Meeting the Master: Wilfredo Lam

Geoffrey MacLean on the man who is a founding father of contemporary Caribbean art, the Cuban painter Wildredo Lam

  • Lam's masterpiece The Jungle (1943, 94.25 x 90.5 inches, oil on reinforced paper). The Studio Museum in Harlem
  • Wilfredo Lam
  • Lisamona (1950, 51.5 x 38.5 inches, oil on canvas). Photograph by The Studio Museum in Harlem
  • Lams godmother Mantonica Wilson (photo c.1900) was a shango priestess and a major influence on the young painter
  • Light of the Forest (1942, 192 x 124 cm, tempera on paper). The Studio Museum in Harlem
  • Pasos miméticos (1950, 43x53 inches, oil on canvas). Photograph by The Studio Museum in Harlem.

It was a long flight, and there was plenty of time to think about the art of the Caribbean and its place on the international stage. For me this was like a pilgrimage; I was preparing for an encounter with the work of the greatest contemporary master of Caribbean art, Wifredo Lam, at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Few other Caribbean artists have achieved any form of real international recognition. Among the more obvious are Francisco Oller of Puerto Rico, Michel Cazabon of Trinidad (100 years after his death), and Camillé Pissaro of the Virgin Islands. Of these three, Pissaro was the most successful — and the only one who did not return to the island of his birth.

Although I had read a great deal about Lam, and had seen reproductions of his work, this was the first time I was going to see his paintings. He was a friend of Picasso, Matta, André Breton and Aimé Césaire. He achieved international acclaim in his own lifetime (he died in 1982); he is revered in his native Cuba, and is respected throughout the Caribbean. As Camillé Pissaro brought a new sense of light to the Impressionists in Europe, Lam brought a new spiritual dimension to Cubism and Surrealism.

Wifredo Lam was born in 1902 in Sagua La Grande, a sugar-producing area and the centre of Afro-Cuban culture. He was the son of a Chinese immigrant, Lam Yam, and his mulatto wife. He studied art in Havana, then moved to Spain in 1924 and held his first exhibition there three years later. In 1937 he moved to Paris, where he met Pablo Picasso and became involved in the surrealist movement; he first exhibited there in 1939.

With Europe in the turmoil of World War II, he returned to Cuba in 1941, and was able to revitalise his work there, drawing on familiar cultural images from his childhood. His first American exhibition opened in 1942. After the war, in the late 1940s, he returned to Europe and remained there, mostly in France, for the rest of his life. His international reputation was solid: he held over 100 international exhibitions during his life, and attracted international acclaim for his unique Afro-Caribbean Expressionism.

This year’s Harlem exhibition of Lam’s work gave me the link that every West Indian needs to understand the significance of Caribbean art in an international context. The techniques are universal, incorporating the visual distortions, if you will, of modernism. Yet the subjects are clearly of the Caribbean: the colours – dark greens, browns and reds; the mythology – African gods and folklore; the landscape – sugar cane and lush tropical fields; the human forms – cane farmers, mulatto faces.

Because of their close friendship, much is made of the influence of Picasso on Wifredo Lam. Both exploited African iconography in their paintings. But, as art critic Jacques Leenhardt noted, Lam had been brought up in the Africanised santeria religion of Cuba and had developed his imagery before meeting Picasso. Picasso used African imagery as an outsider, but Lam knew its inner meanings. Lam’s use of mask-like forms for heads and zig-zag shapes to articulate the rest of the human form – breasts, collar-bones, shoulder-blades – was his method of depersonalising the human figure to give it a more universal meaning. A similar effect is achieved in African art styles where faces are mask-like.

In the European context, unfamiliar visual expressions – Cazabon’s tropical landscapes for example – are often treated with intellectual contempt. It is very much to Lam’s credit that he was considered to be in the forefront of international art, even after his return to Cuba where he further developed his non-European imagery. Perhaps it could be argued the basis of modern art is African culture and that Lam was therefore very much in step. Put his detailed images are uniquely Caribbean.

Lam has been a source of inspiration to many contemporary Caribbean artists, one of the most obvious being Trinidad and Tobago’s LeRoy Clarke. African spiritualism and mythology are central to Caribbean art, but Lam was the first to draw on the traditions so powerfully. Amerindian images have been more popularly used over the years, on the assumption that they are indigenous to the Caribbean, but they are often deliberately and arbitrarily imposed.

The Caribbean needs its contacts with the wider world to help articulate feeling. Lam needed the Spanish civil war, in which he participated, to understand fully the horrors of the displacement of the African people in the Caribbean, and the destruction of their culture. In the same way, LeRoy Clarke used his experience of the early 1970s and the Black Power movement in the United States as a catalyst for his expression.

There are many similarities between Lam and Clarke in their work, particularly in the context of their spiritual backgrounds, but there are major differences in their philosophies. The two men were brought up in their respective islands’ interpretation of the same religion, Lam in the santeria of Cuba and Clarke in the orisha of Trinidad. Both use the female form as the central theme of their paintings; but whereas Lam explores the different aspects of the female, whether temptress or virgin, Clarke reveres the female ideal. Lam’s figures are earthy; Clarke’s are ethereal. Lam’s expression is distinctly surrealist, Clarke’s is more expressionistic. Lam’s godmother, Mantonica Wilson, was a shango priestess and his spiritual guide. From an early age he was exposed to the rituals of her religion and became familiar with Afro-Cuban beliefs and mythology, the chichereku, the long-toothed gremlins that lived at the bottom of the garden, and the guile, the spirits who lived in the river – Clarke’s douens. In his composite imagery of human, animal and plant kingdoms, Lam punned with sugar-cane stalks and human legs, paw-paws and breasts, male genitals and tropical fruit, and, combined with the female visage, the act of procreation.

Lam was careful to distinguish his imagery from the animal forms used by Picasso. He combined diverse animal images in a surreal composite – the horse’s snout, ears, buttocks and tail. One of his most popular subjects is the woman-horse, inspired by the Afro-Cuban bajarle el santo ceremony, where the participant is possessed by the characteristics of the horse. Another composite is the bird or plant with the human figure, an allusion to offerings. Lam moved from portraits and figures to the merging of figure and landscape, culminating in his jungle series, from which evolved the work considered to be his greatest, The Jungle (Personage with Scissors).

Other images recur: the quarter moon, important in Afro-Cuban rituals, the time for asking blessings and uprooting herbs for offerings; the thunder-axe the night light – a glowing pumpkin; the diamond-shaped Nanigo symbol; and the elemental or bird-like tribal masks, triangular with round eyes, popularly identified in Trinidad and Tobago by both Clarke and Carnival artist Peter Minshall as jumbies, spirits of the dead.

The unique forms of Caribbean artistic expression are slowly being recognised and accepted by the mainstream of international opinion. As they themselves accept their own cultural independence, Caribbean artists are finding the confidence to draw on their cultural heritage, their religious, mythological and folkloric roots. Lam is one of those artists who have shown the way.

As the debate continues as to how distinguishable Caribbean art should be from international forms, Lam’s work becomes more and more important. For in the internationality of his work we find the quintessence of Caribbean expression.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.