Wifredo Lam: O la modernidad transcontinental. Centre Georges Pompidou, París

The exhibition displays the different stages of the long journey that was Lam’s life as well as the varying courses of his production.

By Claire Luna
Wifredo Lam, La Jungla [The Jungle], 1943. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The exhibition Modernités plurielles, which closed at the beginning of the year, set out to reformulate the Pompidou’s collection of modern art through a geographic lens that went beyond the classic Euro-centrist vision. As a logical extension of that effort, the museum opened the first retrospective of the work of artist Wifredo Lam (Cuba, 1902-1982) last month. As Bernard Blistène, the director of the museum, explains “[with this exhibition] we attempt to think the aesthetic and ethical question posed by modernity differently.”

Divided into five chronological sections, the exhibition displays the different stages of the long journey that was Lam’s life as well as the varying courses of his production. The show features about three hundred works (prints, paintings, drawings, ceramics, etc.), along with photographs and other archival material that illustrate his life, his important encounters, and his artistic research. After studying art in his native Cuba, the young Lam traveled to Madrid thanks to a fellowship granted by the Cuban government (the fellowship was soon withdrawn since Lam quickly began investigating new visual languages). In Madrid, he studied at the Academia de Bellas Artes. The works from his early stage in Spain (1923-1938) bear the influence of the classical master artists whose works he saw at the Museo del Prado. After completing his studies, he delved into the avant-garde movements, soaking up works by Gauguin, Gris, Miró, Picasso, Matisse, and others. Curator Catherine David summarizes his period in the Spanish capital as follows: “If he had been killed in the Civil War, in which he fought for the Republicans, he would no doubt be remembered as an uneven but promising young painter who died too soon to make his mark.”

He fled Franco’s Spain for Paris, where contact with Surrealism and Cubism shaped his artistic intentions. He discovered African statuary, which had inspired the European avant-gardes, in the Musée de l’Homme and in Picasso’s atelier. His characters’ faces turned into geometric masks that expressed the intensity of his personal tragedies (exile and the death of his wife and of his son).

In 1940, he was once again forced into exile, this time to Marseilles, where he met André Breton and the Surrealists. With them, he made collective works and engaged in automatic practices. The second section of the exhibition shows a series of very beautiful exquisite corpses on paper and other ink drawings of hybrid figurines. Eroticism and monstrosity evidence the mental and formal freedom to which Lam aspired.

After eighteen years in Europe and two periods of exiles, he returned to Cuba, where he stayed until 1952. This decision proved very significant as, while in Cuba, Lam was close to, and even embodied, a vital strain of syncretism. His sources of inspiration were many and in no particular order: American gestural abstraction, folk art, his own reading of the European avant-gardes, his Godmother’s sorcery practices, the rites of santería, Lucumi or Haitian Vodou, Yoruba and Catholic influences, and more.

The greatest expression of that hybrid quality, or syncretism, typical of Lam´s art is La Jungla [The Jungle, 1943]. Indeed, it seems to govern the very essence of the work. No hierarchy structures the different elements that make up the painting: the human, the animal, the vegetal, and the divine coexist in harmony. In a liberating gesture, the artist ruptured the world order, going beyond a classic or dualist interpretation of the world (life/death, natural/artificial, and so on). Here, metamorphosis is a primary principle. Like an all-over painting, La Jungla has no point of convergence and, thus, expresses the crucial question of decentering.

From 1962 until the time of his death, the artist split his time between Paris and Albissola, a major center of ceramics, a technique he practiced with pleasure because he found working with the earth liberating. It was also in Albissola that Lam discovered the unique quality of Italian light.

The exhibition returns to the genesis and reviews the different stages and reception of a body of work that was slow to develop and produced between Spain, Paris, Marseilles, and Cuba. It resoundingly demonstrates that Lam´s work cannot be reduced to any geographic and/or cultural origin. Indeed, one of the aims pursued by Catherine David and her team was to formulate a new critical reading of Lam´s oeuvre.

Lam is a diaspora artist, the son of a Cantonese man and a biracial descendant of slaves and Spaniards. Like Joaquín Torres García (see the retrospective of his work on exhibit at MoMA), Lam is a link, a transatlantic bridge who formulates a singular vision of the post-colonial world: “My painting is an act of decolonization.”

“[…] painting [will] never be the equivalent of that pseudo-Cuban music for nightclubs. I refused to paint cha-cha-cha!” the artist declared upon returning to the country he had left as a very young man and that he found stuck in a state of folkloric and primitivist stagnation. In opposition to that state of affairs, he articulated his project as follows: “[…] 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,” adding “I knew I was running the risk of not being understood either by the man in the street or by the others”.