Sunday, 27 November 2016

Headless horses, soulless children, and mud turtles:The Cuban modernism of Wifredo Lam.

"My painting is an act of decolonisation. Not in a physical sense, but in a mental one" - Wifredo Lam.

On the same day the world's most famous Cuban, Fidel Castro, died I visited Tate Modern with my friends Mark and Natalie to see their retrospective of one of the few others, outside the spheres of music and politics, to become internationally famous. Lam is the only Cuban artist I could name and, if I think about it, he may be the first black artist to achieve notoriety too.

His story wends and weaves its way through the history of the twentieth century like Forest Gump. But a clever Forest Gump who paints instead of runs. He was born in Sagua la Grande, Cuba, in 1902 not long after the country had gained independence following the Spanish-American War. He was actually given the name Wilfredo but due to an administrative error he was registered as Wifredo and everybody seemed cool with that.

Even before he'd commenced his travels his very existence screamed of internationalism. His father, the excellently named Enrique Lam-Yam, had emigrated from China and his mother, Ana Serafina Castilla, was descended from Spanish conquistadors and African slaves. His godmother, Ma'Antonica Wilson was a Santeria princess. All of this, and much more, would come to inform his art throughout the most part of the next eighty years.

He studied at the Escuela Profesional de Pintura y Escultura de San Alejandro in Havana from 1918 to 1923. Following on from a solo show he received a modest scholarship that allowed him to move to Madrid and continue his studies in Spain at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes. There, in the Prado, he encountered the works of Velazquez and Goya. Influences that would initially sit dormant but would appear, in unexpected ways, later in his life.

He was yet to develop his own style but 1927's Hanging Houses lacks nothing in either charm or ability. The Still Life from the same year is equally adept and it seems to me that it's a common trope of galleries, when presenting exhibitions of modern artists, to chuck in a traditional work or two at the start just to let any cynical punters know that, yes, they could paint 'proper' pictures.




In 1929 Lam met, and married, Eva Piriz. But tragedy was soon to visit them as two years later both Eva, and their son Wilfredo, died of tuberculosis. Composition, above, is from 1930. It seems to me a celebration of life. Five years later, four after the death of his wife and child, Lam painted Window, below, which is clearly more pensive and contemplative. Its use of mainly blue paint surely inspired by Picasso who himself had dealt with grieving by adopting a palette, primarily, of this colour. Certainly Lam was taking inspiration from the older artist as well as Henri Matisse.

Lam had become part of the Madrid cultural circle when Franco, in 1936, led the right-wing uprising and triggered the Spanish Civil War. He volunteered for the Republicans but after six months handling toxic substances in a munitions factory his health deteriorated so badly that he had to withdraw to Catalonia to recuperate.


The sculptor Manolo Hugue urged Lam to leave for Paris and introduced him to Picasso. Lam was clearly a fan of Picasso's work but the Spaniard also admired the younger Cuban's paintings. It was a very fruitful time in both of their careers. Picasso's circle of influence was huge and so were his contacts. Lam acquainted himself with the artists Joan Miro and Oscar Dominquez. He also married for a second time. To Helena Holzer, a medical researcher he'd met in Barcelona. How she felt about the below 1943 portrait he made of her I don't know.


With the German invasion of Paris in 1940 Lam (and Holzer) were on the move yet again. They became part of a community of refugees in Marseille that gravitated around the surrealist leader Andre Breton as they waited to escape France. The surrealist influence clearly seeped in to Lam's work. Witness 1943's Sombre Malembo, God of the Crossroads.


March 1941 saw Lam, Holzer, and three hundred 'intellectuals' board a cargo ship to Martinique in the Caribbean. Martinique was, at that point, controlled by the Vichy regime installed in France following the Nazi invasion and the new arrivals found themselves consigned to an internment camp for a month. Five months later Lam returned to Cuba. He'd been away for the best part of two decades and now saw his homeland with new eyes. He had a better understanding of the racism and poverty inherent within Cuban society. More positively he was also able to appreciate the natural beauty of the landscape and he became fascinated with Santeria, a fusion of Catholicism and West African ritual beliefs.

This seems to be the time he settled on what became his signature style and, I think, the works he made when first adopting this style are the most powerful of his entire life. Unfortunately his accepted masterpiece The Jungle is deemed to fragile to travel these days so you'll have to visit the MoMA in New York if you want to see that. However, the presence of The Eternal Present, an Homage to Alejandro Garcia Caturla makes up for it.

