Wifredo Lam

1902 - 1982

It is not possible to cover in this book the entire itinerary of an artist who chose, for the purposes of his work, to live and work in several parts of the world. In 1952 Lam did however settle in Paris, although he continued to travel. No doubt his dual ancestry – his father was a Chinese merchant and man of letters and his mother a mulatto of African and European extraction – was the cause of his extremely personal subject matter, in which his Afro-Cuban roots encountered great timeless myths. Fascinating – with its enigmatic recurring symbols in which beauty, death, eroticism and horror mingle with real and imagined beings, zoomorphic and plant creatures covered with horns, fingers and sexual organs – Lam’s work, with its dreamlike profusion, belongs to Surrealism, a movement to which he adhered through his friend André Breton, and which he never disowned.

Lam drew from an early age and attended art school in Havana from 1916 to 1923, while also showing his first works. From 1923 to 1938 he lived in Spain and studied at the School of Fine Arts in Madrid, where he was taught by Sotomayor. His academic training was influenced by his discovery of the collections of the Prado: the fantasy worlds of Durer, Bosch and Brueghel, with their luxuriant forms and colours, reminded him of the exuberant tropical vegetation in his own country. He was also impressed by Spanish painting of the Golden Age. Lam was fascinated by El Greco’s elongated forms and also by Goya’s demons and denunciating expressionism. Finally, he experienced the revelation of medieval sculpture as well as the paradoxes of African art when, in 1928, he saw for the first time sculptures from Guinea and the Congo.

These elements were all decisive in the development of Lam’s plastic language. We should undoubtedly add the dramatic loss of his young wife and son, both of whom died in 1931 from consumption. Death became part of his world, never to leave it, an insistent presence within reality, soon evoked in the form of apparitions and the ghosts of the Spanish Civil War. Lam put aside his brushes and joined the Republican forces. In Catalonia he met the sculptor Manolo Hugué, who gave him a letter of recommendation to Picasso.

In 1938 Lam arrived in Paris, where he took a studio in rue Armand-Moissant. Picasso introduced him to Pierre Loeb, who gave Lam his first Paris exhibition in July 1939. The gallery interrupted its activities soon after under the Occupation, and Pierre Loeb left for the ‘southern zone’, where he embarked with his family for Cuba, remaining there until 1944. In 1941 the war also forced Lam to leave Paris. The previous year he had shown at the Perls Gallery in New York, with Picasso who, on his return to Paris, introduced him to André Breton, Max Ernst and Victor Brauner. Lam’s paintings, enriched by his earlier experiences, had straight angular lines and bright contrasting colours with an intentionally primitive and constantly tragic mood. In Marseille he met up with his surrealist friends again: Pierre Mabille, René Char, Max Ernst, Victor Brauner and Oscar Dominguez. In 1941, with 300 other intellectuals, including André Breton, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Victor Serge, Lam embarked on Pont de Merle. Six months later, in Martinique, they were all interned in a camp, where Lam spent 40 days. There he met Aimé Césaire and saw André Masson again.

After 20 years in Europe, Lam returned to Cuba in 1942, living on and off in Havana until 1947. This was a fertile period from which all his subsequent work was to hatch, and it therefore deserves our attention. Without making a choice between either naturalism or abstraction, the artist rediscovered in his country an innocence far removed from the catastrophes and suffering that he had endured. “In these tropical surroundings, he experienced a feeling akin to living in paradise, which was not expressed through the gentle ecstasy of Florentine skies, but through the violent rendering on canvas of the elements which constitute the flora, fauna and climate of the West Indies. He captures the expressions of fetishes, breasts shaped like exotic fruits, strong slender rows of sugar cane, creepers with baroque shapes, muffles and manes, beaks and wings,” wrote Jacques Charpier (Lam, Le Musée de Poche).

Without describing his surrounding reality, it is in his mind that he seizes and expresses his plastic values. Easily recognisable, each of us connects through our own imagination with this personal mythological world. His large gouache La jungle (Museum of Modern Art, New York) – shown in 1979 at the Centre Pompidou, Paris – is a perfect example of the first period of the artist’s work, which it closes. Shown in 1944 at his solo exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York, it created a scandal (he showed at this gallery on several further occasions: 1942 text by André Breton – 1945 – 1948 – 1950).

Sensual drawing emphasises a stylised naturalism. Lam developed a bestiary that underlies a constant “erotic current in the work” (op. cit.). He reconstructed this bestiary using real and imagined elements, turning away from objective observation.

