Wifredo Lam (1902-1982)
Wifredo Lam (born Wilfredo Oscar de la Concepción Lam y Castilla) was born in Sagua la Grande, Cuba, in 1902, the year of the island’s independence, to a mother of Spanish and Congolese descent and a much older father from China.
His vocation to become a painter manifested itself early in life: he enrolled at the Academia Nacional San Alejandro in Havana in 1916 and then received a scholarship to study in Europe in 1923.
He went to Spain first (before Paris), where he ultimately spent fourteen years and which proved to be fundamental in the young man’s artistic training. He gradually discovered the modernity of Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse, Franz Marc, and especially, Picasso in 1929; as well as the Master painters at the Prado. He was drawn to the nonconformist Goya, Jérôme Bosch, and Bruegel the Elder, as well as the Archaeological Museum collections which revealed the correspondences between primitive and modern art.
After he lost his wife and son to tuberculosis, Lam joined his Spanish republican friends in 1936, devoting himself to the struggle against Franco. The violence of the fighting inspired his La Guerra Civil, a large gouache on paper (1937; 211 x 236 cm).
He left Spain in 1938 for Paris. Lam thus began a friendship with Picasso, through whom he discovered African art through the elder master’s own collection. Picasso also introduced Lam to many of his own friends, including: fellow painters (Braque, Léger, Miró), writers (Leiris, Éluard, Zervos), and dealers such as Pierre Loeb, who organsied his first solo exhibition in 1939. Thanks to Michel Leiris, Lam discovered and was seduced by Surrealism, which allows one to ‘free oneself from cultural alienations’. Lam worked assiduously, receiving strong encouragement from the Spanish master (‘catalyst of freedom’), who claimed to recognise himself in Lam from as early as their first meeting. During this period Lam painted in a formal simplification inspired by the art of both Africa and Picasso: frontal and hieratic figures, often isolated, reflective of his own suffering as evidenced by the recurring theme of Mother and Child.
Wifredo Lam fled Paris just before the German invasion in 1940, joining his anti-Nazi friends in Marseille (notably the Surrealist group gathered at the Villa Air-Bel around André Breton, Victor Brauner, Max Ernst, René Char, and André Masson). Lam participated in collective works such as illustrating André Breton’s poem Fata Morgana (1941, which was censored by the Vichy regime). He continued his experimentation, producing a series of ink drawings foreshadowing the hybrid figures he developed during his stay in Cuba from 1941 to 1947. At the end of March 1941, Lam was among 300 artists and intellectuals (including André Breton and Claude Lévi-Strauss) who embarked for Martinique. This marked the beginning of a friendship with Aimé Césaire, a poet asserting the black man’s dignity; Lam’s contact with Césaire inspired him to further embrace his attachment to nature and the ancestral culture of the West Indies.
Seventeen years after he left, Lam returned to Cuba in August 1941 under Batista’s colonialist regime. His initial longing for Europe quickly gave way to a desire to defend blacks’ cause and spirit. He thus invented a new pictorial language, breaking with the art advocated by the authority: upon a dense background where plants and animals intermingle, disturbing, surreal, ghostly and troubling figures stand out. In search of his own roots, and always moved by the ‘awesome’, Lam attended Afro-Cuban rituals, thereby connecting with the myths from his childhood and the practice of magicians and clairvoyants. Lam continued to deepen his knowledge during travels to Haiti in 1946, and then to Latin America. Lam fostered the long-silenced African identity, supporting its renewal in the cultures in this region of the world.
Lam earned great recognition from La Jungle (1943), a large work (239 x 230 cm) which caused a scandal when it was exhibited by Pierre Matisse in New York in 1944. (The gallery owner had taken the artist under contract as early as 1941.) ‘A barbarous, monumental, superb poem’ wrote Max-Pol Fouchet. The painting depicts ‘the convulsion of man and earth’. In the following year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired the work and hung it alongside Picasso’s prestigious Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, while Lam redoubled his activity in complete political freedom, both in music and in painting, thanks to the new presidency.
Lam discovered New York and its avant-gardes in 1946 before returning to Paris. In Paris however he was disappointed by the politico-artistic dissensions of his old friends Picasso and André Breton. He became friends with René Char, who admired him and shared his belief that political commitment should prevail over art (the poet had fought in the Resistance during the Occupation), and Asger Jorn, a committed Danish artist who fought for art’s total freedom throughout his life.
In 1947, Lam returned to Cuba and worked on the Canaïma series, named after the south-eastern region of Venezuela and the Amerindian god of evil who haunts the swamp. In addition to African art, Lam cultivated an interest in Oceanic art and esotericism, the influence of which can be recognised in his painting. His style evolved towards greater clarity and ‘asceticism’, with surreal figures isolated on neutral backgrounds.
His work gained an international reputation: distinctions, publications, and exhibitions followed each other in the United States, Europe, and the West Indies.
With his frequent travels Lam sought to create communities of artists everywhere he went. He also developed a keen interest in CoBrA, a new European group with ideas close to his own, which he joined in Paris in 1951 after his divorce.
The return of Batista’s dictatorship in Cuba in March 1952 incited him to leave and once again settle in Paris. He worked, in particular, on the illustration of René Char’s book À la santé du serpent; he was also attracted to the new magazine Phases which aimed to defend the practice of automatism, bringing together Götz, Corneille, and Alechinsky. He nevertheless always preserved his own independence.
In the following years Lam continued travelling from one continent to another, multiplying meetings and opportunities to think and create, especially in Albisola, Italy on the Ligurian coast, at the invitation of Asger Jorn, co-founder of the Situationist International.
Though hopeful in the face of the Castro Revolution, Lam did not return to Cuba in the 1960s, instead dividing his time between Albisola and Switzerland (meanwhile in France, the Algerian War made foreigners undesirable). He earned a triumphant reception in Cuba in 1963, and was proclaimed ‘national painter’. The decade is marked by a number of ceramic works and engravings (for the illustration of the books of his friends, such as René Char’s Le rempart de brindilles (1963), Gherasim Luca’s Apostroph'Apocalypse (1965) and Aimé Césaire’s Annonciation (1969).
He revived his painting with the tapered and angular figures of his Cuban period, but in a new play of transparency.
Wifredo Lam continued his life of frequent travel, where works and exhibitions intermingled throughout the world, until his death in 1982. Cuba held a national funeral for him.
(Martine Heudron)read more >>
read more >>
Art works from Wifredo Lam
You may also be interested in…
work is available
in the works are available