Wilfredo Lam Reveals the Artist as Revolutionary, Paintbrush in Hand

Artwork: Wifredo Lam (1902-1982), The Sombre Malembo, God of the Crossroads, 1943, The Rudman Trust, © SDO Wifredo Lam

“With regard to life, modern painting is a revolutionary activity,” Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam (1902-1982) declared. “We need it in order to transform the world into a more humane place where mankind can live in liberty…We must accept these things with passion. It means that we must live imaginatively.”

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In celebration his singular six-decade career, Tate Modern, London, presents The EY Exhibition: Wilfredo Lam, on view now through January 8, 2017. The exhibition features over 200 paintings, drawings, photographs and prints, tracing his career from the 1920s to the 1970s. Unlike other modernists of his times who looked outside their culture for inspiration, Lam’s artistic influences were rooted in his bloodline. Born and raised in the village Sagua La Grande, Lam’s people fused the history of Cuban into their son. His father was a Chinese immigrant, Yam Lam. Was a Chinese immigrant who came over during the nineteenth century, when workers were contracted to work the sugar fields. His mother, Ana Serafina Castilla, was born to a Congolese mother, who had formerly been enslaved, and a Cuban mulatto father, while his godmother, Matonica Wilson, was a celebrated Santeria priestess.

Wifredo Lam (1902-1982), Umbral (Seuil), 1950, Photo: Georges Meguerditchian/Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Dist. RMN-GP, ©Adagp, Paris

It was this early exposure to the African rites and spiritual practices that Lam carried throughout his life, a life that is as much a personal journey as well as a history of the twentieth century. At the age of 14, Lam moved to Havana to study law, as per his family’s directive. Two years later he began studying painting, but was turned off by the academic approach. In 1923, he moved to Madrid to study under Fernando Álvarez de Sotomayor y Zaragoza, who also taught Salvador Dali. In 1929, he married Eva Piriz; two years later both his wife and young son died of tuberculosis.

Lam began traveling the countryside, finding a connection between himself and the Spanish peasants, whose struggles were similar to those of the former slaves in his native Cuba. When the Spanish Civil War began, he sided with the Republicans and began creating posters and propaganda for the cause. He was drafted into the army and incapacitated during the fighting in 1937.

Wifredo Lam (1902-1982), Bélial, Emperor of the Flies, 1948, Private collection, © SDO Wifredo Lam

Forced to leave in 1938, Lam departed for Paris where he met Pablo Picasso and continued to experiment with avant-garde techniques, particularly inspired by ancient Greek and African art. When the Germns occupied Paris in 1940, Lam was forced to flee once more, moving to Marseille where he joined André Breton and other surrealists, participating in collaborative artistic projects such as Collective Drawing 1940, designs for a surrealist pack of Tarot cards, and his own sketch series Carnets de Marseille 1941.

That same year, he returned to Cuba after 18 years abroad, only to discover his native land rife with corruption, racism and poverty. He observed the descendants of slaves being oppressed while their culture and history was systematically being degraded and erased to serve Western interest and tourism. His response was to delve deeper in to the essence of Cuba, the country that formed his earliest understandings of life, seeking out friendships with contemporary thinkers and academics, and creating works that combined animal, plant and human forms, using symbols borrowed from Cuban Occultism and Afro-Cuban beliefs.

Wifredo Lam (1902-1982), Horse-Headed Woman, 1950, The Rudman Trust, © SDO Wifredo Lam

In an interview with Max-Pol Fouchet, Lam revealed, “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.”

In 1952, Lam returned to Paris, and spent the last thirty years of his life divided between Cuba, New York, and France. At the time of his death, Lam had exhibited his work in more than 100 solo exhibitions around the world, establishing himself as one of the foremost modernist painters of the twentieth century. The EY Exhibition: Wifredo Lam celebrates his singular legacy in art, one that defies the Western desire to categorize by style and speaks solely to his heritage and his heart.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.