Rare Photographs, Advertisements, and Posters from Pre-1959 Cuba to Premiere at The Wolfsonian on May 6, 2016

Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure, American Seduction explores how Americans and Cubans shaped perceptions of one another through print media, film, and music in the early to mid-20th century

Exhibition coincides with a major gift of over 1,000 works from collector Vicki Gold Levi to the museum

On the heels of renewed diplomatic relations and travel between the United States and Cuba, The Wolfsonian–Florida International University will explore constructed images of Cuban culture and the exotic in Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure, American Seduction, on view May 6 through August 21, 2016. The exhibition will feature hundreds of photographs, posters, and other promotional ephemera from 1920 through 1959—the two nations’ first major period of cultural exchange, when American tourists flocked to tropical Cuba for its promise of rum, rumba, and a glamorous nightlife. Many of the works will be on public display for the first time in the U.S.
In tandem with Promising Paradise, The Wolfsonian will acquire over 1,000 works from collector, author, and longtime Wolfsonian donor Vicki Gold Levi. The acquisition bolsters previous gifts of Cuban material by Levi to the museum, including a collection donated in 2002 of over 400 objects ranging from cigar labels to magazine covers. Selections from both gifts will be included in Promising Paradise, in addition to loans and other items from The Wolfsonian’s permanent collection. Many of the gifted works are reproduced in the exhibition’s complementary publication Cuba Style: Graphics from the Golden Age of Design, co-authored by Gold Levi with renowned art director and Wolfsonian advisory board member Steven Heller.

“We are thrilled to be presenting this exhibition on the cusp of a new dawn in Cuba-U.S. relations,” stated Wolfsonian chief librarian Francis X. Luca, who is co-curating Promising Paradise with Rosa Lowinger, noted Cuban-born conservator and author of Tropicana Nights: The Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub. “These rare materials provide a glimpse into a period many Cubans and Americans have forgotten after more than fifty years of isolation. We’re excited to share Vicki Gold Levi’s gift with Miami, a city so richly influenced by the Cuban-American community.”

Added donor Vicki Gold Levi: “I’ve had Latin rhythms in my DNA since growing up in Atlantic City, mamboing my way through high school dancing to Pérez Prado. As a picture editor and later as an author, I became further enthralled with Cuba. My collection is right at home at The Wolfsonian, where I know it will be the subject of continual study and re-examination for years to come.”

Promising Paradise will focus on products of the pre-1959 American-Cuban tourist trade. Travel brochures, posters, and promotional films framed Cuba as an escape for wealthy Americans from the bounds of Prohibition, Depression-era economic woes, and wartime rationing. Through bold graphics, lush imagery, and dazzling, enticing color palettes, these materials packaged and publicized the enchantment and beauty of Cuba for Americans, creating a fantasy of a dreamy island paradise. The exhibition also addresses the role of Cuban tastemakers—artists, musicians, performers, graphic designers, and the Cuban Tourist Commission—in shaping this vision of Cuba for American audiences.
Key works include:

  • A late-1920s sheet music cover for Cuban dances, Siboney, a true Cuban-American collaboration between Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona and American lyricist Dolly Morse;
  • A film poster for the 1949 classic Holiday in Havana, with Mary Hatcher and pre-I Love Lucy Desi Arnaz;
  • Come to Cuba, an early-1950s, vibrant brochure advertising the country’s wide variety of attractions (dancing, beach-going, gambling, and horse racing) below Columbus’ description of Cuba as “the loveliest land that human eyes have ever seen”;
  • A tropical menu cover from the restaurant in Havana’s Sans Souci nightclub and casino;
  • Cuba, Ideal Vacation Land: Tour Guide (1951–52), touting a colorful book cover associating the island with the allure of a long-limbed, swimsuit-clad woman; and
  • A brightly designed, abstract playbill (c. 1955) from the Tropicana Club, also in Havana.

In addition, photographs, film clips, and other artifacts reveal the craze for Latin culture in the U.S., particularly among celebrities and the Hollywood elite. As the rich and famous frequented the cabarets and casinos of Havana, Americans adapted Afro-Cuban dance and music for the stage and screen—bringing the Cuban flavor experienced abroad back home, and resulting in an explosion of Latin-inspired nightclubs across the country and the establishment of many Cuban performers as household names. The tremendous influence of Cuban culture on the U.S. extended beyond movies, jazz, mambo, cha cha cha, and the conga to the sports and fashion worlds, and more.

Highlights of this section are:

  • A Prohibition-era image of an American tourist enjoying the newly unveiled Bacardi Quest Bar in Havana in 1931;
  • A photograph (c. 1945) capturing many of Cuba’s most famous musicians of the 1940s, including rumbero Silvestre Méndez, singer Miguelito Valdés, and Chano Pozo, one of the creators of Afro-Cuban jazz;
  • A mid-1940s photograph with Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. and novelist Ernest Hemingway among a crowd gathered around a large swordfish on the Cuban docks;
  • Two original performance dresses worn by famed Cuban singers Celia Cruz and Olga Guillot in the 1950s—Cruz’s decorated with gold sequins, and Guillot’s with coral beads;
  • A mid-1950s photograph of Cuban singer Benny Moré, probably taken at the Bambu Club in Havana;
  • A photograph (c. 1955) of Celia Cruz posing with American singer Frankie Laine, Cuban modelo Nora Osorio, Rolando from the dancing team of Ana Gloria and Rolando, and Tropicana Club stars;
  • A photograph (1955) of American actor Marlon Brando playing the bongos in Cuba, with Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante looking on; and
  • A photograph of gangster Meyer Lansky and staff of his Hotel Habana Riviera, in 1958.

Additional works feature Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor, and Cesar Romero with samba performer Carmen Miranda.

Many of the works speak to historic issues of race and gender in representing ideas of the tropics, the exotic, and the “other.” Women and the female body played prominent roles, as did acknowledgments of the Latin American and African geneses of jazz, rumba, and other popular music and dance genres of the first half of the twentieth century.

Promising Paradise marks new territory for The Wolfsonian,” said museum director Tim Rodgers. “As we continue to research the collection generously gifted to us by Vicki Gold Levi, we look forward to building upon these opportunities to tell the nuanced, complex stories of Cuba and the U.S.—neighboring cultures that together shaped Miami into what it is today.”

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