Cuban Caricature and Culture: The Art of Massaguer

By The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

With his biting
political satire, caricatures, and magazine and advertising illustrations,
publisher and graphic artist Conrado Walter Massaguer (1889–1965) helped shape
the visual culture of his native Cuba between the 1920s and 1950s. Drawn from a recent donation by
Vicki Gold Levi to The Wolfsonian–FIU, the works reflect Massaguer’s
legacy, from images of the “New Woman” flapper ideal and caricatures of
politicians and Hollywood celebrities to depictions of tropical paradise
for the Cuban Tourist Commission.

Conrado W. Massaguer (1923) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

The Art of Massaguer

Graphic artist Conrado Walter Massaguer (1889–1965) helped shape the visual culture of his native Cuba between the 1920s and 1950s. As founder and art director for two of Cuba’s most important magazines, Massaguer mingled with dignitaries and celebrities—both local and foreign—many of whom he parodied in his syndicated caricatures. Through his magazines and his work for Cuba’s Tourist Commission, he advanced modernist aesthetics, disseminated images of the “new woman,” and promoted Cuba as a tourist destination. Massaguer also made an impact in the United States through illustrations he made for publications during several stretches that he spent in New York. Well‐traveled and cosmopolitan, Massaguer synthesized the social and artistic trends of North America, Europe, and Latin America, becoming a tastemaker in Cuba.

Self‐portrait of Massaguer (1945) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Artist and Publisher

Born in 1889 in Cárdenas, Cuba, Massaguer spent much of his youth in Mexico and the United States. Returning to Havana in 1908, he formed an advertising agency and eventually moved into magazine publishing. He and his brother Oscar founded two of Cuba’s most influential magazines: Social (1916–33, 1935–37), which catered to elites, and Carteles (1919–60), aimed at a more popular audience. In the late 1920s, Massaguer exhibited his caricatures in Paris and toured Europe, and then spent most of the 1930s as a political exile in New York, where he contributed artwork to American magazines. He returned to his homeland later that decade and solidified his reputation as a celebrated caricaturist of world leaders and other public figures.

Conrado W. Massaguer, Havana (May 5, 1939)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

In this photograph taken at the end of the Great Depression, Massaguer sports a straw hat and walking stick. He had already depicted himself in the same costume for a calling card in the early 1920s, when he sought to introduce himself to New York society.

Conrado W. Massaguer (1923) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

In 1923, Massaguer created a calling card, introducing himself to the New York social set as “young, single and easy to look at.” When he arrived in 1924, however, he was no longer single. The wealthy publisher and his bride, a niece of former Cuban president Mario García Menocal, spent their honeymoon at the Waldorf‐ Astoria, and he established a studio in the city.

Early doodles of New York landmarks (c. 1903) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

When his family returned to Cuba after the war of independence, Massaguer’s parents believed their son might benefit from an American education. While attending a military academy in upstate New York, young Massaguer wrote letters home complete with illustrations of famous sites and persons he encountered in New York City.

Self‐portrait of Massaguer (1945) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

In this self-caricature, Massaguer depicts life as a carousel ride, with an angel hovering over one shoulder and the devil over the other.

Social (January 1925) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Although Carteles proved more popular and long‐lived, Social best represents Massaguer’s artistic and cultural influence in Cuba. The bellboy became one of his iconic tropes, appearing in many magazine illustrations and tourism promotion materials.

Carteles (November 29, 1931) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Aimed at middle‐class Cubans and offering news, cinema and theater reviews, and sports reporting, Carteles highlighted the artwork of the island’s best artists and illustrators on its covers. It achieved the largest circulation of any daily or weekly in Latin America.

El Figaro (1909–10) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Massaguer’s early covers for El Figaro reflect some of his lasting concerns as an illustrator and caricaturist. One pokes fun at American tourists well before Cuba became the premier destination for vacationing Americans in the 1920s.

El Figaro (1909–10) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Massaguer rarely caricatured women, preferring to make idealized illustrations of young models. Many covers also lampooned pretentious politicians and celebrities.

Life, Havana Number (January 19, 1928) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

New York, New Deal

Massaguer straddled the worlds of Havana and New York during important moments of his career. Educated at a military school in the United States, he made brief visits to New York City in the teens and mid‐twenties, and returned there in 1931 as a political exile after conflicting with Cuba’s president, Gerardo Machado. Maintaining a studio in New York during the Great Depression, he suspended publication of his magazine Social, while providing American publications with witty caricatures commenting on President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.

