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Who was Wifredo Lam?

Who was Wifredo Lam?

An admirable retrospective at Tate Modern pins down the work of a Cuban artist who has always given curators a hard time

An admirable retrospective at Tate Modern pins down the work of a Cuban artist who has always given curators a hard time

Amica Sciortino Nowlan | September 19th 2016

“Art is an agony,” said Wifredo Lam. In his work, that agony is visible. Frightening organic and geometric shapes writhe and interlock, part-human, part-beast, part-shadow. Severed limbs and mouths full of teeth are rearranged and extended. His pictures are unmistakeable. His list of friends reads like a who’s who of modern Western art: Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst and André Breton in 1930s Paris; Sandy Calder and Jackson Pollock in 1940s New York; Aimé Césaire, the father of the Négritude movement which affirmed the value of black culture. But who was Wifredo Lam?

Though lauded in his lifetime, critics and admirers alike have struggled to define his work. His widely acknowledged masterpiece, “The Jungle” (1943), won a spot in the Museum of Modern Art in 1945, but for decades hung not in the main galleries but in a corridor near the cloakroom: even MoMA couldn’t place him. Was he a Cubist, a surrealist or a primitivist? Was he the Cuban Picasso or the painter of Négritude?

A major new retrospective at Tate Modern – the first exhibition of his work in Britain for more than six decades – makes an admirable attempt to pin him down. At the root of his art, this show argues, is Lam’s own remarkable life, which was one of repeated exile. Forced by Franco’s victory in the civil war to abandon the life he had made in Spain, Lam took refuge in France, only to be evacuated in 1941 on a boat laden with European intellectuals fleeing fascism. Refused residence in America because of his Chinese heritage, he returned to Cuba. But after the military coup of 1952, he left his beloved, benighted country for Europe, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Lam’s art was forged in the personal and political tumult of these years, fuelled by the violence and injustice he witnessed. He explored not only what it meant to be Cuban and black, but also the responsibilities and possibilities of art in the face of racism, war, revolution and its aftermath. This exhibition rightly positions him “between modernisms”; he engaged with all the major artistic currents of his time, but was never tied to them. He worked in the space between those movements, and stands alone.

“Self-portrait I” (1926); “Self-portrait III” (1938)
These two paintings could be the work of different people. In a way, they were. Between them, Lam’s first wife and infant son died of tuberculosis and he worked himself ill making munitions and war art for the Republican side in the Spanish civil war, until, a new man in Paris, he joined the circles of Picasso and Breton. Picasso introduced Lam to African sculpture, the presence of which is vivid in the 1938 work. Here was a way of looking afresh at the human figure, but for Lam this interest went deeper; he was reclaiming as art what had previously been relegated to the galleries of anthropology museums. “My painting is an act of decolonisation,” he declared.

 

“Collective drawing” (1940) by Wifredo Lam, Andre Bréton, Oscar Domínguez, Max Ernst, Jacques Hérold, Jacqueline Lamba, André Masson and Victor Brauner
Lam’s life in Paris was cut short by the German invasion. Lam, Breton and many of their circle holed up in Marseille for eight miserable months, waiting to escape. Anxious and frustrated, they passed the evenings drawing together on shared sheets of paper, a technique used by surrealists to express the subconscious. The unpredictable, grotesque shapes that emerged from these sessions opened up a whole new world to Lam: “This strange world started to flow out of me, like a river.” The forms filling Lam’s notebooks from those months are the foundation of all his later work.

 

“The Sombre Malembo, God of the Crossroads” (1943)
Safely out of France, Lam and his second wife Helena made their way back to Cuba. After 18 years abroad, he saw his country with new eyes. The shiny, tourist-friendly façade papering over the poverty and corruption was “like some sort of hell,” he later said. “I refused to paint cha-cha-cha.” Instead, he threw himself into the project of trying to articulate a black Cuban identity. His toothed and clawed figures morphed into the Orisha, the deities of Santería: a combination of Catholicism and west African religions which had emerged among Cuban slaves. Though Lam himself was not religious, his godmother had been a Santería priestess and the religion’s iconography resonated deeply with him. He used it to make work that was feminine and furious.

 

“Horse-headed Woman” (1950)
The femme-cheval is one of the key figures of Lam’s Cuban decade. She symbolises the moment in Santería ritual when a worshipper is possessed by a deity, an experience described among devotees as like being “ridden” by a horse. She is both monstrous and beautiful. During these vital years, which dominate Tate Modern’s exhibition, Lam consolidated and refined his visual language on a grand scale. In these paintings death and terror are ever-present, but more often than not they cycle into rebirth.

 

“Tongue Fashion”, from the “Annunciation” series (1969)
In later life, Lam began experimenting with ceramics, and was bewitched by the unpredictability of the process. His son recalls how some nights his father would be unable to sleep, anxious to see how a piece would come out of the kiln. He also discovered printmaking, and was delighted by its subversive potential for mass distribution. This medium enabled him to collaborate with the many poets and writers he knew, most significantly his old friend Aimé Césaire. In the 1940s, Lam illustrated Césaire’s seminal “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal”; 40 years later, shortly before Lam’s death in 1982, Césaire returned the favour, completing Lam’s “Annunciation” series of etchings with poems exploring the ideas of spiritual and physical rebirth evoked by each plate.

 

Portrait of the artist in Albissola, Italy (1963)
Lam was a man of immense warmth and charm. At home in many languages and across media, he had friends all over the world. But his outward manner masked the internal ferocity unleashed in his art. “I could act as a Trojan horse,” he said, “that would spew forth hallucinating figures with the power to surprise, to disturb the dreams of the exploiters.” Tate Modern has produced the scorching story of a life not lived at the periphery, but which generated its own centre. 

The EY Exhibition: Wifredo Lam Tate Modern, London, until January 8th

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