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Wifredo Lam Photo

Wifredo Lam - Biography and Legacy

Cuban Painter, Sculptor, and Printmaker

Born: December 8, 1902 - Sagua La Grande, Cuba
Died: September 11, 1982 - Paris, France

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.

Mature Period

Lam reconnected with his Caribbean roots during his stopover in Martinique, after being forced to flee Europe. His friend and art dealer Pierre Loeb wrote that in Martinique, Lam “was revealed to himself. The tropical way of looking at things had replaced the Spanish. He now saw this landscape and it created a deep shock. His painting changed.”

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."

After meeting each other in 1944, Lam maintained a lifelong friendship with Cuban musicologist Alejo Carpentier, one of the first practitioners of “magic realism.” Carpentier once said of Lam's art, “All of the magical, the imponderable, the mysterious in our environment is revealed [...] with an impressive force. [...] The figures metamorphose, are transfigured. [...] Reality and dream are confused. The poetic and the visual become one.”

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.

Wifredo Lam with Journalist and Poet Amy Bakaloff Courvoisier in 1957

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.

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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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