Escape to Cuba & Enjoy the Good Life in “Promising Paradise”

Artwork: Brochure, Come to Cuba: The Loveliest Land That Human Eyes Have Ever Seen, c. 1950, Conrado Walter Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965), illustrator, Cuban National Tourist Commission, publisher, offset lithograph.

As the United States and Cuba move forward in renewing diplomatic ties, a new exhibition celebrates the ties they held before Fidel Castro took power in 1959, Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure, American Seduction, currently on view at The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami, through August 21, 2016, presents a vision of Cuba that was nothing short of Eden under the sun.

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Designed to coincide with a major gift of over 1,000 works from collector, author, and donor Vicki Gold Levi, the exhibition features hundreds of photographs, posters, and promotional materials from 1920–1959 that highlight the golden years of American tourism. Painted as the perfect escape for the one percent during Prohibition and the Depression, Cuba became a tropical getaway for the decadence of the first generation of jet setters. Cuba offered beaches by day, dancing by night, and gambling all around the clock.

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Book, Cuba, Ideal Vacation Land: Tour Guide, 1951–52, Cuban Tourist Commission, publisher, offset lithograph.

As these images of fun in the sun emerged, Cuba became a land of enchantment to an American populace, promising paradise to anyone who could afford the trip. As the exhibition reveals, the fantasy of island paradise was embedded in the way in which Cuba marketed itself. Sexy and sophisticated, alluringly approachable, the Cuban Tourist Commission created a come hither aesthetic with rich color palettes, lush imagery, and bold graphics that beckoned with finesse.

Promising Paradise is a sumptuous show, recreating the glorious enchantment of the period with works including 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, a tropical menu cover from the restaurant Havana’s Sans Souci nightclub and casino; and a brightly designed, abstract playbill (c. 1955) from the Tropicana Club, also in Havana.

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Menu, Sans Souci Restaurant Garden, Havana, c. 1950, Ucar, Garcia y Cia, Havana, Cuba, publisher, offset lithograph.

As Cuban gained attention in the public eye, it became a site of cross cultural exchange. From Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, and Ava Gardner traveled to Cesar Romero and Carmen Miranda, Hollywood took notice, incorporating aspects of the culture into its celluloid universe. With the popularity of Cuban style reaching the urbane populace, Latin-inspired nightclubs opened across the country, bringing the spirit the of the island came to America. From mambo and cha cha cha to jazz and the conga, Cuban music quickly became a force to be reckoned with, as Promising Paradise reveals in a selection of photographs, film clips, and other artifacts that document the adoption of Afro-Cuban culture in the United States.

Highlights from this section include a photograph (c.1945) of musicians 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 singers Celia Cruz and Olga Guillot in the 1950s; and a photograph of gangster Meyer Lansky and staff of his Hotel Habana Riviera, in 1958.

Program, Showtime at Tropicana, c. 1955, offset lithograph.

Program, Showtime at Tropicana, c. 1955, offset lithograph.

Of her vast and wondrous collection, donor Vicki Gold Levi observes, “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.”

All artwork: Courtesy of The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Vicki Gold Levi Collection.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.