HELLO FROM HAVANA AT THE WOLFSONIAN
THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU’S current exhibition Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure, American Seduction is timely indeed. With normalized relations, Cuba will become an attraction for all red-blooded American modernism voyeurs—and there’s no telling what tourism will build or destroy. The show is comprised of ephemera from the collection of Vicki Gold Levi, my coauthor of Cuba Style: Graphics from the Golden Age of Design (2002).
Havana today is a city frozen in time. Or, shall we say, times: art deco and streamline as well as mid-century modern buildings, signs, and decor survive, though often in disrepair. Levi’s extensive collection of rare visual treasures, including photographs, posters, and graphic design (a lot that does not appear in the book), shows vintage pre-Castro, Americano-influenced Cuba with all the material and sensual indulgences that were matter-of-fact in the day.
Graphic design from the period starting in the 1930s was closely tied to European art deco and American commercial modern styles. It celebrated luxury, wealth, and material pleasure through illustrations, photographs, and typography. It seduced through the promise of good food, exotic dance, unbridled music, and relentless nighttime fun. Cuba’s bounty of tourist offerings, from casinos to beaches, ran the same aesthetic gamut—glitz to kitsch—as is still the case in Las Vegas and Times Square. Tourism was aimed at every middle- to upper-class visitor. So every taste was exploited.
Promising Paradise returns visitors to Havana, the cosmopolitan city with its architectural jewels built on huge profits from surging sugar exports to the United States. Not surprisingly, the graphic imagery often suggested the Gomorrah of the Caribbean. Meanwhile there were pockets of extreme poverty across the country, which triggered the revolution.
Levi’s artifacts, which were mostly buried after the revolution, are a portent of what may lie ahead, as developers are poised for the next economic boom. The Wolfsonian/Levi collection exhibition is an important historical signpost for a swath of Cuban history that speaks to the nation’s past, present, and future—and how it just may seduce Americans once again. wolfsonian.org