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Wifredo Lam

ebrated as a healer and sorceress, he was exposed to rites

of the African orishas.* [1] His contact with African celebrations and spiritual practices proved to be his largest
artistic inuence.
In 1916, Lam moved to Havana to study law, a path
that his family had thrust upon him. Simultaneously, he
also began studying tropical plants at the Botanical Gardens.* [2] From 1918 to 1923, Lam studied painting at
the Escuela de Bellas Artes. However, Lam disliked both
academic teaching and painting. He left for Madrid in the
autumn of 1923 to further his art studies.

2 Career in Europe
In 1923, Lam began studying in Madrid under Fernando
lvarez de Sotomayor y Zaragoza, the curator of the
Museo del Prado and teacher of Salvador Dal. 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 simplied and decorative.* [1] 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.* [3]

Wifredo Lam, Zambezia, Zambezia, oil on canvas, 1950,

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Wifredo scar de la Concepcin Lam y Castilla

(Chinese: ; Jyutping: lam4 fei1lung4; December
8, 1902 September 11, 1982), better known as Wifredo
Lam, was a Cuban artist who sought to portray and revive
the enduring Afro-Cuban spirit and culture. Inspired by
and in contact with some of the most renowned artists of
the 20th century, Lam melded his inuences and created
a unique style, which was ultimately characterized by the
prominence of hybrid gures. Though he was predominantly a painter, he also worked with sculpture, ceramics During the 1930s Lam was exposed to a variety of inuand printmaking in his later life.
ences. In his work, the inuence of Surrealism was discernible, as well as that of Henri Matisse.* [1] Throughout
Lam's travels through the Spanish countryside, he developed empathy for the Spanish peasants, whose strife, in
1 Early life
some ways, mirrored that of the former slaves he grew
up around in Cuba.* [4] Therefore, at the outbreak of
Wifredo Lam was born and raised in Sagua La Grande, a the Spanish Civil War, Lam sided with the Republicans
village in the sugar farming province of Villa Clara, Cuba. where he used his talent to fashion Republican posters
He was of mixed-race ancestry: his father, Yam Lam, and propaganda. Drafted to defend Madrid, Lam was inwas a Chinese immigrant and his mother, the former capacitated during the ghting in late 1937 and was sent
Ana Serana Castilla, was born to a Congolese former to Barcelona. There, he met Helena Holzer, a German reslave mother and a Cuban mulatto father.* [1] In Sagua La searcher, and the Catalan artist known as Manolo Hugu.
Grande, Lam was surrounded by many people of African Manolo gave Lam the letter of introduction that sparked
descent; his family, like many others, practiced Catholi- his friendship with Picasso, whose artwork had impressed
cism alongside their African traditions. Through his god- and inspired Lam a year before when he saw an exhibition
mother, Matonica Wilson, a Santera priestess locally cel- in Madrid.* [1]


In 1938, Lam moved to Paris. Picasso quickly became

a big supporter of Lam, introducing him to many of the
leading artists of the time, such as Fernand Lger, Henri
Matisse, Georges Braque and Joan Mir. Picasso also introduced him to Pierre Loeb, a Parisian art dealer; Loeb
gave Lam his rst exhibition at the Galerie Pierre Loeb
in 1939, which received an enthusiastic response from
critics.* [5] Picasso and Lam also exhibited their work together at the Perls Galleries in New York in the same year.
Lam's work went from showing the inuence of Matisse
seen in his still lifes, landscapes and simplied portraits
to being inuenced by Cubism.* [1] Mainly working with
gouache, Lam began producing stylized gures that appear to be inuenced 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 inuence, seen
in the guresangular outlines and the synthesis of their
bodies.* [1]

tic art of the blacks. In this way I could act as a

Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating gures with the power to surprise, to disturb
the dreams of the exploiters.* [4]

