Wifredo Lam (1902-1982)
Born in Cuba, Wifredo Lam was a painter notable for his modernist canvases that combined both Cuban and African influences. Highly promoted by Pablo Picasso, who himself made frequent use of African masks and figures, Lam’s rose to acclaim with distinctive, dark work featuring sharply geometric, hybrid figures.
Born and raised in Sagura La Grande, a village in a sugar-farming province, Lam was surrounded by many people of African descent. His family, like many others, practiced Catholicism alongside their African traditions. His grandmother was a Santeria priestess, and a celebrated healer and sorceress. This familial and local exposure to African beliefs, celebrations, and rituals would prove to be the greatest single influence on his work.
In 1923, Lam began studying in Madrid under Fernando Álvarez de Sotomayor y Zaragoza, the curator of the Museo del Prado, and teacher of Salvador Dalí. In the mornings he would attend the studio of the reactionary painter, while he spent his evenings working alongside young, nonconformist painters. At the Prado, Lam discovered and was awed by the work of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel I. While his early paintings were in the modernist Spanish tradition, his work soon became more simplified and decorative. Though Lam's dislike for academic conservatism persisted, his time in Spain marked his technical development in which he began to merge a primitive aesthetic and the traditions of Western composition. In 1929, he married Eva Piriz but both she and their young son died in 1931 of tuberculosis; it is likely that this personal tragedy contributed to the dark nature of his work.
During the 1930s, Lam was exposed to a variety of influences. In his work, the influence of Surrealism was discernible, as well as that of Henri Matisse. Throughout Lam's travels through the Spanish countryside, he developed empathy for the Spanish peasants, whose strife, in some ways, mirrored that of the former slaves he grew up around in Cuba. Therefore, at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Lam sided with the Republicans where he used his talent to fashion Republican posters and propaganda. Drafted to defend Madrid, Lam was incapacitated during the fighting in late 1937 and was sent to Barcelona. There, he met Helena Holzer, a German researcher, and the Catalan artist known as Manolo Huguë. Manolo gave Lam the letter of introduction that sparked his friendship with Picasso, whose artwork had impressed and inspired Lam a year before when he saw an exhibition of his in Madrid.
In 1938, Lam moved to Paris, where Picasso quickly became a big supporter of his work, introducing Lam to many of the leading artists of the time, such as Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Joan Miró. Picasso also introduced Lam to Pierre Loeb, a Parisian art dealer, who gave Lam his first exhibition at the Galerie Pierre Loeb in 1939, which received much praise from critics. Picasso and Lam also exhibited their work together at the Perls Galleries in New York that same year. Lam's work went from showing the influence of Matisse seen in his still lives, landscapes and simplified portraits, to being influenced by Cubism. Mainly working with gouache, Lam began producing stylized figures that appear to be influenced by Picasso. Much of his work in 1938 possessed emotional intensity; the subject matter ranged from interacting couples to women in despair and showed a considerably stronger African influence, seen in the figures’ angular outlines and the synthesis of their bodies.
During World War II, Lam spent most of his time in the Caribbean, along with Claude Lévi-Strauus, André Masson, and André Breton, whose poem “Fata Morgana” Lam illustrated in 1940. Lam eventually made his way back to Havana in 1941. His first year in Cuba marked a watershed in his artistic development; he was introduced to the theories of Carl Jung, and by the end of 1942 he had begun his powerful painting Jungle. Lam’s exploration of mythic images paralleled that of his contemporaries in New York, the Abstract Expressionists, though Lam used specific subject matter. Lam created his own style by fusing Surrealism and Cubism with the spirit and forms of the Caribbean.
Between 1942 and 1950, the artist exhibited regularly at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. His second marriage, to Helena Holzer in 1944, ended in divorce in 1950. In 1946, after a four-month stay in Haiti, Lam returned to France via New York. In 1948, he met Asger Jorn, who was a friend for many years. He traveled extensively until 1952, then settled for three years in Paris before resuming his travels again in 1955. In 1960, Lam established a studio in Albisola Mare, on the Italian coast. The winter of that year he married Swedish painter Lou Laurin, with whom he would have three sons. In 1964, he received the Guggenheim International Award, and in 1966–67 there were multiple retrospectives of Lam’s work at the Kunsthalle Basel; the Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hannover; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Moderna Museet, Stockholm; and the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. Lam died September 11, 1982, in Paris.