Cuban Painter, Sculptor, and Printmaker
Sagua La Grande, Cuba
Summary of Wifredo Lam
A true multicultural artist who drew on his roots in Cuba, as well as his travels in Europe and the Caribbean, Lam was a trailblazer who helped open up mid-century Modernism through the perspective of the oppressed. Trained in academic art and later absorbing the artistic experiments of (white) European avant gardes, Lam came up with his own painting style that he viewed as an artistic and mental act of decolonization. He embraced the "primitive" and traditions seen as mere witchcraft by white elites in his society, such as the Afro-Cuban religion Santería. He made art that, with a Black historical awareness, explored and celebrated his cultural heritage, becoming an influential voice in Afro-Cubanism as well as in the history of Black art.
- Lam brought Afro-Caribbean motifs into the international art world that centered in major Western cities, staging cultural encounters on his canvasses that treat his imagery on a par with European modernist motifs and styles.
- Having steeped himself in the lessons of Cubism and Surrealism, Lam used their pictorial language and formal innovation in his own unique way, while controlling its reception and interpretation by Western audiences. He likened his art to the Trojan horse and wanted to disturb "the dreams of exploiters" through his work.
- Lam recognized that "the great mistake of western civilization [...] was to have separated, in accordance with exaggerated and arbitrary notions of quality, the so-called primitive arts from those of supposedly mature civilizations." His artworks' wrested control of Primitivism in twentieth-century European art, where it had generally been used to signify "simplicity" and "a more instinctive nature" without regard to the historical formations of such stereotypes.
- Lam's art provided a strong visual language that aligned with Negritude, a primarily literary movement that sought to reclaim and elevate African identity in the face of historical oppression, colonialism, and assimilationist policy in the West.
Progression of Art
Lam first received artistic instruction in a traditional realist style from the San Alejandro art school in Cuba, focusing his efforts on landscapes, still life, and portraiture. Many of his works from this period have disappeared, or have yet to receive proper attribution (made more difficult by their striking difference from his more abstract later works). However, some examples are available, and they demonstrate his early skill as a draftsman, including his pencil portraits Campesino (1926) and Campesina Castellana (Spanish Peasants) painted in 1927.
In these works we see Lam's early mastery of texture, exemplified by the soft, naturalistic appearance of the shawl and headscarf worn by his Campesina Castellana, as well as his unique ability to capture the psychological state of his subjects. His early interest in Marxism led him to focus on socially oppressed subjects, like the Campesina, whose coarse skin and plain appearance suggest a lifetime of work. She presents herself with pride, however - her piercing eyes stare right into the viewer.
Pencil on paper - Private Collection
Mother and Child
When, in 1931, Lam's first wife Eva and their son Wifredo Victor died of tuberculosis, he sank into a deep depression, and, in his suffering, began to paint numerous variations on the "mother and child" theme. Although these paintings developed out of a deeply personal tragedy, they also serve as universally recognizable and timeless variations on a theme that speaks to individuals across all cultures. Art critic Jackie Wullschlager asserts that Lam's works of this period, "stylised compositions recalling pietàs, with geometric flattened figures of woman," have a "terrific immediacy." In painting this subject matter, Lam presented women holding children in the same position as religious Renaissance and Romantic images of the Madonna and Child, as painted by artists he admired such as Leonardo da Vinci and Francisco Goya. These works were exhibited at his first solo show at Pierre Loeb's gallery in New York in 1939.
Lam's use of flattened, simplified forms recalls the work of Picasso, whom he had befriended in 1938, just one year before painting this piece (he had been an admirer of Picasso since encountering his works in 1929 at an exhibition in Madrid of Spanish painters living in Paris). However, Lam was already beginning to interpret Picasso's style in his own way, opting for symmetry of form in the tradition of portraiture and more severe geometric shapes as opposed to the fluid forms and asymmetry used by Picasso. In this work his interest in African art forms and the "primitive" in art, which also aligned with Picasso's, is evident as well in the pared down and bare shapes of the figure resembling the African sculptures that had by the 1930s been well appreciated among Parisian artistic and cultural circles.