Additionally, his time in Cuba marked a rapid evolution

of his style. Drawing from his study of tropical plants
and familiarity with Afro-Cuban culture, his paintings became characterized by the presence of a hybrid gure
part human, animal and vegetal elements.* [1] His style
was also distinctive because of its fusion of Surrealist and
Cubist approaches with imagery and symbols from Santera.* [6] In 1943, he began his best-known work, The
Jungle. It reected his mature style, depicting four gures
with mask-like heads, half-emerging from dense tropical
vegetation. Later that year, it was shown in an exhibition
at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York where it created controversy. The painting depicted the tension between Modernism and the vibrancy and energy of African
While Lam began simplifying his forms before he came culture. [4] The Jungle was ultimately purchased by the
into contact with Picasso's work, it is apparent that Pi- Museum of Modern Art N.Y. It is often compared to Picasso had a signicant impact on him. With regard to casso's Guernica, which is hung in the Museo Reina Sofa
Picasso's exhibition, Lam said that it was not only a in Madrid.
revelation, buta shock.* [1] Lam gained the approval
of Picasso, whose encouragement has been said to have
led Lam to search for his own interpretation of modernism.* [4]
With the outbreak of World War II and the Germans
invading Paris, Lam left for Marseille in 1940. There,
he rejoined many intellectuals, including the Surrealists,
with whom he had been associated since he met Andr
Breton in 1939. In Marseille, Lam and Breton collaborated on the publication of Breton's poem Fata Morgana,
which was illustrated by Lam. Though the drawings he
created in Marseille between 1940 and 1941 are known
as the Fata Morgana suite, only about three inspired the
illustrations for the poem.* [1] In 1941, Breton, Lam and
Claude Lvi-Strauss, accompanied by many others, left
for Martinique only to be imprisoned. After forty days,
Lam was released and allowed to leave for Cuba, which
he reached in midsummer 1941.

Havana years

Upon Lam's return to Havana, he developed a new awareness of Afro-Cuban traditions. He noticed that the descendents of the slaves were still being oppressed and
that the Afro-Cuban culture was degraded and made picturesque for the sake of tourism. He believed that Cuba
was in danger of losing its African heritage and therefore
sought to free them from cultural subjugation. In an interview with Max-Pol Fouchet, he said,
I wanted with all my heart to paint the
drama of my country, but by thoroughly expressing the negro spirit, the beauty of the plas-

Wifredo Lam with fellow artist Manuel Carbonell (1952)

Lam continued to simplify and synthesize abstraction yet

continued painting gurally; he also kept on developing
the mythology and totemism that dened his style.* [5]
In 1944, he married Helana Holzer, whom he divorced
in 1950. In 1946, he and Breton spent four months in
Haiti, enriching his already extensive understanding and
knowledge of African divinity and magic rituals through
observing Voodoun ceremonies. Although he later said
that his contact with the African spirituality that he found
throughout the Americas did not directly impact his formal style. African poetry, on the other hand, was said to
have had a broadening eect on his paintings.* [4] In 1950
Wifredo Lam worked together with Ren Portocarrero
and others in the village Santiago de Las Vegas, the group
of painters worked on ceramic.* [7] In 1952, Lam settled
in Paris after having divided his time between Cuba, New
York and France.
Lam, who continued to sympathize with the common
man, exhibited a series of paintings at Havana University in 1955, to demonstrate his support for the students
protests against Batista's dictatorship. Similarly, in 1965,

6 years after the revolution, Lam showed his loyalty to
Castro and his goals of social and economic equality by
painting El Tercer Mundo (The Third World) for the presidential palace. In 1960, Lam established a studio in
Albissola Marina on Italy's northwest coast and settled
there with his wife Lou Laurin, a Swedish painter, and
their three sons. In 1964, he was awarded the Guggenheim International Award and between 1966 and 1967
there were many retrospectives of his work throughout
Europe. At the encouragement of Asger Jorn and after
being intrigued by the local pottery making, Lam began
to experiment with ceramics and had his rst ceramic exhibition in 1975. He progressed to model sculptures and
cast in metal in his twilight years, often depicting personages similar to those he had painted.
Wifredo Lam died on September 11, 1982 in Paris. Having had over one hundred personal exhibitions around the
world, Lam had a well established reputation by the time
of his death.


Lam, like many of the most renowned artists of the

20th century, combined radical modern styles with the
primitivearts of the Americas.* [6] While Diego Rivera
and Joaqun Torres Garca drew inspiration from PreColumbian art, Wifredo Lam was inuenced by the AfroCubans of the time. Lam dramatically synthesized the
Surrealist and Cubist strategies while incorporating the
iconography and spirit of Afro-Cuban religion. For that
reason, his work does not singularly belong to an art
movement.* [1]
He held the belief that society focused too much on the
individual and sought to show humanity as a whole in his
artwork.* [1] He painted generic gures, creating the universal. To further his goal, he often painted mask-like
faces. While Cuban culture and mythology permeated
his work, it dealt with the nature of man and therefore
was wholly relatable to non-Cubans.

