WIFREDO LAM: A SKETCH
By Paulette Richards
Callaloo, Vol. 11 No. 1, p. 90-92
In 1943, the showing of Wifredo Lam's The Jungle in an exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York created a scandal. As the realization of a unique, personal vision in a style that combined elements of Afro-Cuban ritual and folklore with the technical innovations of the European Surrealist movement, Lam's painting infused the tensions of the Modern Age with the spiritual energy of Africa. Subsequently, the work was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art, where it hung for some time not far from the celebrated Guernica of Lam's friend and mentor, Pablo Picasso. Lam's art, however, demonstrates an originality which surpasses mere sythesis of his Afro-Cuban ancestry and the influence of Picasso's pervasive genius.
Lam was born in 1902 to a Chinesse father and a mother of mixed African and Spanish descent in the little Cuban town of Sagua La Grande. It is often tempting to draw a facile parallel between his mixed ancestry and the meeting of cultures he came both to express through his painting and to embody through his ties of friendship with members of the international art world. Nevertheless, as Max-Pol Fouchet notes in his monograph on his friend, the painter:
What Lam received from his different ancestors may be compared with the block of stone which a sculptor has to transform into a statue. In precisely the same conditions, some men would have expressed nothing, while others would have been content to produce superficial or stereotypical images. Everything is always up to the artist, regardless of what he starts out with. With the worlds he inherited, Lam was to create the unique world of Wifredo Lam. (Wifredo Lam, New York, Rizzoli International Publications, 1976, p. 23)
The world of the young Lam was a far remove from the Old World where "Negro Art" was coming into vogue. While Lam himself had no opportunity to see African sculpture until he travelled to Spain to study as a young man, his exposure to the rites of the African orishas through his godmother, Matonica Wilson, who was locally renowned as a healer and sorceress, later became a fertile source for his symbolic imagery.
After some years' study at the School of Fine Arts in Havana, Lam, in 1924, sailed for Spain, where he studied under Fernandez Alvarez de Sotomayor, curator of the Prado. Lam chafed under the too academic conservatism of his master, who had also taught Dali; however, it was during this time that Lam began to develop his technical articulation of a new relationship between "primitive art" and the traditions of Western composition.
Lam spent some fourteen years in Spain, always looking to Paris, however, as his ultimate goal and destination. During this time he married Eva Piriz, only to lose both his wife and their infant son to tuberculosis in 1931. In his travels through the Spanish countryside, Lam developed an empathy for the condition of the Spanish peasants, so similar to that of the former slaves in his native Cuba. This sensibility led him to actively support the Republican cause at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. In 1937, he made the acquaintance of the sculptor Manolo Hugué, who gave him a letter of introduction to Picasso.
Shortly after Lam arrived in Paris in 1938, Picasso had taken him under his wing and introduced him to his circle of friends, among them the painters Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, and Joan Miró; art critics such as Yvonne and Christian Zervas; and the poets Michel Leiris, Paul Eluard, and Tristan Tzara. In an interview with Max-Pol Fouchet, Lam described the limits and character of Picasso's influence on his work as follows:
Everybody felt this influence, for Picasso was the master of our age. Even Picasso was influenced by Picasso! But when I first painted bulls in Spain, I had not seen his bulls. And I had done my own paintings in a synthetic style, in an attempt to simplify my forms, before discovering his. Our plastic interpretations simply coincided. I already knew the Spanish temperament, for I had lived it, suffered it, in the country itself. Rather than an influence, we might call it a pervasion of the spirit. There was no question of imitation, but Picasso may easily have been present in my spirit, for nothing in him was alien or strange to me. On the other hand, I derived all my confidence in what I was doing from his approval. (118).
With the fall of France in 1940, Lam was once again swept up in the events of a turbulent age. He left Paris and made his way to Marseilles, mostly on foot. There he joined a large group of intellectuals threatened by the Nazis; among them were the Surrealists Réné Char, Max Ernst, and André Breton. Eventually Lam left France aboard the Capitaine Paul-Merle in the company of over three hundred other intellectuals seeking a more favorable political climate. Their reception in Martinique was decidedly less than war, however. Lam was incarcerated for forty days before being permitted to leave for Cuba. Still, it was during his imprisonment that Lam and André Breton made the fortuitous acquaintance of the négritude poet, Aimé Césaire.
Back in Cuba in 1941, the continuing oppression of the descendants of the African slaves and the degradation of their culture for the sake of "tourist frivolity" made a strong impression on Lam. As he told Fouchet:
I decided that my painting would never be the equivalent of that pseudo-Cuban music for nightclubs. I refused to paint cha-cha-cha. I wanted with all my heart to paint the drama of my country, but by thouroughly expressing the negro [sic] spirit, the beauty of the plastic art of the blacks. In this way I could act as a Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating figures with the power to surprise, to disturb the dreams of the exploiters. I knew I was running the risk of not being understood either by the man in the street or by the others. But a true picture has the power to set the imagination to work, even if it takes time. (188-89)
Out of this determination, Lam created The Jungle [reprinted on the cover of this issue of Callaloo], which was to win for him international recognition as one of the great painters, like Picasso, of the Modern Age.
After his success of 1943, Lam continued to develop the elements of myth and totemism that mark his personal style. Visits to Haiti in 1944 and again in 1946 provided the opportunity for him to observe voodoo ceremonies for the first time. Although Lam found the Haitian rites much more intense than anything he had witnessed in Cuba, he later commented that his contact with various forms of African spirituality in Haiti, Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil did not have a direct impact on his formal style. He felt that there was more of an effect on his overall vision, stating that "What has really broadened the range of my painting is the presence of African poetry" (206).
Lam left Cuba again in 1952 to settle in Paris. Yet he remained sympathetic to the struggles of the Cuban people, and, as a gesture of solidarity with the student protest agains the dictatorship of Batista in 1955, exhibited a series of paintings in Havana University. After the Revolution, Lam demonstrated his loyalty to the Castro regime by painting The Third World for the presidential palace in 1966.
Following a period of extensive travel between New York, Paris, and Sweden, Lam set up a studio at Albisola Mare on the Italian coast. Here he settled with his third wife, Lou Laurin, and their growing family, which eventually numbered four sons. Intrigued by the local tradition of pottery craftsmanship, Lam began to experiment with this ancient art form. He held his first ceramic exhibition in 1975.
Wifredo Oscar de la Concepción Lam y Castillo died September 11, 1982. At the time of his death, his reputation had been well established by over one hundred personal exhibitions throughout the world.
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