Early in 2006, the American artist John Lurie finished work on a watercolour he titled Bear Surprise. The painting depicts the animal in a meadow standing on its hind legs in front of a couple having sex on a picnic blanket, with the bear saying: “Surprise!” Within weeks the picture was uploaded to a Russian blog with the speech bubble altered to read “Preved”, a portmanteau that translates as “Hello Bear”.
This strange image captured the imagination of the Russian-language internet and by May that year The Moscow Times reported it had “gained vast popularity with the speed of an avalanche”. Lurie’s wayward bear has gone on to be referenced in Russian films and TV shows and has appeared in countless further memes, even flying improbably through the sky on a poster advertising the Russian edition of Newsweek. Last month, as Russian troops invaded Ukraine, Lurie posted his original artwork on Twitter once again. “Preved!” he wrote. “What the fuck Russia? Let Putin know he is alone in this horror.”
Needless to say, Lurie never expected any of his artworks to go viral on the other side of the planet, least of all that image. “Bear Surprise is a really bad painting,” he declares modestly from his home in the Caribbean. “That that one, of all my paintings, was out there like that – and you cannot believe the level that it was out there – just feels weird.” It goes to show that once you put art out into the world there is no telling where it might end up, a lesson echoed by Lurie’s own peripatetic journey through music, film and, most recently, his deeply contemplative and unconventional HBO series, Painting With John. During the first season, he paired footage of his artistic talents with wild tales about taking cocaine with the musician Rick James and the time Barry White’s speaking voice made his testicles vibrate. Bob Ross, this is not.