Wifredo Lam, The Jungle, gouache on paper, 1943, Museum of

Modern Art

primitivism of Cuba. Rather, Lam's intention was to depict a spiritual statethat which is surely inspired by Santera;* [8] he sheds light on the absurdity that has become
Afro-Cuban culture and more specically on the way
their traditions were cheapened for tourism. He sought
to describe the reality of his people through the powerful
work and gained acclaim and fame for doing so.

6 Art works
Deux personnages. 1938. Collection Conseil
gnral de Martinique, France.
Mother and Child. 1939. Art Institute of Chicago,
Anamu. 1942. Museum of Contemporary Art,
Satan. 1942. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The Jungle

The Jungle, which is considered Lam's masterpiece, is exemplary of the artist's mature style. The polymorphism,
for which Lam is well known, juxtaposes aspects of humans, animals and plants, creating monstrous, hybrid
creatures. The dense composition creates a claustrophobic feeling while the forms remain dicult to dierentiate. The gureselongated limbs lack denition, while
much emphasis is placed on their large feet, round buttocks, and African-inspired masked heads. Additionally,
the iridescent quality of the forms enhances the painting's
tropical feeling.
The Jungle was not, however, intended to describe the

The Jungle. 1943. The Museum of Modern Art,

New York.
Untitled. 1943. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Homenaje a jicotea. ca. 1943. Lowe Art Museum,
University of Miami.
Untitled. 1945. Galerie Lelong, Paris.
Le guerrier. 1947. Galerie Lelong, Paris.
Le Reve. 1947. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture
Garden, Smithsonian Institution.
Exodo. 1948. Howard University Gallery of Art,
Washington, D.C.

L'Espirit aveugle. 1948. Indianapolis Museum of
Lisamona. 1950. Collection Steven M. Greenbaum,
New Hampshire.
Les enfants sans me. 1964. Museum of Modern
Art, Brussels.
El Tercer Mundo. 19651966. Museo Nacional de
Bellas Artes, Havana.
The Shadow of Days. 1970.

Wifredo Lam Peintures.Galerie Pierre, Paris.
June 30 July 14, 1939.
Drawings by Picasso and Gouaches by Wifredo
Lam.Perls Gallery, New York. November 13- December 2, 1939.
Lam Paintings.Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York.
November 17- December 5, 1942.
Lam Paintings.Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York.
June 624, 1944.
Lam Paintings.Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York.
November 20- December 8, 1945.
Wifredo Lam.Galerie Pierre, Paris. December
1231, 1945.
LamCentre d'Art Galerie, Port-au-Prince, Hati,
January 24 to February 3, 1946.
The Cuban Painter Wifredo Lam.The London
Gallery, London. November 530, 1946.
Lam: Obras Recientes 1950.Parque Central, Havana. October 215, 1950.
Wifredo Lam.Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas,
May 822, 1955.
Wifredo Lam.University of Notre Dame, Notre
Dame, January 822, 1961.
" Wifredo Lam Malerei, Vic Gentils Bildhauerei.
Kunsthalle, Basel, September 10 October 9, 1966;
Wifredo Lam.Kestner-Gesellshaft, Hanover, December 16, 1966 January 16, 1967; Stedelijk
Museum, January 26 March 12, 1967; Moderna
Museet, Stockholm, April 8 May 7, 1967; Palais
des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, May 18 June 18, 1967.
Wifredo Lam.Ordrupgaard, Charlottenlund
(Denmark), September 14 -October 15, 1978;
Sonja Henie, Niels Onstad Foundation, Hvikkoden (Norway),


