Sunday, 20 September 2009

   

 

JULIO LARRAZ

 

I suppose one of the first things to catch the spectator’s attention in this exhibition will be the dazzling series of bullfight images . These form a kind of show within the show, and serve as a reminder that Larraz, Cuban born, is an heir of the Spanish virtuoso tradition, and also of Manet, who owed so much to what he had absorbed from Spanish art. Manet’s Dead Toreador in the National Gallery in Washington, and his Bullfight in the Frick are cases in point. In fact these two paintings were originally one composition, which Manet brutally cut apart before reworking the fragments.

 

This link also, however, serves as a subtle reminder of something else – of the degree to which Larraz is verifiably a contemporary artist, despite the fact that he possesses skills that we associate more with the great artists of the 19th century rather than with the more limited practitioners of our own day. His bullfight pictures are exercises in radical composition. The strategies he uses owe something to the leading Secessionist photographers of the early 20th century, and something to the great Japanese ukioy-ye masters of eighty to hundred years before that.  Both of the sources have had a profound influence on the development of the Modern Movement in art.

 

 Strand was one of the first to realize that the fragment, the selected detail, could be more effective than a full view of whatever it was he wanted to depict. The great masters of the Japanese woodblock print – Hokusai and Kuniyoshi especially – were expert in presenting the things they saw, or the things they imagined, from totally unexpected angles of view. What these tactics produce, linked together, is a visual object – the finished painting – that forces the spectator to empathize and imagine, rather than simply look. He or she cannot remain passive when confronted with the work.  There is, however, another element as well. In at least two of these bullfight images, Noche de cuatro lunas and Buscaba el Amanecer, one catches an unmistakable echo of Giorgio de Chirico’s early compositions featuring the piazzas and arcades of a deserted city of Turin.  That is to say, they belong o a category where Symbolism is transforming itself into Surrealism.

 

Larraz’s work has always been rich in Symbolist elements, but used in such a way that we often, at first encounter, mistake fantasy for reality. Much the same thing can be said about Chekhov’s plays, which have powerful symbolic content concealed beneath an apparently naturalistic surface, and where the events portrayed often take on an irrational, dream-like quality.

 

This exhibition revisits territory that is already familiar from early works by Larraz. There are. For example, maritime scenes, dream houses on isolated promontories, beautiful yachts moored tranquilly beside them, or cruising through calm seas, which speak of the privileged lives of the very rich. One yacht, in a painting called The Opontis on the Santa Ana, seems to have an exquisite garden planted on its rear deck. It takes a moment to recall that Oplontis is the name of a palatial Roman villa destroyed by the eruption that also destroyed Pompeii. Its owner was the Emperor Nero’s wife, the notorious Poppaea Sabina.

 

Other images recall the ways in which this life-style is financed and protected.  Several paintings represent war rooms, with maps covering their walls. One is presided over by a sinister-looking woman wearing dark glasses. In the other, two middle-aged men in suits confer, while, behind them, a young woman plants her high-heeled foot on the circular sofa where one of them sits, ignoring her presence. The woman is represented only by her leg . We see the top of her stocking and infer that she is probably naked but for her stockings and shoes, and realize that she is becoming impatient for attention. The painting is a fine example of compressed, allusive narrative, of just the sort that Chekov uses in his plays and short stories. We construct a story from the people and objects shown in the picture – a narrative about the corruption inherent in political power. The narrative, however, is unreliable. We cannot be sure that the story we imagine is the correct one. Other explanations are possible.

 

Another war-room painting, the one featuring a middle-aged woman , alert and aggressive, seated in front of a wall of maps, introduces a theme that is recurrent in Larraz’s work – that of the sinister, dominating female. She appears in the current show in a number of guises.

 

In Above Suspicion she has just disembarked from an aircraft, and is making her way to a black limo, surrounded by burly bodyguards and hemmed about by reporters.  In Proclamation she is a huge black woman, seated in a white armchair in a kind of marquee. She is waving a sheet of paper and evidently addressing a crowd. The crowd is not shown – we infer it is in fact ourselves.  In La Alcadesa de Point du Loup, she is a politician (‘alcaldesa’ means ‘mayor’ or ‘mayoress’) carried triumphantly, in a kind of sedan chair, above the heads of a crowd in which there are a number  of military figures. The French place name, and the fact that the mayoress is black, imply that the scene may be taking place in Haiti.

 

Larraz  also, from time to time, offers male counterparts to these women. An example here is Dress Rehearsal for General Malacara – a black man in elaborate military uniform, seated with arms folded, and with, behind him, a large mirror that reflects a partially nude female figure. The image makes it plain that the man is glaring at her as she disrobes. In Spanish, ‘tene mala cara’ is an idiom used if one has missed a night’s sleep, or is feeling depressed or otherwise slightly under the weather. The general’s name, like his pose, and the military cap thrown sulkily on the floor, tell us that he is currently displeased with his situation. It seems that the woman does not please him. He is nevertheless an archetype for the dictators who have plagued the Caribbean region since the wars of independence that ended Spanish colonial power.

 

Dress Rehearsal is a painting full of irony, and irony has always been an important  component in Larraz’s work. There are other instances of it here. One is Defender. Larraz has long been fascinated by the pompous commemorative statues portraying military heroes that abound in Latin America. This work shows just such a figure, but hooded, peg-legged and one-armed – a complete cripple.  Another ironic image, rather sweeter in mood, is The Emerging Poet – swimming under water, wearing flippers, and clutching a brief-case that is no doubt full of his verses. The idea of artistic emergence is presented with dead-pan literalism, and a literary cliché is efficiently sent up.

 

Emerging Poet is a satire, but one infused with a charming sense of fantasy. A seductive vein of fantasy runs through much of  Larraz’s work. Just occasionally it takes him into the world of Science Fiction.  The Light of Sigma Scorpii is an example. The fascinating thing, however is that the lonely house perched on a bluff, with a huge planet hovering beside it, is very obviously a close cousin of the American Gothic building that features in Edward Hopper’s The House by the Railroad, which is the work with which Hopper became the quintessentially American artist we know. And Science Fiction, of course, is a major American literary genre. Larraz is, and always will be, a Cuban artist, and through that identification he is a Latin American artist. Yet he is very much an American artist as well, with an assured place in the American realist tradition – which sometimes, as here, isn’t realist at all.

 

 

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