“There are already transfigurations of tails, birds’ heads, horses’ hooves, birds’ wings, snake scales, wart hog tusks, etc. And we are placed in an animal morphology that is at once disturbing and equivocal. From 1948 onwards, this bestiary tends increasingly to detach itself from explicit references. These beings painted by Lam can only be associated with man or animal by terse signs: horns, eyes, feathers, feet… Geometrical forms begin to be included, barely escaping abstraction by a movement of wings, a twist of mane, imperceptibly ‘aware’, directed by a subtle rapid hand towards the world of femininity (allusions to breasts, for example) or the plant world (allusions to leaves, thorns, etc.). Finally, meaningless forms give the painting its sense of rhythm and participate in the plastic organisation of these signs” (op. cit.).

From 1944 to 1945, invited by Pierre Mabille, the French cultural adviser at Port-au-Prince, Lam visited Haiti accompanied by André Breton, who was giving a series of talks. He visited Port-au-Prince again in 1946, when he had an exhibition at the Centre d’Art with an illustrated catalogue prefaced by André Breton, and attended voodoo ceremonies. In the same year he showed in London and also exhibited at the Lyceum in Havana, with a catalogue prefaced by Lydia Cabrera. In 1945, on his way back to France, he stopped off in New York where he met Arschile Gorky, Marcel Duchamp and Nicolas Calas. On his return to France he saw his friend Picasso in Cannes. In Paris the Galerie Pierre gave a second exhibition of Lam’s work. From 1947 to 1952 he divided his time between Cuba, New York and Paris, which he finally chose as his home. In 1950 he had an exhibition in Havana at the Parque Central and, in 1951, he obtained the First Prize at the National Salon, and showed at the Galería Sociedad Nuestro Tiempo Lam et notre temps, Paris 1938, Havana 1951, illustrated catalogue with a text by Carlos Franqui; 1952 Institute Of Contemporary Arts (ICA) Gallery, London, catalogue with the text of a talk by E.L.T. Mesens. In 1953 the Paris public was able to see his work again at the Galerie Maeght, catalogue Derrière le miroir no. 52 with texts by Michel Leiris, Aimé Césaire, René Char, André Breton, Pierre Mabille, Christian Zervos and letters from Picasso and Braque. The same year he received the Prix Lissone (gold medal for foreign artists).

From 1954 Lam exhibited regularly at the Salon de Mai, showing his large works. In 1955 he had an exhibition at the University of Havana, out of solidarity for the students combating the dictatorship of Batista (catalogue), followed by an exhibition at the Museum of Caracas, with a catalogue that included texts by Michel Leiris, Pierre Mabille and Herbert Read, a poem by René Char, a declaration by Georges Braque, a letter from Picasso and a presentation from A. Carpentier. In Paris Lam met Lou Laurin, a Swedish artist, whom he married in New York in 1960 and by whom he had four children. In 1955 he had an exhibition at the Colibri Gallery in Malmo. In 1956 he visited the Mato Grosso and the virgin forest in Brazil. He reinterpreted this jungle peopling it with motley figures: “This is the tropical forest sometimes screaming and sometimes haunted by the threatening silence of deserts, in which these faces suddenly appear rendered furious by drops of water… the tension here is singular and constant… sometimes hostile too, because Lam plays with adventure in these sticky forests… where beasts from bygone times continue to growl… He has attempted to capture them, not in order to tame them but to show them to us in their wild state and all their captivating fury, so that we may recognise them in ourselves,” wrote Benjamin Péret (Médium no. 4, January 1955). 1957 solo exhibition at the Galerie des Cahiers d’Art.

Lam made a number of new friends among whom were Alain Jouffroy, Ghérasim Luca and René Char, whom he met at his studio in the Villa d’Alésia. Each of his works retained its sense of mystery: building around metamorphosis, Lam leaves it to the spectator to find the signification, the key to these monstrosities, where everything that scratches and tears – nail, tooth, fang, barb, beak, horn – generates pain, violence and frenzy. This mixture of components, inverting their identity with intentional ambiguity, only achieves definition as accessible plastic forms through the drawing, equally aggressive with its obscene observation. Colour is subordinated to line isolating form. Jacques Charpier wrote: “It also has another function: to create the painting’s emotional tonality” (op. cit.). The harmonies of monochrome browns, blacks and greens contrast with a palette where irradiation makes the scarlets, pinks and yellows gleam like facets of a solar spectrum. Lam maintains us in a state of terror in which we remain constantly under observation, threatened by conspicuous evil spells with immense poetic power.

