b. 1902, Sagua la Grande, Cuba
d. 1982, Paris
Now, with the first canvas by Lam I saw, it was as if I’d known it forever. Unbeknownst, it was already part of me. And each time I advanced into his work, by sections and chances toward the beginnings of bodies naked and mute like faces, or elsewhere, and later, each time he had always preceded me.
I really believe this is his miracle … I discover him: I have known Lam forever. He was born before us, the oldest painter in the world: the youngest.[i]
—Louis Althusser on Wifredo Lam
There were few art practices of the twentieth century more radically syncretic than Wifredo Lam’s. In his mature work, evocations and motifs of artists as diverse as Hieronymus Bosch, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Jackson Pollock are as critically present as his depictions of the Santería[ii] deities and Chinese ideograms that furnished much of his heritage.[iii] Counting Picasso himself, the poets André Breton and Aimé Césaire, and the theorists Claude Lévi-Strauss and Louis Althusser as some of his closest peers, his diversity of influences is perhaps only overshadowed by the number of people he touched over the course of his life.
Lam’s uniquely eclectic and progressive work has its basis in the artist’s similarly idiosyncratic background. Born in 1902 to a Chinese father and a mother of both African and European descent, Lam’s upbringing involved hearing and seeing Chinese at his father’s scribal business as well as participating in Lucumí ceremonies overseen by priestess godmother.[iv] After showing great interest and prowess in both painting and drawing by the age of twelve, he discovered the work of western artists such as Francisco Goya, Eugène Delacroix, and Leonardo da Vinci at his local bookstore and eventually enrolled in the Escuela Profesional de Pintura y Escultura in Havana from 1921–23. In the fall of 1923, he received a scholarship from his home city of Sagua la Grande—traditionally granted to “a young person of color in need”—and set sail for Europe, heralding the beginning of his career as an artist.
Lam’s artistic development can be best understood as being split into two different series of artistic concerns, which correspond to his time in Europe and with his eventual return to the Caribbean. Beginning with his arrival in Madrid, Lam’s European work evidences an active attempt at assimilation. Lam’s education in Spain began under the academic painter Fernando Alvarez de Sotomayor [1875–1960], which he complemented with religious visits to the Prado to copy the work of the Spanish masters. Lam’s paintings from this period make visible his efforts, distilling the techniques of his colonial predecessors in a number of portraits. Lam soon rejected this academicism following a financially prompted move to Cuenca in 1926, its mountainous landscape and unique architecture proving to be a productive site for formal exploration. His style from this period (1926–28) is reminiscent of Paul Cézanne’s and are his first attempts to participate in the European modernist project. His wife and son’s untimely deaths from Tuberculosis in 1931 would trigger a creative block for Lam. The little work that does remain from this period involves a dark, symbolic surrealism that set luminous figures against terrifying flat backgrounds that seek to consume them.
Lam’s politics and work would become radicalized during the Spanish civil war, in which he supported the republicans through his work at a munitions factory and drawing a number of anti-fascist posters.[v] Poisoning from industrial chemicals in 1937 necessitated a period of convalescence in Catalonia, which proved to be a windfall both personally and artistically. The inhibitions that had plagued Lam since the death of his family would finally begin to dissipate during his time at a sanatorium in Caldes de Montbui, Spain, where he began to paint prolifically once again.[vi] His work grew far more compositionally radical, employing the heavy strokes and vibrant colors of Henri Matisse to confront subject matter ranging from basic landscapes to imaginative political pieces.[vii] It was also in Caldes where he befriended the sculptor Manolo Hugué [1872–1945], who would facilitate one of the most critical moments in Wifredo Lam’s career: a meeting with Picasso.[viii]
As the Nationalists advanced on Barcelona in 1938, Lam moved to Paris with little more than a series of paintings for Picasso and a letter of introduction from Hugué. Picasso’s work was fundamental for Lam, validating an exploration of aesthetic modes beyond the western tradition to which he once strived to conform.[ix] Whereas the Parisian avant-garde engaged with African art as a tool to be employed irreverently and rebelliously, for Lam their motifs became a means of confronting his ambiguous identity.[x] European and African but indigenous to neither, Lam discovered in the aesthetics of modernism a way of fashioning a powerful identity for himself, which he would go on to use as a means to “act as a Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating figures with the power to surprise, to disturb the dreams of the exploiters.”[xi]
Lam’s infiltration was undeniably successful. He was embraced by the Parisian art world, growing particularly close to Picasso and Breton. Pierre Matisse—one of the most significant art dealers of the period—hosted his first major solo exhibition in Paris in 1939 and would represent him in both in the French capital and New York.[xii] Work from this period involves his first successful attempts at integrating Afro-Cuban symbolism into both Surrealist automatism and Cubist formalism, which would become the basic concerns of his mature practice.