Gouache on paper - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Jungle is considered Lam's masterpiece, exemplifying his mature style, blending human, animal, and plant forms to create hybrid creatures. These figures, with their elongated limbs, large feet, rounded buttocks, and heads resembling African masks are densely packed into the image. The tropical feel of the painting is enhanced by the use of vibrant greens and blues.
In this work, Lam juxtaposes the spiritual symbolism of Santería with the visual languages of Surrealism and Cubism, in order to highlight the tension between consumer-driven Modernism and the vibrant energy and tradition of African culture, from which Modernism has appropriated. Art historian Doris Maria-Reina Bravo notes that the inclusion in this "jungle" scene of sugarcane (a crop normally grown in fields on plantations, a booming business in Cuba in the 1940s) highlights the absurd disconnect between the cheapened version of Afro-Cuban culture presented to tourists, and the economic reality of the island at the time.
Indeed, for Lam, the idea of the "jungle" is not so much a reference to the island's tropical vegetation, as it is to a psychological space, to the troubled economic, political, and cultural climate of the island. Lam explained, "In The Jungle the revenge of a small Caribbean country, Cuba, against the colonizers is plotted. I used the scissors as a symbol of a necessary cut against foreign imposition in Cuba, against all colonization." Lam's "jungle" is not made of lush vegetation, then, but rather by the crops that had been fertilized by the sweat and blood of generations of slave labourers forcibly removed from their own land.
Lam's contemporaries recognized The Jungle as a painting of great importance. French author Pierre Mabille described it as a work "in which life bursts forth, unfettered, dangerous, poised for all possible combinations." Yet Lam also distanced himself from his European contemporaries through this work. According to literary scholar Paula Sato, Lam was critical of the way that Europeans turned "African and Oceanic works of art into pieces of exotica and sterile museum curiosities and for thereby trafficking in non-Western peoples' dreams, [...] dreams that those people had already lost because they had been stolen from them through colonization." Such a process of displacement was reenacted at the level of form with European artists' appropriation of African art, stripping it away from its original context. Sato notes that while Lam would have appreciated a groundbreaking work such as Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) (the composition of which inspired The Jungle), in his work Lam sought to place forms such as African masks "back where they belonged, which for him was in the AfroCuban religious ceremony." The title and subject matter of the work then may be understood as a nod to the geography of his native culture even as it also ironically owns the stereotype of the wild, "unfettered, dangerous" primitive in the European cultural imagination.
Gouache on paper mounted on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Eternal Present (Homage to Alejandro García Caturla)
In this fantastical, Cubist-Surrealist work, Lam presents three human-animal hybrid creatures in a dense composition. The number three not only represents the holy trinity in Christianity, but also, in Chinese philosophy, symbolizes birth and new beginnings emerging from chaos. Lam explained that the equine-female figure on the left (reminiscent of the horse-headed woman he painted in other works) represents "the paradise that foreigners seek in Cuba, a land of pleasures and sickly-sweet music," and many scholars have interpreted her to be Oshun, the Orisha or deity of love in Santería, while the other two figures appear to represent the warrior deities Elegua and Ogun.
An additional layer of meaning comes from the significance of the horse in Chinese culture (which Lam had begun to revisit and study upon his return to Cuba), in which the animal is valued for its military usefulness. As well, horses in Chinese visual representation frequently carry spiritual meaning, believed to guide individuals on heavenly journeys. The work's layered meanings and myriad cultural references are reflected in the composition. The limbs and bodies of the figures twist and overlap with one another to dizzying, confusing effect, which is further enhanced by the monochromatic color palette that flattens background and foreground. Emerging from this complex pictorial field, the figures' faces meet the viewer's gaze directly, even confrontationally.
