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Cigars in Cuban art. Consolation of the pensive

Cigars in Cuban art. Consolation of the pensive

by Jorge Rivas Rodríguez

The history of cigars as a leitmotif or coprotagonist in Cuban art goes back to the first half of the 19th century following the arrival in 1822 in Cuba of the lithographic process, prior to its occurrence in countries such as the US, Argentina, Mexico and Spain. This new printmaking technique had been discovered 25 years earlier in 1798 in what is today the Czech Republic, and it was brought to Cuba by the painter Santiago Lasseus y Durant.

After the successful lithography boom, a group of important graphic artists (engravers and lithographers), also motivated by the extraordinary growth of the tobacco industry, started to create striking, colorful prints in the new technique, which permitted them to reproduce small format drawings and paintings using a full range of color and some admirable gold reliefs.

In the 1840s, these creators left their mark on art with their amazing designs on cigar boxes. According to records of that era, Ramón Allones, with his La Eminencia brand, is given the credit for having been the first one to use lithographed labels on his cigar boxes and the first one to sell deluxe packages, crafted from precious wood, becoming quite the rage in European court circles.

But it wasn’t until the mid 1850s that the new artistic techniques used on Cuban cigars acquired significant coverage on the world market. This was accomplished by a structured ad campaign run by Luis Susini with his La Honradez brand founded in 1853. Among the most outstanding lithographic artists designing cigar vitolas, we have Juan de la Mata and Louis Caire; they and others also made great contributions to spreading this art form in Cuba.

The first chromolithographic press arrived in Havana in 1861. In 1865 a device patented by E. Gaiffe arrived from France, consisting of a sort of electric engraving contraption called the Magneto-Electrique Machine. Its manufacturers came along to train Cuban technicians in the functioning of this strange electrical apparatus which allowed artists to draw directly onto a piece of polished stone without having to resort to the work of engravers or lithographers.

The growth of the tobacco and engraving industry took place simultaneously into the 1880s. In 1881, Alfredo Pereira Taveira from Portugal introduced photo-lithography and two years later he brought in photo-engraving.

At that time there were already a number of well-known Cuban cigar brands in existence, some of which had been founded in the 1830s by Spanish immigrants and subsequently continued by their descendants. Among the many, we should especially mention the celebrated Partagás (1845), Romeo y Julieta (1875), Por Larrañaga (1834), H. Upmann (1844), El Águila de Oro (1864) and El Cetro (1882).

This boom resulted in the proliferation of lithographic workshops. The first one we should mention would be the Litografía del Gobierno y Real Sociedad Económica La Honradez. Cuban artists and Spanish artists living in Cuba saw a future in creating a wide variety of works. Some of these were veritable artistic jewels, but others were less fortunate due to their creators’ lack of talent. In December of 1906, following the War of Independence and after the US intervention, three of the largest lithographic workshops in Havana (Rosendo Fernández Gamoneda, Manuel García and the Litográfica Habana Comercial) merged to create what would be known thereafter as the Compañía Litográfica de la Habana; it was made up of several shops where limestone continued to be used as the matrix in most of the cases related to printing the elements decorating cigar boxes, composed of both inner and outer coverings. Around 1870, vitolas or cigar rings appeared on the scene and this led to the later wave of collecting.

In 1926, on 155 Ayestarán St., a modern and spacious building was put up using advanced technology bringing together almost all the lithographic workshops from around the city. For the first time metal replaced stone and the offset technique began to be used. Such technological advances made it possible to increase productivity and decrease cost to the detriment of the quality of the lithographic labels produced there.

The Golden Age of artistic lithography had faltered, along with the quality and beauty of the decorative elements used by the tobacco trade. The period that saw painters and draftsmen creating drawings on limestone lasted a little over a century; it is an ingenious technique that requires the printmaker to run the prints for each different color.

Founded in February 26, 1993, the Museum of Tobacco—housed in an 18th-century building at 120 Mercaderes St. and refurbished as part of the overall restoration of Havana´s Historical Center, preserves valuable collections associated with tobacco-inspired culture such as instruments to process tobacco leaves, pipes, lighters and other implements used in the art of smoking cigars. It also houses an important collection of lithographic stones and labels of the prestigious cigar brands.

Tobacco in the Pinar del Río landscape

Countless artists from the picturesque province of Pinar del Río in the western region of Cuba, home to many of the best tobacco plantations in the world from the 19th century until the present, have used subject matter in their work that shows growing, harvesting and smoking tobacco. These are important works, many of which belong to private and government collections and others which have been sold to international galleries and visitors, particularly due to the remarkable indifference produced on this genre of painting when Cuba was overrun at the end of the 1980s by all the new –isms and trends of international contemporary art.

Many of these creators were, and are, self-taught artists. For that reason much of their work is labeled as Art Naïf. This may be another of the reasons why their work does not travel beyond the local Casas de Cultura and other similar institutions.