The German invasion of France forced Lam to move once again and in 1940 he left for the Caribbean with Lévi-Strauss and Breton. During a month-long detainment in Martinique, Lam met the poet Aimé Césaire. Like Lam, Césaire was using Surrealism in the cultivation of a truly post-colonial program, which he called “Négritude.”[xiii] The two artists became close collaborators, developing and refining Négritude, to construct a distinct cultural identity for the post-colonial subject of the New World. In the context of Lam’s painting, this identity is constructed in a dream space, “the irresistible tropical world … a universe in which all cultures—European, Oriental, African—come together.”[xiv] While Lam’s work with the European surrealists used Afro-Cuban symbolism like a Trojan horse, this imagery becomes something entirely new following his meeting with Césaire in 1940, which Gerardo Mosquera aptly describes as follows:
His work participates in modernism, but coming from a different land. More accurate than the Trojan Horse is the metaphor of the horse of santería, candomblé, vodun and other Afro-American religions. The Horse is the name given to the initiated who is “ridden” by a deity, the deity appropriating his/her body, voice and all his being to manifest him/herself in a possession trance that is the major liturgical moment in these religions. Lam became an orisha riding the horse of modernism, making it utter new words.[xv]
Lam’s highest accomplishment, therefore, should not be understood as a successful integration of western modernism with non-western imagery, but instead as the outright re-configuration of western modernism into a truly global language. Although his unique accomplishments are seminal in the history of post-colonial art, Lam’s work has gone underappreciated in much of the western hemisphere in the decades following his death. Particularly emblematic of this was the Museum of Modern Art’s placement of Lam’s masterpiece, La Jungla (1943), behind its coat check for several years. However, recent retrospectives at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in 2015 and the Tate Modern, London, in 2016 are a testament to the enduring potency of Lam’s unparalleled syncretism and the urgent necessity to re-evaluate his art today.
[i] Louis Althusser, “Lam,” Artmargins 6, no. 2 (2017): 115.
[ii] Santería is a syncretic faith from the Carribbean that synthesizes Catholicism and African animistic faiths.
[iii] John Yau, “From Hallowed Place to Pure Sign,” in Wifredo Lam: Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work (Lausanne: ACATOS SA, 1996), 20.
[iv] Ibid., 25–26. Lucumí being the name of Santería used by its traditional practitioners.
[v] See chronology in Wifredo Lam: Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work (Lausanne: ACATOS SA, 1996), 179.
[vi] Maria-Lluïsa Borràs, “Lam in Spain,” in Wifredo Lam: Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work (Lausanne: ACATOS SA, 1996), 36.
[vii] See, for example, his 1937 painting La Guerra Civale.
[viii] Borràs, “Lam in Spain,” 39.
[ix] Daniel Maximin, “Miroirs de Lam,” in Wifredo Lam, exh. cat. (Paris: Galerie Boulakia, 2004), 11.
[x] Lowery Stokes Sims, “The Painter’s Line: The Drawing of Wifredo Lam,” Master Drawings 40, no. 1 (2002): 60.
[xi] Lam quoted by Paulette Richards in “Wifredo Lam: A Sketch,” Callaloo 34 (1988): 91.
[xii] See exhibition history in Catalogue Raisonée.
[xiii] “Miroirs de Lam,” 15.
[xiv] Lam quoted in Catalogue Raisonné, 92.
[xv] Gerardo Mosquera, “Riding Modernism: Wifredo Lam’s Decenterings,” in Journal of Contemporary African Art (Summer/Fall 1997): 16.