Wifredo Lam

Cuban (1902–1982)

About the artist:

Born: Wifredo Oscar de la Concepcion Lam y Castilla, Sagua la Grande, 2 December 1902. Education: Academia San Atejandra, Havana, 1920-23; Free Academy, Madrid; studio of Fernando Alvarez di Sotomayor (director of the Prado), Madrid, 1924-28. Military Service: Fought with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Family: Married 1) Eva Piris in 1929 (died 1931); 2) Elena Hoizer in 1944 (separated 1950); 3) Lou Laurin in 1959,3 children. Career: Painter, Academia de Quatre Gates, Barcelona, 1936-37. Moved to Paris, 1938. Associated with Surrealists, especially Andre Breton and Max Ernst, Paris, 1938. Traveled to New York, Cuba, and Paris, 1946-52. Awards: First Prize, Salone Nacionale, Havana, 1951; Gold Medal for foreign painters, Premlo Lissone, Rome, 1953; Guggenheim Award, 1964: Premio Marzotto, Milan, 1965. Died: Paris, 11 September 1982. After leaving his homeland, Havana, Cuba, where he concentrated on painting still lifes and landscapes, Wifredo Lam traveled to Spain where he thought that his work could be freed from its academic constraints. He became familiar with the work of Pablo Picasso and equally with the Republican cause, which he supported in the Spanish Civil War. He did not actually meet Picasso until 1938 in Paris, but much speculation and myth has grown around the supposed influence that this looming figure had on Lam's work, almost ignoring the impact that Henri Matisse's decorative style had on Lam's compositions. By 1936 Lam's paintings had become increasingly influenced by cubism, but with a more ritualistically "Africanized" character. His subjects were more structural, connecting them to traditional African sculpture from Zaire and other West African cultures. The spirit of African mythology and ritualism is evidenced in the accentuated breasts and genitalia, elongated limbs, and pronounced mask-like facial features on figures often placed in a surreal lush environment of leaves and other foliage. Attention to ritualized forms came not from European artists' explorations of Cubism although it may have provided a catalyst-but because Lam's life in Cuba had been grounded in the Africanized religion of Santeria. (Santeria is actually a Cuban-based religion that relates Yoruba deity worship with the Roman Catholic tradition of prayer to saints.) After the civil war escalated in Spain, Lam left for Paris with a letter of introduction to Picasso. Although he was only in Paris for two years, he continued to be influenced by the avant-garde school there and by his comrades. (Together they had fled Paris for Marseilles when it was invaded in 1940 and subsequently occupied during World War II.) He was later forced to flee Marseilles for Martinique, where he met Aime Cesaire, a disciple of Negritude, whose influence of Africanized themes and philosophy affected Lam's own investigations of his Afro-Cuban culture for the remainder of his life, As Lam himself said "I... wanted to paint the drama of the Negro spirit, the beauty of the plastic and 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. I knew I was running the risk of not being understood either by the man in the street or by the others [the art world]. But a true picture has the power to Scot the imagination to work even if it takes time." Lam's interest in African-derived spirituality and mythology was further reinforced by a visit to Haiti in 1945 in which he witnessed a voodoo ceremony and found similarities in worship and a belief system among Afro-Cubans in his own country. He thus took the techniques of synthetic Cubism, which were based on forms of traditional African sculpture, and reinterpreted them through what he knew and experienced from his own Afro-Cuban heritage. What resulted were lush, enigmatic, and ritualized works in which shapes were often outlined in black line, no doubt initially influenced by the linear outlines of Matisse, Joan Miro, Fernand Leger (with whom he had worked in Paris), and Max Ernst (one of his colleagues in Marseilles). Lam developed a personal vision of Cubism, unlike Picasso and others who appropriated structural elements of traditional African sculpture and design. Lain concerned himself not only with the structure of the forms but with the myth and authority that empowered them. His greatest achievement was the manner in which he fused modernist ideals of abstraction with his knowledge, as all insider, of African-derived forms and the context in which they were used in the sacred arena.

Wifredo Lam

Cuban (1902–1982)

(13 works)

About the artist:

Born: Wifredo Oscar de la Concepcion Lam y Castilla, Sagua la Grande, 2 December 1902. Education: Academia San Atejandra, Havana, 1920-23; Free Academy, Madrid; studio of Fernando Alvarez di Sotomayor (director of the Prado), Madrid, 1924-28.

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