Julio Larraz Rules of Engagement
3 October – 24 November 2014
Julio Larraz, who comes from Cuba, is an exile, but not by choice. He be- longs to the great Cuban diaspora. Though he emigrated to America when he was still only a teenager, before he began his career as an artist, he retains a strong feeling of Cuban identity. At the same time, however, his work has been influenced by an experience of North American art – perhaps most of all by the work of Winslow Homer, who made many paintings and – especially – watercolours inspired by regular visits to the Caribbean.
Another important and lasting influence has been Larraz’s keen awareness of the Spanish and Franco-Spanish tradition, in particular the work of Ve- lazquez, and the use made by Manet of both Velazquez and Goya.
Larraz began his career as a professional caricaturist, and to this day a number of his most memorable compositions are sharp-edged political sat- ires, with a particular emphasis on misuses of power and on the sinister complacency of the powerful. Caricature, as an art form, was surrealist long before the emergence of the Surrealist Movement in the early years of the twentieth century. It offers the viewer, not familiar reality, but a paral- lel reality. It tears aside the veils of convention, and shows the viewer how things are when we view them completely naked.
This kind of transformation – from the superficially ‘real’ into something more profoundly truthful – has also been the mainspring of the Magic Re- alist movement in twentieth-century Latin American literature. In many ways, it makes more sense to compare Larraz’s art, not to that of other visual artists, but to that of some of the major twentieth-century Latin American authors – he seems to me to have a special affinity to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to the point where a number of the paintings exhibited here seem like illustrations to stories that Marquez should have written, but somehow never got around to.
The works shown in this exhibition cover a wide spectrum of subjects. There are apparently simple landscapes, ranging in size from two watercolour studies of the Vittoriano – the pompous memorial to Vittorio Emanuele II at Piazza Venezia in Rome – to the big triptych entitled Tongue of the Ocean: a view of an estuary seen from the air, and partly obscured by drifting white cumulus clouds. Equally epic in feeling is the aerial view of a smoking volcano, Monte Calabrone. This title is either entirely fictional, or a fictional nickname for a real location. ‘Calabrone’ is the Italian word for ‘bumblebee’ or, alternatively, for ‘hornet’. It sometimes refers specifically to a particularly large species of bumblebee found in southern Italy. The rumbling noise made by an active volcano can be compared to the noise made by the insect.
These landscapes often have a symbolic subtext, which is more or less ap- parent. Very openly so, for instance, in Las Casa de la Bruja (The House of the Witch), with its solitary white tower standing on barren ground, but placed beside a stream or lake.
Allegory takes over almost completely in the painting called The House of an American Poet, with its vast moon hovering over a structure that looks like a close cousin of Edward Hopper’s famous House by the Railroad – the first painting to enter the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
House by the Railroad has been celebrated in a poem by the well-known American poet Edward Hirsch. The last stanza describes the building as having:
The utterly naked look of someone
Being stared at, someone American and gawky.
Someone who is about to be left alone
Again, and can no longer stand it.
This corresponds fairly exactly to the feeling conveyed by Larraz’s painting, but there is one significant difference between the two compositions. In Larraz’s version, the moon is a dominant force. Hopper’s house is seen in unforgiving daylight.
The present exhibition also contains a distinguished series of still life paintings. These range from the comparatively sober to the deliciously wild. Ramparts depicts a giant clamshell, resting on an otherwise bare table. Any metaphorical energy comes from the title. Other still lifes are more fantastic. Sahasrara shows a cat, reclining on a tottering pillar made from a pile of boxes, each of a different colour and tied with a contrasting ribbon. The message, perhaps, is one about the instability and fragility of an existence based on idle luxury. La Torre de Babel offers a huge white wedding cake, made in the form of a ziggurat, its basic form derived from Brueghel the Elder’s well-known painting of the Tower of Babel in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. At the top are two tiny figures, a bride and groom, of the kind often found adorning conventional wedding cakes. The message, in this case, seems to be a prediction of impending marital discord. The image concisely suggests that the two parties speak different psychological languages, and are unlikely to get on. The white purity of the icing doesn’t count.
