By LAURA STEWART | Fine Arts Writer | [url=http://www.News-Journalonline.com]http://www.News-Journalonline.com[/url]
The Museum of Arts and Sciences is offering much more than an ordinary day trip with the exhibit that opens today. “Tobacco Art” takes viewers all the way back to 19th-century Havana, in all its tropical glory.
Tiny garlands surround colorful birds in one cigarette wrapper, adding a luxurious border to its scene of two women feeding fruit to a child in a hammock. The woman who slumbers in a hammock at the center of another wrapper’s ornate scene wears only a skirt and headdress of tobacco leaves, while cartoonish figures act out humorous little dramas in 1866 calendar pages that wrapped La Honradez cigarettes.
Orlando collector Alberto Bustamante, chairman of the Coral Gables-based group that organized the exhibit, the Cuban National Heritage, said what attracted him to the miniature lithographic prints initially was their beauty. Bustamante, self-described “collector at heart,” began with stamps as a child in Cuba. He began collecting labels about 30 years ago, recognizing their artistic and cultural values.
“I am passionate about Cuba—I moved to the United States in October 1960 and participated in the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961,” he said. “After I came out of that mess, I married and finished my medical degree in Madrid. But I was always a collector—first stamps, then I got interested in books on Cuba and maps, and continued with the labels.
“They’re very important because Cuba, along with France and Germany, was the capital of engraving—because of the tobacco industry,” said Bustamante, who gave a large portion of the works in “Tobacco Art” to the Heritage. “The best designers went to Cuba—there were more than 300 factories of tobacco in Havana in the 1860s, and 300 to 400 outside Havana, so it was a very rich area for designers.
“I have a collection of about 1,000 figurative labels now,” he said. “Imagine this: the records of the top factory of cigarettes in the whole world show that it had equipment so advanced that, between 1860 and 1882 or so, visitors could go for a tour of the factory, have photographs made of themselves at the beginning and by the time they left the factory be presented with packages of cigarettes labeled with their own picture, transformed into lithograph prints.”
The thrill of finding new, unusual or pristine labels never fades for Bustamante. He recently visited a German factory that had a branch in Havana and found a proof set of labels in its archives. Those images—the artist’s proof that preceded a full series—were “like they came out of the printing yesterday,” Bustamante marveled. “There were the flowers of Cuba, the birds of Cuba, the castles of Europe, all the armies of Europe with all of the different uniforms, the series that shows the monarchs of the world—all of the monarchs, of the whole world.”
And each of those postcard-sized prints—prized as collectible art from the first that came off the lithographic press and increasingly rare—was made to adorn a round packet of cigarettes, or to decorate a distinctive cigar box. The most cherished are those from cigarette packets, which despite the fine rag paper used by the printers were often discarded.
Still, thanks to those early collectors—both of miniature works of art and of the various subjects painstakingly reproduced in series on the tobacco products—and to the archives kept by factories whose heydays continued into the 1930s, Bustamante can say that he has found most of the treasures he began looking for 30 years ago. The works in “Tobacco Art” are just that—art—and a valuable addition to the works in the Daytona Beach institution’s Cuban Museum,” said Gary Libby, acting director of the Museum of Arts and Sciences.
“There is a very rich creative thread that runs throughout Cuban life and Cuban culture,” he said. “Cubans like to incorporate art into as much of everyday life as possible and the tobacco labels were, and are, taken very seriously as art and as illustration.
“The labels were for tobacco, a major export product along with sugar,” Libby said. “Cuban tobacco was the best, absolutely the best in the world, and so the art had to be the best, too. Like our current exhibit of newspaper-advertising posters, the Heritage’s tobacco labels are lithographs that combine art and commerce.”
Not only that, they capture vivid aspects of life in Old Cuba, Bustamante said. “I have all the armies of Europe now, with all the battalions, crests, colorful uniforms—it is just amazing how detailed the labels are, and how fresh even today. Their quality is very high, their paper was very good and their designs are wonderful—and they were made to package cigars and cigarettes, so long ago in Cuba.”