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Wifredo Lam Photo

Wifredo Lam

Cuban Painter, Sculptor, and Printmaker

Born: December 8, 1902 - Sagua La Grande, Cuba
Died: September 11, 1982 - Paris, France
"I could have been a good painter from the School of Paris, but I felt like a snail out of its shell. What really broadened my painting is the presence of African poetry."
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Wifredo Lam
"I wanted with all my heart to paint the drama of my country, but by thoroughly expressing the negro 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."
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"It is often assumed that my work took its final form in Haiti, but my stay there, like the trips I made to Venezuela, Colombia or to the Brazilian Mato Grosso only broadened its scope."
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Wifredo Lam
"There's a moment in painting when everything must be stalked; either the work will be killed, or it will be born."
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"When I arrived in Paris, after the fall of the Spanish Republic to the fascists, I began to paint what I felt most deeply [...] this strange world started to flow out of me."
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Wifredo Lam
"Africa has not only been dispossessed of many of its people, but also of its historical consciousness ... I have tried to relocate Black cultural objects in terms of their own landscape and in relation to their own world."
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Wifredo Lam
"My painting is an act of decolonization not in a physical sense, but in a mental one."
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Wifredo Lam
"A true picture has the power to set the imagination to work even if it takes time."
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Wifredo Lam
"My painting is an act of decolonization."
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Wifredo Lam
"Painting [will] never be the equivalent of that pseudo-Cuban music for nightclubs. I refused to paint cha-cha-cha!"
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Wifredo Lam

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.

Accomplishments

  • 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.

Biography of Wifredo Lam

Wifredo Lam Photo

The history of slavery, oppression, migration, and exile is personal for Lam. His grandmother was a former slave from Congo, his father a Chinese immigrant to Cuba. While thriving in Paris as an artist, the invasion of the Nazis forced him into exile. Yet his journey back to the Caribbeans, along with fellow artists and poets of Afro-Caribbean heritage, also ignited in him a sense of collective identity drawing on African history and culture that would be crucial for his groundbreaking art.



Progression of Art

1927

Campesina Castellana

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

1939

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

1943

The Jungle

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

1944

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

1950

Horse-Headed Woman

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

1975

Vase I

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."

Terra Cotta


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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Paisid Aramphongphan

"Wifredo Lam Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Paisid Aramphongphan
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First published on 17 Sep 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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