A Lithuanian artist on show in Havana

The reach of Lithuanian artists has spread to the island of Cuba, where the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is currently hosting an exhibition of the works of Boris Lurie (1924–2008), a Russian/Jewish/Lithuanian/American artist who survived the German concentration camps and who settled in the United States after World War Two. The exhibition has been made possible by the Boris Lurie Art Foundation in New York and its Director, Gertrude Stein. To find out more I spoke with Carlos Vicente Fernandez, the curator at the museum responsible for putting the exhibition together.

What was the rationale behind bringing the works of Boris Lurie to Cuba?

Gertrude Stein wanted to have the exhibition in Havana because Boris Lurie loved Cuba. He came to Cuba in 1959 at the start of the Cuban Revolution to see what was going on. We’ve been negotiating back and forth regarding this exhibition with the Foundation for almost a year. This is the first time Boris Lurie’s art has been exhibited in public in Latin America, despite his work having previously been shown in Europe, Russia and the United States.

Who selected the work for the exhibition?

The Foundation hired Jorge Fernandez, an art curator and collector from Majorca, and a German curator, Rafael Vostell, who is also one of the advisors to the Foundation. These two were really the curators of the show. We were invited to come to New York to look at the works and the space and to see what would work in Cuba. A total of 97 works are currently on display here. 

What did you see in New York?

When I saw the paintings in New York, I was very impressed. I didn’t realize how great an artist he was, a conceptual artist, not well known then and even now. Maybe in the future he’ll be more widely known by the public.

Hopefully, the work of the Foundation will provide him with more exposure than before and people will have an opportunity to appreciate a great artist from the 1950s and 1960s. After the war, as a survivor of the concentration camps, Boris felt no hatred towards the Germans. This is a good example of his humanity. He actually wanted to go back to Germany, because when he went to New York he didn’t like it at the start. Through his works he speaks not only about Nazi violence, the violence of the Nazi regime, but against any kind of violence and against all evil at any time in any place in history.

Before this exhibition were you familiar with his work?

No. My specialization is 19th-century British painting. Not many people are aware of Boris Lurie as an artist and a painter, as during his lifetime he was adamantly anti-commercial and anti pop art. He was an outsider. He didn’t like museums and the museum system in general. He painted and kept the paintings in his studio. When his father died, Boris inherited some money and thus the Foundation was established. Now it promotes his paintings, collages and sculptures, the work of a very interesting artist indeed. 

What feedback have you had about the exhibition?

It’s been very positive, especially from art students. There’s a certain similarity between Lurie’s work and the work of the Cuban artist Raoul Martinez. It’s quite eerie how the two of them, without ever knowing each other, did basically very similar things with collage and developed very similar ideas. It would be great to organise a comparative exhibition of these two artists.

Was Raoul Martinez also making a statement about the violence of the Cuban Revolution?

Raoul Martinez’s work was not so much about violence. It was more about the depiction of the daily life through the use of collage and mixed media in a similar way that Lurie used to work.

The exhibition, which includes paintings, collages and sculptures, is much bigger than the recent show at Art Expo New York about a year and a half ago. The works are disturbing. He’s not interested in the “feelgood” aspect. The distorted, distended bodies, corpses, pin-up girls with violence lurking in the background bring alive the demons the artist had to exorcise once released from the concentration camp where the female members of his family were all sent to the gas chambers. The Boris Lurie Foundation is making an effort to make his name better known outside narrow artistic circles, and some of his work will be included in a new exhibition at the Latvian National Museum of Art from Dec. 9 to Feb. 4, 2018.

Boris Lurie’s exhibition runs at Havana’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes until Jan. 7, 2018.

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