Lam intended the painting to serve as a commentary on the corruption of Cuba by imperialist powers, and dedicated the work to one of his major artistic influences, Cuban composer and judge Alejandro García Caturla, who was murdered on the morning of November 12, 1940, by the defendant in a trial he was meant to oversee later that day. Only 34 years old at the time of his death, Caturla was already a leader in Afro-Cubanism (an interdisciplinary movement aimed at increasing the recognition of African culture in Cuban society), blending both European and African musical elements in his compositions.
Oil and pastel over papier mâché and chalk ground on bast fiber fabric - Rhode Island School of Design Museum
The female human-equine hybrid was a motif Lam explored in numerous paintings over a period of several months. The idea for this figure came from Santería rituals, during which the worshipper is believed to be possessed, or "ridden" by "Shango" (spirit). Lam's horse-headed women (in this and other paintings) is intended as "the spirit of affirmation of human dignity in the face of dominating forces, whether they be forces of nature or man," explains Francophone literature scholar Paula Sato. When Lam returned to Cuba in the early 1940s, white elites continued to view Afro-Cuban religions like Santería as akin to demon worship and witchcraft. Therefore, in paintings like The Jungle (1943) and Horse-Headed Woman, he sought to celebrate, legitimize, and elevate the status of Afro-Cuban culture and local religion forms.
While such an abstracted treatment of the human body, as well as the depiction of amorphous curves, may be reminiscent of Picasso, the shape and color gradation of Lam's figure adds a sense of dimensionality that differs from Picasso's more flattening treatment of the body in his portraits of women. The dimensionality of Lam's figure renders her almost sculptural, evoking tangible reality. The dark, spare background, furthermore, contrasts with and highlights the main figure, unlike Picasso's generally more even distribution of colors and shapes in his pictorial field.
Her breasts and buttocks protruding prominently, Lam's horse-headed woman was eroticized. For the artist, such a bodily figure referred to the sexual exploitation of mixed-heritage women in Cuban society at the time. He explained upon his return to Cuba in 1943, that "Havana at that time was a land of pleasure, of sugary music, rumbas, mambos and so forth. The Negroes were considered picturesque. [...] As for mulatto women, they were much sought after and as often as not became prostitutes. [...] What I saw on my return was like some sort of hell. For me, trafficking in the dignity of a people is just that: hell."
Indeed, Lam was unique in his introduction of the female figure into the lexicon of Negritude art and literature, as it had previously focused on the quest of Black men to rediscover their culture. In this work, argues Sato, Lam aimed to challenge the myth "of exotic colonized women as existing to fulfill the sexual desires of the western male," as can be seen in the way that "the figure's iconic horse's head signals that she is being 'ridden,' or empowered, by Shango. However, the spike protruding from her back is a warning that she will not be 'ridden' - that is, tamed or dominated - by men."
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Lam first visited the coastal Italian town of Albissola di Mare, just West of Genoa, in 1954, upon the invitation of Danish painter Asger Jorn, who had moved there for health reasons. In 1962, Lam purchased a house there, where he stayed for several months each year until his death. Albissola had been known since the early 1500s as an important hub for the production of ceramics. Lam was eager to try his hand at the medium, working alongside the Situationists, Argentine-Italian artist Lucio Fontana, and ceramicist Giovanni Poggi at the studio Le Ceramiche San Giorgio. Lam was particularly taken by this ancient form of creation, through which he could use fire to transform earth.
In the year 1975 alone, he produced nearly 300 ceramic works, which he adorned with the symbols and motifs of his paintings and drawings. His son Eskin recalls, "After spending the day on the beach I would swing by the workshop and could tell immediately, from his mood, how his work had gone. Something might have cracked in the kiln, or the glazes might have run the wrong way or mixed with one another to create an unexpected colour - sometimes welcome, sometimes a disaster." Although Lam's work as a ceramicist is lesser known than his paintings, the medium had been a source of great enthusiasm for him, its unpredictability keeping him engaged with the process. Near the end of his life, he reflected on his years in Albissola, stating, "Often I couldn't sleep, waiting for the surprises of those unexpected tones."
