It is telling that it has taken over a third of a century since the death of Cuba’s greatest artist in living memory, the shamanistic surrealist Wifredo Lam, for us to become alive once more to the power of his art. His story is one shared by many of those caught between the inner circle and the periphery of influence that surrounded the giants of the 20th century art world – namely Picasso and Matisse – and whose legacies seemed forever cast under such far-looming shadows. Though an early disciple of their work, in truth Lam soon broke free of the shackles of imitation to paint images of his own intense, otherworldly vision. Only now, with a major retrospective currently on loan to the Tate, are the monster-gods of his creation being awoken from their slumber.
In many ways, Lam’s multicultural life and career was the original archetype of the contemporary international artist. Born in Cuba in 1902 to an African Cuban mother with Spanish heritage and a Cantonese Chinese father, he travelled to Spain in the early 1920s after being awarded an arts scholarship by the local Havana Fine Arts school. From Madrid, where he fought against Franco’s forces, he made his way to the safety of Paris and Southern France, where he was adopted and nurtured by Picasso, Matisse, Miró, and the surrealist André Breton, before being thrust back to his homeland in 1941 in flight from the European advance of Nazi Germany. Though he remained in Cuba for only another ten years before leaving to establish a permanent studio in the Italian seaside resort of Albissola, he would return almost every year from the late 1970s onwards until his death in 1982.
With such breadth of travel came equally widespread sources of inspiration. When the young Lam took his first step off the boat in Spain, he arrived a classically trained painter intent on becoming a portraitist in the tradition of the old master Velázquez. Later struck by the tragic loss of his first wife and son to tuberculosis, he was taken in by the heatwave building around the Civil War and the Republican resistance movement. Here he discovered the power of Goya, whose later works from the Black Paintings to the Disasters of War offered a narrative of nightmares, of strangeness and of suffering, mirrored and invigorated by Lam’s experiences of the current political upheaval.
As the triumph of Fascism soon became a reality, and having sustained his own injuries in the conflict, Lam escaped to France in 1938, arriving in Paris with a written introduction to Picasso from an artist friend in Madrid. The friendship he developed with the great Spaniard, and the extraordinary company he kept, marked a pivotal point in Lam’s life as an artist. Though he had always been aware of the African customs that had embedded themselves in the religious and cultural institutions of Cuba, it was arguably Picasso who first brought the potency of his ancestral ‘primitive’ art to his attention: You should be proud of your people, he is said to have told Lam, pushing a hand-carved head mask into his hands. Your people made this.
Those three years in France, between the Bohemian suburbs of Paris and the sun-baked port of Marseille, Lam spent as if in an artistic reverie, drinking red wine beneath the stars and painting late into the twilight hours. One might think such experiences, shared in such esteemed company of artists, writers, poets and thinkers, would spur him to greater heights in his work. In reality, so besotted was he with his mentors, so drunk with the pleasures of life, that he had little impetus to innovate. His work from this period, in truth, remains derivative of his great teachers. Though it offered so much, Lam’s period in France ultimately suffocated his art. It would take the shock of ejection from this daydream, alongside the diaspora of intellectuals who fled the war machines of Germany, and the sudden return home to inspire a new direction.
(above) Clairière; (below) Démons Familiers
It seems fitting that it was Havana, the place that first set Lam on his Odyssean voyage across the Atlantic, that became the catalyst for his best work. Picasso’s words had evidently stayed with him, as he revealed in an interview some years later: I refused to paint cha-cha-cha. 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.
Lam’s new style during this period, one which he sustained throughout the rest of his career, was wild and vital. It offered a syncretism between Surrealist dreamscapes and spiritual elements observed in the rites and rituals of Santería, a Cuban religion that mixes the mythic folk tales of West Africa with the fire and brimstone of Roman Catholicism. The resulting images burst forth from earlier experimentation, possessed by a power seeded in Lam’s homecoming and wrought out in exploding colour and form: bristling gods emerge from black jungles, surrounded by smiling, whooping, whirling diablitos cavorting around the voluptuous figures of feminine monsters. His work oozes with voodoo demon sexuality, conveyed in phallic spikes and hot shades of pink and orange.
‘…voodoo demon sexuality…’ – Untitled lithograph
At the heart of this revitalisation was a desire to give strength to Cuba’s dispossessed: to the prostitutes forced to work on Havana’s prerevolutionary streets; to the African slaves who had had to smuggle their beliefs into the country under the veil of Catholic obeisance. His art rallied against Cuba’s history of racial inequality, abuse, and corruption. And though he remained an atheist from the late 1920s onwards, and left Cuba some 8 years before Castro’s revolution, his faith in the vibrant, in the totemic, and in the ‘primitive’ never waned. My painting is an act of decolonization, he remarked: an act frightening, empowering, and deeply affecting.
Lam died in Paris in 1982, having lived out his latter years from his studio in Northern Italy. It seems strange to think that in the thirty-five since passed, work as emphatic and impactful as his should have gone relatively unnoticed. His masterpiece, The Jungle, procured by MOMA in New York, was famously hung in the corridor to the museum bathrooms, hidden from view; painted on fragmented paper, it is now too fragile to move. As some commentators have suggested, his resurgence has perhaps come at a time when intercultural movement – between physical borders and intellectual ideas – is both more widespread than ever, and yet so fiercely attacked.
(above) untitled lithograph; (below) portrait of the artist in his Italian studio
A painter and printmaker of enormous energy, few artists of his generation can lay claim to images as enigmatic as his. As the art critic Jonathan Jones wrote of Lam’s work, reviewing the touring exhibition at the Tate, His art is the last tarot of surrealism and a tropical wonder of modern painting.