Today (October 28, 1933) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

While some of Massaguer’s work made light of the New Deal, other illustrations championed key programs like the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and depicted its opponents as self-destructive individualists.

A New Year’s Review of the Passing Show (February 1934) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Massaguer produced this center-page spread depicting President Roosevelt and other world leaders and celebrities ushering in the new year with a parade.

Life, Havana Number (January 19, 1928) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Producing the cover art for a special Havana issue of Life magazine, Massaguer used the Cuban flag as a backdrop and represented Cuba as a woman wearing a traditional hoop skirt with a modern Art Deco pattern.

Domino Guajiro [Farmer Dominoes] (c. 1931) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Massaguer exhibited art highlighting Cuban culture at New York’s Delphic Studios, including this famous drawing depicting his countrymen engaged in the national pastime of dominoes.

Despues de la rumba [After the Rumba Dance] (c. 1931) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

In the 1920s and 30s, the rumba was popularized in the U.S. as a foxtrot danced to Latin music. This painting, which was exhibited in New York City, shows an Afro-Cuban dancer set against a banana tree, emphasizing the tropical, African origins of the dance.

Drawing (c. 1928) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

The "New Woman" and the Massa-Girls

As an art director and publisher, Massaguer made Social a vehicle for shaking up conservative Cuban society. On its covers and within its pages, he promoted the “new woman” ideal in his portraits of young Cuban women. Known as Massa‐girls they were celebrated for wearing their hair in a bob and discarding constraining corsets and traditional values. Massaguer both celebrated and fretted over women’s social and sexual liberation, and his illustrations reflect that ambivalence.

Social (April 1929) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Massaguer’s main contribution to the Art Deco movement in Cuba was his promotion of the “modern woman” or flapper.

Social (February 1926) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

In this cover design by Massaguer, a modern flapper unmasks and reveals herself at a ball.

Massa‐girls: “Boy,” from Social (June 1926) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

During Massaguer’s early stays in New York, he drew inspiration from the American artist Charles Dana Gibson’s popularization of the image of the late Victorian debutante with his “Gibson Girls.” An advocate of modernism, Massaguer made the “modern woman” the focus of his female portraits.

Massa-girls: La del cerquillito [Massagirls: The One with the Bangs], from Social (August 1926) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

In the first year of publishing Social, Massaguer introduced an illustrated feature, captioned “Massa‐Girls,” a play on both the sound of his surname and on the term “masa”—a crude slang word referring to women’s bodies.

Woman with bobbed haircut (c. 1925) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

This hand-drawn sketch by the artist demonstrates his interest and skill in capturing the short cut style of hair popular with young women of the twenties.

Drawing (c. 1928) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

This original watercolor of Diana, the goddess of the hunt, depicts the classical deity as a young woman with a fashionable, modern haircut. The image was reproduced as a cover design for Massaguer’s Social magazine.

Come to Cuba (c. 1930) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Promoting Cuba

Massaguer was a very active participant in the campaign by Cuban officials to promote the island as a tourist destination from the 1920s to the 1950s. Even during the 1930s, when the Great Depression and political strife in Cuba discouraged tourism, Massaguer continued to produce promotional material, including a mural in the Cuba pavilion of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In the 1950s, as the government encouraged casino development, Massaguer was named director of public relations for the Cuban Institute of Tourism.

Cuba Hotel Directory (c. 1938) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

An ardent supporter of Cuba’s tourism industry, Massaguer used the iconic bellboy popularized in his illustrations for Social to promote the island as a friendly and welcoming vacation destination.

Come to Cuba (c. 1930) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Using a fan motif, Massaguer depicted the multitude of activities awaiting American tourists in Cuba.

From Sloppy Joe’s, Havana (c. 1940) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

During the era of U.S. prohibition, thirsty Americans flocked to the island, where alcoholic beverages were legal. Even after the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, tourists still went to Sloppy Joe’s for a drink and photograph at the famous bar.

The Land of Romance Cuba (c. 1940) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Massaguer depicted carnival and parades in many of his illustrations and caricatures, picturing historical figures, character types, cultural stereotypes, and famous individuals.