Biography of Wifredo Lam
Wifredo Óscar de la Concepción Lam y Castilla was the eighth child born to father Enrique Yam Lam and mother Ana Serafina Castilla, in a village in the sugar farming province of Villa Clara, Cuba. His father was a Chinese immigrant who emigrated from Canton to Cuba around 1860, and worked as a carpenter, while his mother was the daughter of a Congolese former slave mother and a Cuban mulatto father. Lam learned about the Afro-Caribbean Santería religion from his godmother, Matonica Wilson, who was known locally as a healer and sorceress.
As a child, already showing artistic inclination, Lam loved listening to stories from his parents, recalling that "wherever he went, my father carried the memory of all sorts of landscapes: Siberia, Mongolia, Tartary, the drama of Asia and the China Sea. In his eyes, you could see the sunrise of an island in turmoil fighting for its freedom." He also drew inspiration from the Cuban folk legends told by his mother, and pored over any art books that he could get a hold of. He was especially taken by the works of Da Vinci, Velázquez, Goya, Gauguin, and Delacroix, and vowed to one day travel to Europe to see the original masterpieces in person.
Education and Early Training
In 1916, Lam's family sent him to Havana to study law. However, he was set in his desire to become an artist. He spent time at the Botanical Gardens studying and sketching tropical plants. From 1918 to 1923, he became a student at the Escuela Profesional de Pintura y Escultura, Academia de San Alejandro. He first studied sculpture, and then, after finding it too strenuous to work with stone, began studying painting, devoting himself to mastering portraiture. At art school, Lam developed an aversion to the academic approach to artmaking.
In 1923, he received a grant from the municipality of Sagua la Grande to further his artistic studies, and left for Madrid, armed with a letter of recommendation from the director of the Museo Nacional de la Habana. In Madrid, Lam spent his mornings studying under portraitist Fernando Álvarez de Sotomayor y Zaragoza (who also taught Salvador Dalí) at the Real Academia de Bella Artes, and spent his afternoons at the Alhambra where he took more experimental classes at the Escuela Libre de Paijase founded by Julio Moisés.
In 1925, Lam lost his grant, but his talent as a portraitist served him well. He began offering his services to the aristocrats of Madrid. That year he spent several months in Cuenca, painting the surrounding mountainous landscape and the impoverished inhabitants of the area, who reminded him of the people he had left behind in Sagua la Grande. Back in Madrid, he became captivated by the energy of the works of Picasso, and was inspired to imbue his own works with "a general democratic proposition [...] for all people." He also gained inspiration from visiting exhibitions of Surrealist as well as African art.
In 1929, Lam married Eva Piriz. Shortly thereafter, the couple had a son, Wifredo Victor. However, in 1931, both Eva and the baby died of tuberculosis. Lam's works took a darker turn, as this personal loss sent him into the depths of despair. He took on just enough portrait commissions to survive, and spent the majority of his time reading historical and ethnographic books on Africa and slavery.
A summer sojourn to León lifted Lam's spirits and renewed his passion for his work. Back in Madrid, he was introduced to a number of other artists and intellectuals who would become close friends for the rest of his life, most notably Cuban musicologist and writer Alejo Carpentier. Meanwhile, the deteriorating state of affairs in Cuba, under Gerardo Machado's dictatorship, spurred Lam to read more on Marxist ideas, and to become active in anti-fascist political groups.
When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936. Lam was drafted to the war effort. After just six months working with explosives at an arms factory, he suffered from chemical contact poisoning, and was sent to recuperate at the sanatorium of Caldes de Montbui. While there, he met sculptor Manuel Martínez Hugué (better known as Manolo), who was one of the earliest collectors of "Negro Art." Manolo caught Lam's interest by speaking at length about African statuary, the simplification of its forms, and its rhythmic expression of the essential and the irrational.
