Julio Larraz’s Magical Reality

Julio Larraz may be the most important Cuban artist alive today. You can see his work this final month at the Coral Gables Museum. 

The first painting I saw by Julio Larraz was called “First Encounter.” It showed an edge of white sail, the top of a Spanish galleon mast, appearing over a horizon of dense tropical growth. This, presumably, was what native Americans first saw when Europeans arrived. 

That was 30 years ago. In the interim, Larraz – now recognized as among the most important Cuban artists alive today – has produced hundreds of canvases. He has also spent many of those years living in Coral Gables – a good decade in a house on Old Cutler Road that he lost to a divorce, he admits nostalgically. He now lives on the outskirts of the city, keeping a studio compound in South Miami. Here he continues to paint his world of magical reality.

Julio Larraz Paints a Magical Reality
The artist Julio Larraz in his studio. Much of Larraz’s work touches on the theme of escape from Cuba, especially his fantastic floating boats.

Much of Larraz’s work touches on the theme of escape from Cuba, especially his fantastic floating boats. But most explore the iconography of the Spanish colonization of the New World, the bleak and banal power of its oligarchy, portrayed through an imaginary kingdom that he calls “Casabianca.” From this world come the characters in his paintings – the holy men, the generals, the queens, the kings, the oracles – even a businesswoman who owns a bordello called La Maestranza. “It’s a fantastic pretext as to who I am going to paint today,” he says. “I just pull the drawer open.” 

As for his native country which Larraz fled with his family at the age of 16, “people think I am talking about Cuba. I am not talking about Cuba, except when I paint refugees. That is the thing that hurts me the most, the people who have to go through that ordeal, which is unthinkable – to bring your family across high seas to escape from your country.” 

“Two Hundred Years in Power” (2013)

Over the decades, Larraz’s fame has ballooned, though initially he was considered out of touch with contemporary art. He started his career in New York City as a political cartoonist, doing caricatures of leaders such as Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, and Richard Nixon. His drawings appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and the Washington Post. His drawing of Nixon as Louis XIV made it to the cover of Time Magazine. 

Larraz then decided he wanted to be a painter and began with works of realism – immediately rejected by critics and gallery owners. “When I arrived in New York in 1965 you would not for the life of you paint or draw in a realistic manner because it was forbidden. It was forbidden by those who came before and after [WWII], those who came with the Bauhaus, and all the art of the moment. Somehow, they did away with what used to be the staple of American art, which was realism.” 

Julio Larraz Paints a Magical Reality
“The Monroe Doctrine”

Larraz nonetheless soldiered on. A fan of impressionists like Monet and Degas, he also loved the realistic works of Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and Andrew Wyeth. Eventually, he was taken on by several galleries, including New York’s prestigious Marlborough Gallery, and his work became known. By 1971 he had his first solo exhibition at the Pyramid Gallery in Washington D.C. In 1975 his work was included in an exhibition at the National Institute of Arts and Letters in New York, and by 1985 his paintings made it to an international show at the Grand Palais in Paris. 

Today Larraz’ paintings are shown worldwide in museums and galleries, valued at five and six figures. But the current exhibit at the Coral Gables Museum is his first retrospective, showing works from throughout his lengthy career – including his early political cartoons. Among the works on display is 1971’s “The Refugees.” Another is 2008’s “The Monroe Doctrine,” showing the torso of an elegantly dressed woman in his ode to John Singer Sargent. His 1988 “Defacto” shows a faceless general rising above a sea of military caps, while his 2013 painting “Two Hundred Years in Power” shows an open sedan with generals propping up a Khomeini-like bearded leader. A more recent work, his 2016 “Comienza la Noche” (the night begins), touches again on his preoccupation with the flight from Cuba. 

Julio Larraz Paints a Magical Reality
“Comienza La Noche” (2016)

Larraz was first approached to do a retrospective at the Coral Gables Museum by José Valdés- Fauli, the ex-banker who was serving on the board of the museum. “We started on this a few years ago, postponed it for covid, and then came back to it this year,” says Valdés-Fauli, who knew Larraz as a family friend, and fellow exile, for more than 30 years. “I think Julio is brilliant in the stories that he creates through his art… To me a painting must make me think, must take me into the story, and his works accomplish that.” Valdés-Fauli is also a fan of Larraz’s sculptures, one of which he owns (‘Tea cups”) and several of which are on view at the museum, including a massive slice of watermelon in the outside courtyard. 

We caught up with Larraz in his studio compound in South Miami, a walled enclosure of three Tuscan-red buildings. The main studio where he paints has airy, 17-foot ceilings, with tables groaning with oil paints and walls hung with photographs and antiques; he lives close by in the house where he moved after leaving his home on Old Cutler Road. In another of the buildings is an office of sorts, where scores if not hundreds of canvases are kept – paintings he simply cannot part with. He works in this studio six days a week, eight hours a day; in the background while we talked, speakers lilted with Rachmaninoff ’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. 

“Defacto” (1988)
“The Refugees.” (1971)

“I had always wanted to paint,” Larraz told me, inspired by a head full of ideas that came from a household which valued learning. “My father had a great library, with books on history, philosophy, even art,” he says. “It was subsequently burned after he left. They took the books out and burned them.” His father dealt with that, he said, by telling his children, “I have kept the best,” meaning them. With five children himself, Larraz considers his kids “the only wonderful thing I have done.” 

Some people would disagree, especially those who collect the paintings he creates from his imaginary kingdom. “Recently a woman told me, ‘I love the scenes that you paint so much that I’d like to visit the place,’” says Larraz. “And I said to her, ‘It’s nonexistent, it’s all in my mind.” Either she didn’t hear it, or did not want to hear it, so she said, ‘But I’d like to know how to get there.’ I said, very seriously, ‘United is flying here.’ She said, ‘I am so glad because I love the place.’”