Around 1960 the heads become triangular and the forms tend to become geometric signs emphasised by the various attributes mentioned above. The composition becomes clearer and fresher, relying on the plastic organisation of its emblems. This simplification is doubled by the plastic transparency of these vague emblems within a space which, as the years pass, becomes clearer, characterised by shades of bistre.

In 1960 Lam stayed for the first time at Albisola-Mare near Genoa, where he met not only Italian artists but artists of other nationalities (Asger Jorn). In 1964 he had a studio built there, and henceforth divided his time between the seaside resort and Paris. In 1963 he was invited by the Cuban government to visit Cuba, which since 1959 had been under Fidel Castro’s leadership. He returned to Cuba in 1966 and again in 1967, when he was responsible for the Salon de Mai being invited to show in the country. In 1965 he received the Guggenheim International Award in New York and also the Marzotto Prize in Valdano (Italy). Major exhibitions took place abroad, notably in Italy in Milan, Rome and Venice, and in Geneva, New York and Caracas.

In Paris he exhibited again in 1966 at the Galerie Christine Aubry and the Galerie Aubry Rueff; in 1967 he showed at the Galerie Albert Loeb and then again in 1972 (works from 1940 to 1950), 1976; 1968, Galerie Villand et Galanis; 1974 Galerie La Cour d’Ingres; 1979 Artcurial (catalogue). Among the group exhibitions, Lam participated in the international surrealist exhibitions in Paris in 1947. In 1948 in Prague and Santiago (Chile), 1959 Milan, 1960 Paris Galerie Daniel Cordier and 1964 at the Galerie Charpentier in an exhibition organised by Patrick Waldberg: Le surréalisme, sources, histoire, affinités. He participated in the exhibitions of the movement ‘Phases’ organised by Edouard Jaguer between 1955 and 1960 in Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Warsaw, Cracow, Buenos Aires, Lima and Santa Fé. 1958 50 ans d’art moderne at the Exposition Internationale de Bruxelles.

During the final years of his life, the artist worked on ceramics (exhibitions in 1970 in Milan and 1975 in Bologna) as well as sculptures, terracotta and bronzes. From early in his career he illustrated the literary works of his poet friends, Breton, Césaire, Char, Ed. Glissant, A. Bosquet, Ghérasim Luca, P. Mabille, R. Crevel, A. Jouffroy, A. Artaud and J. Cassou, to mention the most significant of them. He made etchings and lithographs at the same time as painting. In 1970 an exhibition of his prints was held at the Galleria Il Giorno in Milan. 1974 Savone, Galleria Sanmichele, etchings, aquatints, lithographs (catalogue). Retrospectives of his work were held from 1966 at the Kunsthalle Basel (catalogue), and in 1967 at the Brussels Palais des Beaux-Arts, catalogue, text by Maurice Nadeau.

1983 Rétrospective, Musée d’Art Moderne Ville de Paris. Catalogue.

Museums: Paris, Art Moderne Centre Georges Pompidou, Art Moderne de la Ville – Saint-Paul-de-Vence – Rotterdam – Vienna – Hamburg – Berlin – Silkeborg- Skopje – Chicago – Caracas – Baltimore – London – Locarno – Warsaw – Washington – New York – Miami – Stockholm – Malmö – New Haven – Lima – Havana.

  • Jacques Charpier: Lam, Musée de Poche, Paris, 1960.

  • Yvon Taillandier: Wifredo Lam, Dessins, Denoël, 1965.

  • Alain Jouffroy: Lam, G. Fall. Bibli Opus, Paris, 1972.

  • Gérard Xuriguera: Wifredo Lam, Filipacchi, Paris, 1974.

  • Philippe Soupault: Wifredo Lam, Dessins, Galilée. Dutrou, 1975.

  • Max-Pol Fouchet: Wifredo Lam, Poligrafa, Barcelona and Cercle d’Art, Paris, 1976. (Reprinted, 1989.)

  • XXe Siècle 52, July, 1979, special issue on Wilfredo Lam.

  • Catalogue raisonné under preparation by Lou Lam.


Excerpt from L’École de Paris 1945–1965: Dictionnaire des peintres
Ides et Calendes Editions, courtesy of Lydia Harambourg
www.idesetcalendes.com