In September 1937, Lam moved to Barcelona, and made his definitive break with academicism. He then moved to Paris in 1938, and rented an attic room in a small hotel on the Quai Saint-Michel. He explored the city on foot, visiting the Louvre and the Galerie des Beaux-arts. Manolo had provided him with a letter of introduction to Picasso, who received him warmly at his studio on Rue des Grands-Augustins. The two artists later described their initial encounter as "love at first sight." The influence of Picasso became evident in his work, and the two friends exhibited their works together at the Perls Galleries in New York that same year.
For Lam, meeting Picasso was "an electric shock." He viewed the older artist as an "instigator of freedom." The "presence of the aesthetic and spirit of African art" in Picasso's work particularly captivated him. Picasso felt the best way to encourage and develop the younger artist's understanding of African art was to introduce him to the Surrealist poet and ethnologist Michel Leiris, who worked in the Black Africa department of the Musée de l'Homme, an anthropology museum in Paris. Leiris went on to introduce Lam to Léon-Gontran Damas, one of the fathers of Negritude movement in literature.
Francophone literary scholar Paula Sato cites Lam's friend and Afro-Caribbean author Aimé Césaire in explaining that "Negritude was the revolt of black men against the assassination of their culture, an amputation that had begun during slavery and continued in its aftermath, and whose effect essentially was to 'cut man off from himself'; Negritude was also the quest of those men to recover their lost selves that remained buried in 'the collective unconscious.'" Lam would go on to become the painter most closely identified with the Negritude movement in the visual arts. The recognition of the collective unconscious aligns with Surrealism's precepts. Indeed, Lam drew on the movement, believing that it could allow "for deliverance from cultural alienation."
While in Paris, Lam also befriended artists such as Henri Matisse, Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, Nusch and Paul Éluard, Joan Miró, Victor Brauner, and art dealer Pierre Loeb. Loeb gave Lam his first exhibition at the Galerie Pierre Loeb in 1939, which was well-received by critics.
When the Germans invaded Paris in June of 1940, Lam and his artist and intellectual friends fled to Marseille, where they boarded a steamship bound for Martinique. Upon arrival, the perceived "deserters" were interned at the Lazaret camp for a month before being allowed to settle in the capital city of Fort-de-France. Poet Aimé Césaire organized excursions around the island, during which Lam became enamoured with tropical vegetation and the "savage beauty" of the island landscape.
In May 1941, the exiled artists boarded another ship bound for the Dominican Republic. After being denied a visa to Mexico, Lam had no choice but to return to Cuba after a seventeen-year absence. He later exclaimed that, "What I saw upon my return looked like Hell," and, although Havana was flourishing "with its white capitol, the mark of America, its banks, its palaces, its luxurious European shops," in the countryside, "all the drama of the colonialism of my youth resurfaced in me."
His return to Cuba was pivotal to a new direction in his art. "I was taken aback by its nature," he said, "by the traditions of the Blacks, and by the transculturation of its African and Catholic religions. And so I began to orientate my paintings toward the African." He consciously rejected the folkloric pictorial tradition being championed by Cuba's political parties, and instead developed his own visual language, creating images he hoped would be "capable of disturbing the dreams of the exploiters."
In 1944, Lam married German doctor Helena Holzer, whom he had met in Barcelona in 1938. Lam also reconnected with the spirituality of his childhood, and his sister Eloísa arranged for the couple to participate in Santería initiation ceremonies. The couple became close with Lydia Cabrera, an anthropologist specializing in the preservation of Afro-Cuban culture, as well as Cuban novelist and musicologist Alejo Carpentier, who in 1949 coined the term "marvelous realism" (lo real maravilloso), later also known as magical realism, to describe the importance of folklore, myth, and lush landscape in Hispano-American culture (Carpentier proposed the term to differentiate from (European) "Magic Realism," which had been in used since the 1920s).
In October 1945, Lam travelled to Haiti upon French cultural attaché Pierre Mabille's invitation, where he mounted an important exhibition, attended Voodoo ceremonies, and deepened his understanding of African divinity and magic rituals. After a brief return to Cuba in 1946, Lam traveled to New York, where he made the acquaintance of composer John Cage, and artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Roberto Matta, Isamu Noguchi, and Arshile Gorky.