Domingo Ravenet

Belonging to the so-called artistic avant-garde, he is someone who has gained importance for his murals, paintings, sculptures and ceramics, some of them using the subject of tobacco, and he has become one of the most well-known modern artists in Cuba. The work of the excellent painter, sculptor, engraver, illustrator and cultural promoter Domingo Ravenet Esquerdo (Valencia, España, 1905-La Habana, Cuba, 1969) took a turn to abstraction in the 1950s, while in his sculpture, in Cuba he is considered to be a pioneer in working with forged and cast metal rods, fathering a veritable revolution in art that attempted to promote pure form.

In the 1950s, Ravenet became especially interested in sculpture and artistic ceramics, working from the workshop of Dr. Juan Miguel Rodríguez de la Cruz, a physician who had installed a studio-factory on the outskirts of Havana, some 20 kilometers away in Santiago de las Vegas. Ravenet joined forces there with Amelia Peláez, Wifredo Lam, René Portocarrero, Mariano Rodríguez, María Elena Jubría and other artists, without abandoning his painting which moved gradually towards abstraction while maintaining some figurative characteristics. .

The two pieces created by this artist in reference to tobacco were a mural and a sculpture.

The first one, placed at the Ministry of Labor and Social Security headquarters in 1947, was entitled El tabaco and it shared the building with another work executed in the same technique called La Ganadería (1946): unfortunately both pieces disappeared in the 1970s due to careless building renovations.

In El tabaco, Ravenet divided up his composition for the purpose of recreating different stages in the process through which the valuable tobacco leaves need to pass in order to end up as cigars: harvest, selection, aging, packaging, and cigar-making. The painting was done in a wonderfully realistic style, thereby providing a notable attraction for visitors to the building because of his obvious knowledge and great creativity in interpreting rural customs and ways of life.

His other great work associated with tobacco is his monument to plantation and tobacco factory workers, a sculpture located at the entrance to the town of Santiago de las Vegas, done in homage to the courageous Vuelta Abajo workers who revolted against the commercial monopoly imposed by Spanish colonialism in the 18th century and to the contributions of the Tampa-based tobacco workers towards the organizing and funding of the War of 1895, the first Creole rebellion in Cuba and, according to some historians, in all of the Americas.

The work was designed and executed from 1956 to 1957 and installed by the artist on January 19, 1958. The technique uses the welding of rods and other stainless steel pieces, thereby inaugurating a new style in his artistic oeuvre. It would give way to a style where he could indulge in his abstract-figurative interests during this period.

With its geometric-abstract forms (pyramids, cubes, triangles and squares), the sculpture is seven and a half meters tall: it was erected on an impressive black and white marble base bearing an inscription alluding to the reason for its being placed there. It is crowned by a tobacco flower sprouting from a marble monolith placed over one of the steel platforms.

Ravenet’s creations constitute a solid body of work within Cuban art dedicated to tobacco and its heroes.

From the 1980s, with the advent of the visual arts boom in Cuba, encouraged by the creation of a solid system of arts education instituted after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in January of 1959, reputable and emerging artists have recreated an infinite number of works about the consumption, growing and harvesting of tobacco and about its manufacturing processes. Among such figures we should mention the Proyecto Grupo Espiral (PGE), founded in January of 2009 for the purpose of contributing to the growth and affirmation of humanism and man’s attitude towards others and reality.

Masters such as Adigio Benítez (1924-2013), National Visual Arts Prizewinner 2002 and National Prizewinner of Artistic Education; Juan Moreira (1938); and Ileana Mulet (1952), all graduates of the San Alejandro Art Academy, as well as Ernesto García Peña (1949) and José Omar Torres López (1953) have all left their mark on visual art focusing on tobacco. This has been a project which has also interested other more recent and less well-known artists.

Photography has left its mark on this subject matter, not only in journalistic photography with its recurrent reports on growing, harvesting and producing cigars, but often in an essentially artistic vein. Some of the well-known photographers who have produced series on tobacco are Luis Bruzón Fuentes (1959) and Miguel Puldon Villarreal (1951).

The Painter of Tobacco

Among the Cuban creators whose work touches on tobacco and has made an impression abroad is Milton Brenal (1960), known as the Painter of Tobacco. Not only is tobacco his subject matter, he actually uses tobacco leaves as his medium. Over these, he superimposes drawings of female nudes, portraits and landscapes.

Many other contemporary artists in Cuba have devoted segments of their artistic production to tobacco as a sort of remembrance and tribute to a plant which is part of our national culture and identity. It has been around for over 500 years, when the Spanish colonizers arrived on the Island and noticed how the natives loved smoking what José Martí defined as “Indian leaf, consolation of the pensive, delight of dreamers, architects of the air, fragrant bosom of the winged opal…”