December 8, 1902
September 11, 1982
Cuban painter Wifredo Lam was the first artist of color to make an impact on the international art scene. He was born in Sagua le Grande, Cuba. His father was Chinese, his mother of African and Spanish ancestry. After studying art at the Academia San Alejandro in Havana, he left Cuba in 1923 to study art in Spain, where he lived for fifteen years. During this period he set the foundation for his signature style by experimenting with a variety of academic art and modernist tendencies, inspired in particular by the work of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Lam became involved with the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). In 1937 he became ill and was sent to Barcelona to recover, escaping to Paris in 1938 just as the city fell to the Nationalist forces.
In Paris Lam made contact with Picasso, who introduced him to André Breton and the surrealist group. In the context of that movement Lam was able to promote his art internationally. When the German forces advanced on Paris in 1940, Lam began his journey back to Cuba, going first to Marseilles, where in the company of the surrealists he developed a language of hybrid forms that would characterize his unique mature style. He secured passage from Marseilles to Martinique, eventually arriving in Cuba. There, from 1942 to 1945, he created his first masterpieces, most famously The Jungle (1942–1943, located in the Museum of Modern Art in New York), which featured a synthesis of Afro-Cuban religious motifs (with references to deities known as orishas ), European modernism, and ancient alchemical ideas implanted on human, plant, and animal hybrids. Through Breton, who had gone on to New York, Lam was able to exhibit this work in New York during the 1940s. After World War II Lam reconnected with the European art scene, establishing a studio in Italy where he worked for the final twenty-two years of his career.
This was the period of the extensive internationalization of Lam's reputation in Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, the United States, and even Asia. His style continued to evolve, becoming more schematic and more imaginative as he continually invented variations on his repertoire of thematic motifs: bamboo stalks and tobacco leaves, banana and papaya fruit, inverted cup-heads of Elegua (orisha of the crossroads), and the ever-present horse-headed woman (femme cheval ). Lam became a mentor as well as associate of the new generation of artists in movements such as the CoBrA group (referring to Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam), the Group Phases, and the International Situationists, who represented the evolution of surrealism after World War II. Lam was unwavering in his conviction that his work was an instrument of political, cultural, and personal liberation. His ultimate legacy was that he demonstrated the potential of issues of identity and nationality within modernism, setting the stage for postmodernism. Lam died in Paris in 1982 after suffering a debilitating stroke in 1978 and is buried in Havana, Cuba.
Sims, Lowery Stokes. Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.
Tonneau-Ryckelynck, Dominique, and Pascaline Dron. Wifredo Lam, oeuvre gravé et lithographié: Catalogue raisonné. Gravelines, France: Editions du Musée de Gravelines, 1994.
lowery stokes sims (2005)