Drawing a line between the good, the bad and the ugly

  • 2006-08-23
  • By Peter Walsh
RIGA - As I've learned through personal experience, humorous criticism of Latvia is best left to Latvians. And few Latvians have such a unique and refreshing take on their country as the illustrator Maris Bisofs.

Bisofs recently moved back to Riga after working in the U.S.A for some 20 years where his cartoons regularly featured in publications such as The New York Times, Newsweek and Time, among others. Now, with plenty of time on his hands, Bisofs has been working on capturing the ever-elusive Latvian soul in pictorial form.
His new collection of drawings, "My Latvia, Too," continues in the same spirit as "My Latvia," which came out to much acclaim a couple of years ago.

Bisofs finds his subject matter everywhere, from the throngs of tourists in Riga's old town to an orderly rural farmstead. His pictures are in turn affectionate, acerbic and outright abstruse.
There is a wonderful cartoon showing a group of kids in swimming trunks walking past a sign declaring NO SWIMMING! When they return past the same sign one of the kids is only lightly outlined and all the others are frowning. In other words, one of them has drowned.

Given how many people have drowned this summer, the drawing is relevant and revealing. It highlights the closeness Latvians have with nature and their disregard of signs, both in the literal and semiotic sense.
Many of the pictures require a little thought if they are to be understood in the right way. One drawing I liked in particular shows two machines emitting dark and light. A vague human face is visible out of the two elements. The caption reads: Latvian scientists have succeeded in differentiating the sources of darkness and light.

Bisofs takes a bird's eye view of Latvian culture. To him, it is an admirable reality yet underpinned by a great deal of absurdity and ambiguity. It's to his credit that he illustrates this with such tenderness and humor.
But personally I like his work best when it is at its most simple. There are some touching observational drawings which don't need any captions to support them: a crumbling old facade propped up by a wooden scaffold or a picturesque Riga park with a bottle floating down a canal.

Bisofs certainly could have been more penetrating and critical in his drawings, but he is clearly aware that his audience does not need to be overly informed of their character defects. As he writes rather touchingly in his dedication, his biggest fans are the new generation of Latvians. And there is no pulling the wool over their eyes.

"My Latvia, Too" is available in most Riga bookstores