Wifredo Lam
Year, Birthplace 1902, Cuba
Year, Place of death 1982, France
The son of a Chinese father and a mixed-race mother, Wifredo spent his childhood amid the luxuriant nature of Sagua la Grande, which had a profound effect on him, before his family settled in Havana in 1916. He attended classes at the Academia San Alejandro, which confirmed his vocation as a painter. Benefiting from a scholarship, he left for Spain in 1923. He was twenty-one and had the intention of moving to Paris. His stay in Spain lasted for fourteen years, a period of training and contact with western art, both ancient and modern, but also a time in which he had to face tragic events: the death of his wife and child in 1931, followed by the Spanish Civil War, in which he fought on the side of the republican forces. His visit to an exhibition dedicated to Pablo Picasso and conversations with Manuel Hugué – who recommended it – motivated him to move to Paris in 1938. His meeting with Picasso, who was enthusiastic about his work, was decisive. Lam was introduced by Picasso to the world of painters, writers and critics and he met André Breton, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Fernand Léger, Paul Éluard, Michel Leiris, Tristan Tzara, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Dora Maar, Óscar Dominguez, Jacques Hérold, Asger Jorn, Pierre Mabille, and Christian Zervos, among others. He also met Pierre Loeb, the owner of the Pierre gallery in Paris, who organised his first solo exhibition in 1939. At the start of the Second World War, Lam left Paris and went to Marseille, where many friends, largely surrealists - Breton, Mabille, René Char, Max Ernst, Victor Brauner, Dominguez, André Masson, Hérold and Benjamin Péret - were assembled at the Villa Air-Bel, waiting to leave for the USA thanks to the escape route opened by Varian Fry, a member of the American Committee for Aid to Intellectuals. During this enforced stay, he developed a relationship with Breton, did a lot of drawing, in particular the illustration for Breton’s poem Fata Morgana (éditions du Sagitaire) and participated in the creation of Jeu de Marseille, a card game inspired by tarot. Breton dedicates his important article ‘à la longue nostalgie des poètes…’ (which would be republished in Le Surréalisme et la Peinture) to the artist: ‘Lam, l’étoile de la liane au front et tout ce qu’il touche brûlant de lucioles’ (Lam, the star of the liana on his forehead and everything he touches glowing with fireflies). Wifredo finally embarked in 1941 in the company of Breton, Victor Serge and Claude Lévi-Strauss; he became friends with Aimé Césaire when they docked in Martinique. Back in Cuba, after eighteen years of absence, Lam deepened his research into Afro-Cuban culture, in particular the rituals, which he discovered with a new fervour, initiated by his godmother, a priestess of a traditional Afro-Cuban religion. He attended public santería ceremonies and the ñáñigo initiations. He returned to his origins and asserted their primitive character. In his paintings, he abandoned outlines that were too geometric to paint ‘jungles’ populated by apparitions, a kind of primitive forest whose masked inhabitants with disjointed shapes resemble their surroundings, where the animal and vegetable kingdoms are mixed, emanating feelings of threats, secrets, and latent violence. Despite residing in Cuba during the war, he launched his career in New York, where he exhibited at the Pearl Gallery from 1939 and regularly at the Pierre Matisse gallery from 1942 (with a text by André Breton). He participated in View, the journal of the reconstituted surrealist group, and in group exhibitions such as First Papers of Surrealism (Madison Avenue Gallery, 1942). In 1944, the MoMA bought his 1943 work The Jungle, which would cause a scandal when it was shown at the Pierre Matisse Gallery. At the end of 1945, in Haiti, he re-encountered André Breton, who was there to give a series of lectures. At the lecture on 20 December, the writer invited the audience to discover the exhibition of Lam’s work at the Art Centre, for which he had written the catalogue preface: his text 'La Nuit en Haïti’ [Night in Haiti] would be republished in Le Surréalisme et la Peinture. It was on this occasion that the painter, along with Mabille and Breton, attended the voodoo ceremonies which would leave a profound impression on him. After the war, he divided his time between Europe, New York, Caracas and Havana, and travelled in South America. He developed relationships with Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell in the United States and, in Europe, with the members of the CoBrA group and later with the Phases movement. The Loeb gallery in Paris dedicated a new solo exhibition to him. He took part in the activities of the surrealist group, including the Le Surréalisme exhibition in 1947 at the Maeght gallery, for which he conceived a voodoo altar. His style evolved. The influence of Oceanic art, combined with African art and the presence of esoteric elements, became more dominant: he painted interlaced vegetable forms in which mythical figures appeared, standing out vertically against sombre backgrounds. His notoriety was international from that point on. He spent a long period in Abissola Mare in Italy, turning the village into a centre of artistic experimentation and a meeting place. AC