The Cigar Box Art of Cuba


Early designs were scientifically detailed: the plumelike antennae of owl-eyed moths, a green landscape framed by gold and red emblems, a dark eagle soaring above Havana Harbor...shields, swords, the coat-of-arms from each province of Spain…mounted lancers with telescopes and trumpets…and then, during the Golden Age of Lithography, the innate Cuban spirit of self-mockery emerged, multi-hued operatic stages with bird-faced prima donnas in ruffled dresses, an audience of turkeys and crows…caped and robed, Honor was depicted as a blind-folded woman…celebrity portraits: Marie Antoinette, Isabella II, Napoleon III…

soon there were sensual themes, classical nudes partially hidden by velvet draperies or the waters of shimmering fountains…borders of jungle birds and musical instruments, arabesques of flowering vines with clasping tendrils…a drunken tavern scene, the men crude, the women sly…

and for delicate ladies who smoked small cigars, there were cross-stitch designs, bowls of fruit, wreaths and kittens, fields of golden tulips with the faces of bearded wise men, declarations of love, angels and saints, the birds of Cuba, a child swaying in a restful hammock against a background of palm fronds and musical lyrics…crowns and coins, allegories of ancient Greek nymphs, anchors, roses, golden chariots, a heraldic lion with a halo and the wings of a phoenix…vineyards, orchids, maps, ships, sunsets…patriots, governors, castles, lace…tobacco fields, mountains, a leisurely promenade in the archaic walled city…

and then the theme of Free Cuba emerged: armored heroines in brilliant robes hovering high above stormy clouds…flags and keys, bayonets, cherubim…another eagle, this time golden, with outspread wings illuminated by a sunburst, the gleaming talons gripping a scroll and a swords, all the words on the scroll completely invisible…rebellion…independence from Spain…a new era of symbols and secrets…

Margarita Engle