Homenaje a Wifredo Lam 19021982.Museo

Nacional de Arte Contemporaneo, Madrid, October
20- December 12, 1982; Muse d'Ixelles, Brussels,
January 7 -March 6, 1983; Muse d'Art Moderne de
la Ville de Paris, Paris, March 23 May 22, 1983.
Wifredo Lam, Prints.Central Institute of Fine
Arts, Beijing; Palace of Fine Arts, Shangha; Institute of Fine Arts, Hangzhou, Institute of Fine
Arts; Guangzhou; Art Center, Hong Kong, September 1991 March, 1992.
Wifredo Lam: A Retrospective of Works on Paper.Americas Society, New York, September 19
December 20, 1992; Fundacio La Caixa, Barcelona,
January 21 March 21, 1993.
Wifredo Lam.Museo Nacional Centreo de Arte
Reina Soa, Madrid, September 29 December
14, 1992; Fundacio Mir, Barcelona, January, 21
March 21, 1993.
Lam mtis.Fondation Dapper, Paris, September
26, 2001 to January 20, 2002.
Wifredo Lam: The Changing Image, Centennial
Exhibition.Yokohama Museum of Art, Yokohama, October 2002 January 2003.
Wifredo Lam et les potes.Muse Campredon,
Maison Ren Char, L'Isle sur la Sorgue, France, July
7 -October 2, 2005.
Wifredo Lam in North America, Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University, Milwaukee October 11, 2007 January 21, 2008. Miami Art
Museum, Miami, February 8 May 18, 2008; Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach, June 12 August 31, 2008; Dal Museum, St Petersburg (FL),
October 2, 2008 January 10, 2009.
Wifredo Lam, gravuras, Caixa Cultural de Rio
de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, October 22 January 3,
2010; Pinacoteca de Estado, So Paulo, February 27
May 2, 2010.
Wifredo Lam 19021982: Voyages entre carabes
et avant-gardesMuse des Beaux-Arts de Nantes,
France, May 6 August 29, 2010.
Csaire, Lam, Picasso, Nous nous sommes trouvs, Galerie nationales du Grand Palais, Paris,
France, March 16 June 6, 2011.

8 References
[1] Balderrama, Maria R., ed. Wifredo Lam and His Contemporaries 19381952. New York: The Studio Museum in
Harlem, 1992.

[2] Alley, Rin. Lam, Wifredo.Grove Art Online. 27

September 1999. Oxford University Press. <http://www.>.

9 External links
Wifredo Lam Ocial Website (in French)

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Ediciones Vanguardia Cubana. Libros de Pintura

Cubana, Wifredo Lam

[4] Richards, Paulette. Wifredo Lam: a Sketch.Callaloo

34 (1988): 9092. JSTOR.

Lam's biography at the Guggenheim website.

[5] Sims, Lowery S. Wifredo Lam and the International

Avant-Garde, 19231982. Austin, Texas: University of
Texas Press, 2002.
[6] Nessen, Susan. Review: Multiculturalism in the Americas.Art Journal 52 (1993): 8691. JSTOR.
[7] Victor Moreno ein kubanischer Maler, Felix Busse,
Vielieger Verlag
[8] Lucie-Smith, Edward. Latin American Art of the 20th
Century. 2nd ed. London, England: Thames & Hudson
Ltd., 2004.

Benitez, Helena. Wifredo and Helena: My Life with

Wifredo Lam 19391950, Acatos, Lausanne, 1999.
Fouchet, Max-Pol.
Wifredo Lam, Poligrafa,
Barcelona, 1976; Cercle d'Art, Paris, 1976; Rizzoli,
New York, 1978.
Jouroy, Alain. Lam, Editions Georges Fall, Paris,
Laurin-Lam, Lou. Catalogue Raisonn of the
Painted Work, Volume I, 19231960, Acatos, Lausanne, 1996.
Laurin-Lam, Lou, Lam, Eskil. Catalogue Raisonn
of the Painted Work, Volume II, 19611982, Acatos,
Lausanne, 2002.
Leiris, Michel. Wifredo Lam, Fratelli Fabri, Milano,
1970; Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1970.
Ortiz, Fernando. Wifredo Lam y su obra vista a
travs de su signicados criticos, Publicaciones del
ministerio de Educacion, La
Victor Moreno ein kubanischer Maler, Vielieger
Habana, 1950.
Sims, Lowery, S. Wifredo Lam and the International
Avant-Garde, 19231982, Texas University Press,
Austin, 2002.
Tonneau-Ryckelynck, Dominique. Wifredo Lam,
uvre grav et lithographi, Catalogue Raisonn,
ditions du Muse de Gravelines, 1994.
Pintores Cubanos, Editors Vicente Baez, Virilio Pinera, Calvert Casey, and Anton Arrufat; Ediciones
Revolucion, Havana, Cuba, 1962.

Museum of Modern Art's Collection.

Online Gallery of Lam's art.

10 See also
Cuban art




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