Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev are safe now, smuggled out of Moscow on Air Force Two. In a beer chest.
George Rodrigue pulled the coup. Single-handed. Right under the nose of the KGB, he suspects. "Unbelievable," Rodrigue says. "I'm lucky I got them out. I'm lucky I got out."
Rodrigue, a peppery Cajun "people's" artist, a self-described primitive, is in Los Angeles, setting up a September exhibit at the Upstairs Gallery. Reagan and Gorbachev will be there: Rodrigue's paintings of them, that is. The same paintings that Rodrigue says the Soviets "stole" and held hostage for six days during last month's summit conference.
Genesis of the heist, Rodrigue says, was a March visit to Louisiana by a Soviet trade mission. "They picked up some posters of my Reagan painting," says Rodrigue, who lives and works in Lafayette, La., and retains more than a trace of the delicious patois of the region. "The one of the President on a horse, commissioned by the Republican National Committee.
"In Cajun country, they had saw something they'd never seen before: the people of America, the ones I paint. And they ate the food and everything. So when the summit came up, me and a Cajun restaurant got asked to go. One of 'em suggested I paint Gorbachev's picture to go with Reagan. I said, 'Fine. Nobody's ever done this before.' I'm not a portrait artist, but I did it. Gorbachev has his hand out, greeting the new dawn. Glasnost. Sure.
New Set of People
"But we get over there--I have 13 paintings in all--and it's a whole new set of people. . . ."
Opening night was on a Thursday, with Rodrigue's canvases hung around the outside of the Cajun/Creole restaurant set up inside the SovinCentr complex that was the focal point of summit activity.
"The next day," Rodrigue says, "the Reagan and Gorbachev is done. Confiscated. I am . . . angry. Don't mess with a Cajun. I go to them and say, 'Who stole them?' and they said, 'They're being taken under advisement.' And I ask, 'What the . . . does that mean?'
"See, they have no communications. They don't know who they're talkin' to and we don't know who we're talkin' to. In Russia you don't discuss nothing . Anyway, for six days they kep' 'em."
(Glenn Juban, owner of Juban's, a renowned Creole restaurant in Baton Rouge, and one of 18 Louisiana restaurateurs invited to run the temporary catfish cafe, confirms Rodrigue's chronicle. "Opening night the paintings (of the leaders) were hanging right at the entrance, spotlighted," Juban says. "The next day they were gone."
("We thought he'd taken them down for reframing or something and we kidded him: 'Hey George, what'd they do with your paintings?' 'Damn,' he said, 'You won't believe this, but they're gone!' We waited through the weekend and somebody said they'd notify him, but Monday rolls around and nobody says anything, for two or three days. No explanation to the restaurant staff, either, as to who had them or whether they were analyzing them or copying them or what."
(The restaurant, meanwhile, was having its own hang-ups, says Juban: "Nothing as dramatic as stealing our gear, just things that made life a little nightmarish, like 'nationalizing' our hamburger buns. . . . No explanations, except, 'We're working on that.' ")
"To this day," Rodrigue says, "I don't know why they took my paintings. Somebody told me they said it was because a picture of Reagan on horseback was 'disrespectful.' Hell, he likes the painting, the President. It's his. But that didn't faze them at all. They asked why Gorbachev wasn't on a horse. Then they said the painting was too expensive. . . ."
Rodrigue harbors his own suspicions: "When everything is said and done, they hate Reagan. It's very obvious." He has equally uncharitable opinions of his hosts' artistic acumen: "They're talkin' about interpretation of what I painted, and it's all ridiculous. I'm a naive, primitive, surrealistic artist. What do they know about that ?"
"They tried to make it deep thought," he says, "and that was never the case. The case was, they solved the problem of not wanting the painting hanging by taking it off the wall. And after we got jerked around, they accomplished exactly what they wanted."
On the third day, Rodrigue "pulled the whole show down. I took the (remaining 11) paintings out of the frames and stretches and rolled 'em up and that was that. But they're still holding Reagan and Gorbachev and I can't get any answers from no one. It was surreal, the whole thing. You could never get higher than the guy you were talking to, and he never knew anything.
"I'm supposed to leave on Monday and I have to postpone. I'm not going back without Reagan and Gorbachev, and I'm telling them, 'Boy, you're in big trouble.' But they still have the pictures. . . ."
The press, meanwhile, had taken up the cause, "and then the Russians saw me on TV and they said, 'Hey, you're important!'