On July 9, 1946, excited to return to a newly liberated Europe, Lam set off for Paris. Upon arrival, he was disappointed to discover that Social Realism had overtaken the art world and that Surrealism was now considered "counter-revolutionary idealism." After visiting Italy and Germany, he returned to Paris and befriended Danish artist Asger Jorn, who cited Lam's paintings, with their strong ties to music, as a major influence in his own work.
In New York, Lam held an exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1947, Jackson Pollock acknowledged the show as the reason he set out to study Native American art. Later that year, Lam returned to Cuba, where he joined other artists in forming the Agrupacíon de Pintores y Escultores Cubanos (APEC). He was inspired, in part, by Jorn's role in forming the CoBrA group in Scandinavia, with which Lam was loosely affiliated. In May 1951, Lam and Helena divorced.
Late Period and Death
In 1952, Lam moved back to Paris. In the following decade he became involved with the Italian avant gardes, and joined other post-war movements including "Phases" and the Situationist International, while continuing to participate in Surrealist events and exhibitions. In 1955 he met Swedish artist Lou Larin, whom he married in Manhattan on November 21, 1960, and with whom he went on to have three sons, Eskil, Timour, and Jonas.
Lam continued to travel extensively during the late 1950s, the 1960s, and 1970s, to the United Staes, Italy, Venezuela, Russia, India, Kenya, Spain, Norway, Greece, and Sweden. In 1956, he participated in an expedition to Mato Grosso, Brazil. While there, he became ill and was forced to return to Cuba for medical treatment. He recovered in time to exhibit a series of paintings at Havana University, demonstrating his support for the students' protests against Batista's dictatorship. On May 1, 1963, he was honoured as a "national painter" by Cuba.
From 1964 onward, Lam divided his time between Paris, Zurich, and Albissola Mare, Italy, where he set up a studio in a house in the Bruciati neighborhood (near the home of Asger Jorn). In the final decades of his life, he experimented with printmaking and ceramics. In 1978, he had a stroke, after which he suffered from paralysis and relied on a wheelchair to get around. On September 11, 1982, Lam died in Paris. He was cremated, and, in accordance with his wishes, his family flew to Cuba to spread his ashes on the soil of his homeland.
The Legacy of Wifredo Lam
Afro-Caribbean author Aimé Césaire referred to Lam as "the great artist of Neo-African painting." Along with Césaire, Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor, and French-Guyanese poet Léon-Gontran Damas, Lam helped to define the Negritude movement in art and literature as a way to reassess the role of African diasporic culture in the Western world, and to reclaim Black pride in white-dominated Western societies characterized by hostility toward Black people.
By combining radical modern artistic styles with "primitive" art forms, Lam not only developed his personal style, but also demonstrated the importance of maintaining respect for "primitive" sources (like African sculptures and masks) and their original functions in their native societies, rather than appropriating their forms for the mere viewing pleasure of the White man. By setting himself apart as a leader in this regard, Lam helped to set the standard for subsequent generations of Black artists, like Betye Saar, David Hammons, Kerry James Marshall, Radcliffe Bailey, and Rashid Johnson, who have asserted their African heritage and used repurposed materials and imagery from their cultural background in their art.
Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier wrote that Lam's painting, "could not have been conceived by a European artist." Indeed, as art historian Claude Cernuschi notes, "Lam packaged his [art] in the modernist language that was all the rage in Western Europe, thereby guaranteeing that [it] would find its way surreptitiously into the fortress of Western civilization." In this way, Lam's career has served as an example for more recent Cuban artists like Armando Mariño, Carlos Estévez, Roberto Fabelo, and Alicia Leal, demonstrating the ways in which larger trends in the Western art world can be incorporated into the work of Afro-Cuban artists without sacrificing the integrity of their cultural influences and impetuses.