Visit Cuba at the World’s Fair (1939) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Even after the tourist trade declined during the Great Depression, Massaguer continued to promote travel to Cuba in the 1930s, as with this cover illustration for a promotional brochure distributed at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. He also painted a mural in the Cuban pavilion depicting world leaders and celebrities gazing at a Cuban rumba dancer, but it was painted over after a Cuban official claimed it might cause offense with the American public.

Walt Disney (c. 1951) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Caricature

In penning his caricatures, Massaguer drew on the Cuban tradition of the choteo, a genre of humorous pictorial criticism leveled against corrupt politicians, other self‐serving individuals, or the general state of affairs in the country. He adopted a modernist approach to caricature, believing that a furtive observation, a simple, fine line, and a spontaneous hand better captured the essence of a subject than a studied and highly refined posed portrait. Full‐page color caricatures of Cuban politicians, world leaders, and celebrities were a regular feature of the “Ellos” section of Social, though he refrained from caricaturing female subjects.

Massaguer (seated center left) celebrating his birthday with friends (1943)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Massaguer created many large caricature cut-outs of renowned Cuban and international celebrities, some of which served as decoration for the walls of Club Casablanca.

“Ellos en el baile presidencial, flirt” [Those in the Presidential Dance, Flirt] (March 1920) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Many Cuban caricaturists, Massaguer included, were threatened with arrest, imprisonment, or involuntary exile for ridiculing powerful political figures. This did not deter the artist from targeting presidential contenders in 1920.

Social (May 1925) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Soon after Gerardo Machado was elected president of Cuba, Massaguer celebrated his victory on the cover of Social. He contrasted a smiling portrait of the new president with his scowling, drooling predecessor, Alfredo Zayas y Alfonso.

İA Escoger! [To Choose!] (1927) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

President Machado reneged on his promise to serve for a single term and responded to protest with bloody repression. Massaguer penned satirical attacks against Machado’s abuses of power, joining the growing camp of dissidents and exiles.

Dr. Enrique J. Varona (c. 1920) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Massaguer created a series of illustrated postcards caricaturing noted Cuban figures he admired. Dr. Enrique J. Varona, poet and founder of the periodical Revista Cubana, was the first Cuban intellectual to speak out against the excesses of the Gerardo Machado regime.

Massaguer Sketching Actors Dick Powell and Joan Blondell honeymooning in Havana (1936)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

In his role as a tourism promoter, Massaguer was often at hand when dignitaries and celebrities arrived at the airport or docks of Havana harbor, pulling out his sketch pad and scribbling caricatures of the visitors.

Walt Disney (c. 1951) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Massaguer’s caricature of Walt Disney depicted him surrounded by animals, though he prudently included none of the litigious cartoonist’s most famous characters.

Massaguer and Walt Disney at Disney’s Studios, Burbank, California (1951)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Walt Disney and Massaguer met at the Burbank Studio in Hollywood, California after the latter had won the Julio Gaunaurd Award, named for the founder and editor of the humorous weekly, Karikato.

Jefferson Caffery, from Social (November 1935) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Massaguer’s caricatures of American public figures reflect his ambivalence about the United States. He admired the country as a model of modern efficiency, but also resented American interference in Cuban affairs.

Carteles (November 13, 1932) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Massaguer spent much of the 1930s in New York as a political exile. His caricatures from this time express early enthusiasm for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, which aimed to fight the Great Depression, and for his diplomatic initiatives under his Good Neighbor policy.

Santa and Allied leaders at gas station (1945) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Massaguer was back in Cuba during the war years and made many caricatures in support of the Allied fight against Fascism and Nazism, as in this holiday Esso gasoline advertisement made in the aftermath of victory.

Massaguer: Su vida y su obra [Massaguer: His Life and Work] (1957) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

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

Voy bien Camilo? [Going Well Camilo?] (1959) by Conrado W. Massaguer (Cuban, 1889–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Following the overthrow of President Fulgencio Batista in 1959 by Fidel Castro and his allies, Massaguer published this book providing the first caricatures of the revolutionaries. Many of the advertisements within depict them enjoying American brands like Coca-Cola, Buick, and Jell-O—soon to become off-limits in Cuba after Castro cut ties with the United States. The last of Massaguer’s popular magazines, Carteles, ceased distribution in 1960, and he would finish out his days quietly working in Cuba’s National Archives

Credits: Story

Organized by The Wolfsonian–Florida International University and made possible by Vicki Gold Levi and her recent donation of works by Conrado W. Massaguer.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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