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Māris Bišof’s Latvia (2004)

If you’ve read the New York Times, Washington Post, TIME magazine, Rolling Stone or Atlantic magazine during the last 20 years, you’ve already seen one of Māris Bišofs’ drawings. Probably more than one. Since the early 1980’s, the editors of America’s most prestigious East Coast newspapers and magazines used Bišofs regularly to illustrate their cover stories and feature articles on the hottest topics of the day.

Chances are you never noticed his name, but you probably smiled when you saw the drawings. Bišofs’ art has always had that effect on people. His deceptively simple images have a way of lingering in your consciousness long after you’ve seen them. As an unexpected counterpoint to serious, in-depth articles on the complexities of international relations, the economy or controversial social issues, Bišofs wry and laconic drawings have a knack for revealing both the ridiculous and sublime in any human undertaking.

After spending the last 40 years of his life in New York, Paris, Tel Aviv and Moscow, Bišofs recently returned to his native Latvia to resume a life that had been interrupted by a half century of war, occupation and post Cold War restoration. His recently published book of drawings, called ‘My Latvia’, marks a turning point in his career and in the way Latvians look at themselves.

Bišofs was born in the northern Latvian town of Rujiena in 1939. By the 1960’s he was drawing cartoons for a Latvian satire magazine while studying interior design at the Latvian Art Academy. In 1967 his restless artistic and intellectual curiosity about the world at large compelled him to leave Riga for what was then the only Soviet city that offered some international exposure, Moscow.

Moscow not only broadened his horizons, it also introduced him to his wife. When she, as a Russian Jew, received permission to emigrate to Tel Aviv in 1972, Bišofs joined her. In Tel Aviv, Bišofs’ artistic career flourished. He drew editorial cartoons for various Israeli newspapers, had numerous art exhibits, published three books and began to emerge as an artist of some international note. In 1980 he received an Israeli government grant to pursue his work in Paris, where he continued to develop his aesthetic eye and refine his unique style.

Two years later he moved to New York where he was quickly adopted by Manhattan’s art and literary elite as a special favourite. For the next 25 years, Bišofs was regularly kept busy by New York’s prolific publishing community, providing a steady stream of whimsical pictures for their elegant prose. He also produced four more mischievously clever books of drawings about the New York social and literary scene.

When Latvia restored its independence in 1991, Bišofs, like so many émigrés, returned to his homeland for regular visits. It didn’t take long for him to realize that his life would be changing once again. He had initially left Latvia in 1967 to see if there weren’t more interesting things going on in the outside world. But by 2003, the outside world had become all too familiar, and to Bišofs, Latvia was suddenly the most interesting place to be.

Although he had decided to give up his heavy workload at the New York news and literary magazines, he wasn’t quite ready to retire. So for Bišofs, returning to Latvia in 2003 was simply a change of venue. He got an apartment in Riga and began settle into a new life. Most of all he walked around, talked to people, read newspapers, watched TV and tried to understand the issues of the moment. And as he had done in New York, Tel Aviv and Paris, he began to draw what he saw.

It occurred to Bišofs that in his long and successful career as an artist, he had touched upon a wide variety of topics, from the New York art scene and Virginia Wolf, to interplanetary tourists in Manhattan. but he had never applied his satirist’s eye to his own homeland.

Newly inducted in the EU and NATO, Latvia was a treasure trove of fresh ideas and when the sketches began to flow, he looked for an outlet. He found it in the Latvian Institute, a state agency that promotes and produces information about Latvia.  Bišofs offered to create a new book of drawings about Latvia, and the Latvian Institute eagerly agreed to publish it.

Maris Bišofs book, ‘My Latvia’, is not what you’d expect from a state agency, but everything you would expect from an unbridled creative spirit like Bišofs. His humorous take on daily life, politics and culture in today’s Latvia combines the patriotic sentiments of an insider with the bemused eye of an outsider. His drawings poke and prod with equal amounts of praise and ridicule. They celebrate contradictions, elevate traditions, smirk at the silly and embrace the elegant. They are both whimsical and poignant, and always just slightly odd.

Latvians are not known for being keen on laughing at themselves, but Bišofs’ “My Latvia” appears to have brought a smile to the face of every Latvian who has seen it.  Latvia’s President and Foreign Minister were the first government officials to request copies that they could distribute as gifts, and other government agencies are following suit.  Having finally achieved the enormous, and rigorously serious tasks of joining NATO and the EU, Latvians are learning to relax a little and smile at all the trials and tribulations that got them there. Bišofs’ book ‘My Latvia’ delightfully captures it all.

Bišofs restless energy hasn’t abated in Latvia, even though he is no longer doing assignments for US publications like Rolling Stone and Harpers. In addition to the 100 drawings he did in 8 months for ‘My Latvia’, he has become a regular contributor to the editorial page of the Latvian daily newspaper, DIENA.  From February 9 until March 13, the Latvian State Art Museum will feature a retrospective of his work. The exhibit, entitled ‘Bišofs view’, will include over 100 drawings from all periods in his prolific career.

Given that he began his artistic career as a cartoonist for the Latvian satire magazine Dadzis 40 some years ago, it appears that he has come full circle. Not unlike some of the wistfully puzzled characters in his own drawings.

Bišofs ends his book with an unfinished drawing, commenting that no book about Latvia could ever be complete. He is already talking to the Latvian Institute about a new book. That’s good news for Bišofs fans and for Latvia.

(Published in the AirBaltic in-flight magazine, BALTIC OUTLOOK)

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