The wildest of the still life paintings is Rules of Engagement, which shows a canon ball crashing into a basket of fruit. The event is portrayed using the now-established convention of the stop-motion photograph. The missile is in full flight; the various fruits the basket contained are scattering in all directions. High up in the composition, just about to vanish, one sees the bottom half of a bottle of wine. This suggests that the word ‘engagement’ functions as a pun – that this is an impending marriage that is in the process of being disrupted. Maybe one of the (invisible) guests has just uttered a bombshell.
Larraz is always very skilful in his use of historical allusions. There are four paintings that refer directly to the world of Greece and Rome. One is entitled Homer at the Isle of Falconera. It shows an elderly man in a white suit, accompanied by a dog. He stands gazing out to sea. Behind him one sees the bottom half of the colossal bronze statue of a nude woman. The same man reappears in a composition called At the Villa degli Angeli. He sits meditatively on the edge of a table, in the centre of which is placed a colossal Ancient Greek volute krater, decorated with bands of figures in early black-figure style. The krater is perhaps based on the celebrated François Vase, dating from the early sixth century B. C., now in the Museo Archeologico in Florence. The white-clad man appears again, head just visible over the back of an armchair, in a composition called Helen, only a Memory. He is gazing nostalgically out of a window. Before him, standing on a table but ignored, is a large bronze statuette of a Greek warrior. The intended lesson of these three paintings seems to be that we have a nostalgia for the classical past, but are also alienated from it. The man in the white suit has a somewhat raffish air, especially when we see him in some detail, as we do in Villa degli Angeli. One notes his gold cufflinks and gold watch chain, and the Western style black ribbon he wears as a tie. He is definitely a cousin to some of the upmarket racketeers portrayed in other Larraz compositions.
The fourth picture in the series is somewhat different in tone. The figure in a white suit does not appear. The painting shows a smart white steam yacht, of a slightly old-fashioned kind, sailing between the legs of a co- lossal bronze figure that must be a kind of equivalent for the legendary Colossus of Rhodes. The title is La Tremebunda at the Port of Casablanca. In Spanish, the word ‘tremebunda’ means ‘frightening’ or ‘terrifying’, and the use of the female gender suggests that the statue, seen from the three-quarters back, and only as high as its waist, is, in fact, like the slightly smaller statue seen in Homer at the Isle of Falconera, a representation of an enormous nude woman. The metaphor may even be that the statue has given birth to the yacht that passes between her legs.
This image links easily to the representations of powerful, somewhat threatening women, whom one sees portrayed here in other paintings by Larraz – for example inThe Queen of Hearts, a Parade for the Needy, or En Route to Casablanca. The second of these offers a particularly powerful fantasy – a black matriarch, seated tranquilly in a motor launch, with a full-grown lion resting beside her.
There is also the white clad woman in Dictum, head cut off by the frame, so as to render her anonymous, who lectures a senior black military man in full uniform, seated humbly before her. He is perhaps the jefe of some small Caribbean state, or president of some Central African nation. The painting implies the complicity of the moralising white world in what happens in nations of this kind.
From here one moves into a world familiar to anyone who has studied Larraz’s work in the past. It is a world of powerfully sinister symbolisms. In Calamar a nattily dressed man who facial features have been blurred stands before a tank that contains a giant octopus. In Master Spy, another man, features even more blurred, presents himself before a similar tank that imprisons an enormous shark. In Canto Confesantea be-medalled military leader appears above a wall on which we see the shadows of two enormous praying mantises, locked in mortal combat. Larraz is a master of the sinister and unsettling image, which somehow also becomes resonantly poetic. His paintings haunt the imagination long after one has first seen them. They are more real than reality.