I'm not nearly knowledgeable enough about Santeria to understand the multiple references to Orisha, the horned head of Elegua, the Messenger God, or the double-spear of Chango but I could look at it for ages. I did look at it for ages and kept noticing new things. Woman-horse hybrids, knives shaped like birds, birds shaped like knives, fingers and toes moving into every free space available, cartoonish monkey-like faces, inflatable baby elephants that look like hoovers, and even, seemingly, a precursor to the Android phone emoji being served up on a dish for the delectation of some monstrous creature. It's as funny as it is disturbing and it clearly shows the influence of Picasso's Guernica.


Humour's a much under rated virtue in art but it seems that Lam had it in spades and it doesn't detract from his work. In fact it adds to it. Whilst 1943's Homage to a Mud Turtle is clearly a bit of fun it also demonstrates the scope of the artist. Especially in juxtaposition with one of his larger, more epic, and obviously darker canvases like The Wedding (1947).



By this point Lam's works were becoming instantly recognisable. Breastlike papayas and splayed legs were beginning to feature regularly. Candles and weaponry too. They were as unsettling as they were sexual. Lam had made contact with Cuban writer, and pioneer of magical realism, Alejo Carpentier and he'd also remained in touch with Andre Breton who was now based in New York. All this fed in to his work. This, clearly, was the imperial phase of his career and one, a little part of me thinks, he perhaps let continue just a smidgeon too long.



It's a minor criticism of an otherwise exemplary show and even if his art direction wasn't moving as quickly any more he still was. In late 1945 Lam travelled to Haiti for a solo show in Port-au-Prince. During his stay he witnessed political unrest (again, like Gump, it seemed to follow Lam around) and also attended Vodou ceremonies. Both of which, of course, went on to inform his work.

Another show, in New York, saw Lam and Holzer meeting up with Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Isamu Noguchi, John Cage, Roberto Matta, and Arshile Gorky. Undoubtedly Lam's seat was very much at the top table of the international art world. An application for American citizenship was rejected due to him having a Chinese father and because that particular quota had already been reached.

His colourful life was reflected in the more colourful works Belial, Emperor of the Flies, from 1948 and Horse Headed Woman (1950). By this time, having separated with Holzer, Lam was living alone in Havana. His state of mind was not great but he was still dedicated to his art. The horse-headed women became more woman than horse and, gradually, become eroticised. Maybe he was frustrated.


1950's Clairvoyance, above, nods to Henry Fuseli's notorious 1781 Nightmare whilst Threshold, from the same year, saw Lam inch towards a more geometric style while further incorporating the tribal, ritualistic, elements of his composition.

In 1954 Lam was invited, by Asger Jorn, to participate in the International Meeting of Sculpture and Painting in the Italian seaside town of Albissola Marina. Lam liked it there, surrounded by a liberal community of artists who'd relocated there after the end of WWII, and returned regularly. Even setting up a studio in 1962. This new lease of life gave him the impetus to experiment with new styles and he produced Brush in 1958 which, with the best will in the world, wouldn't have given Jackson Pollock sleepless nights - and not just because Pollock had died two years earlier.



In 1960 Lam got married for the third time. To the Swedish artist Lou Laurin. The wedding took place in New York and a year later they settled in Zurich. If air miles had been invented Lam would certainly have chalked up an inordinate amount. By this time Lam was raking in numerous art prizes and had a major touring exhibition all over Europe. His works continued to be playful and, in many cases, he reworked some of his favourite themes time and again. Soulless Children (1964, below) saw him take further baby steps towards a more precise format but the same year's I Think, I See, I Feel tips its hat back to the forties, to the imperial phase I spoke of earlier.



In later life Lam took to making terracotta dishes. Even then he used the vocabulary of the mask and the Latin American folkloric elements. He travelled back to Cuba often to try to encourage local artists and to give Cubans a rare chance to experience the European avant-garde. His last visit back to the country of his birth was in 1978 for medical treatment after suffering a stroke. Four years later he died in Paris. He was 79 years old and, it seems to me, that he'd lived four or five lifetimes in those eight decades.

This was a fascinating exhibition chock-full of wonderful art. I learnt a lot about Wifredo Lam, the art world of the mid-twentieth century, and the volatile political era he lived through. Somebody should really make a film of this man's life.





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