Lam, who had spent three years working with the Surrealists in Paris, aimed for The Jungle to convey the haunting consequences of slavery and colonialism for his native island of Cuba. He depicted figures with crescent-shaped faces, recalling African or Pacific Islander masks, against a background of Cuban sugarcane fields. Cuba, one of the world’s largest sugar exporters, had been colonized since the sixteenth century, and the Atlantic slave trade had brought more than a million Africans there as labor for the country’s plantations. “I wanted with all my heart to paint the drama of my country,” Lam wrote, “to disturb the dreams of the exploiters.”
Gallery label from "Collection 1940s—1970s", 2019
In this monumental and thematically complex gouache, masked figures simultaneously emerge and disappear amid thick sugarcane and bamboo foliage. The multiperspectival rendering of these figures recalls Cubism, while the fantastical moonlit jungle scene around the monstrous beings—which are half-human, half-animal—evokes the realm of the Surrealists.
Lam was born in Cuba but spent much of his twenties and thirties in Europe, a sojourn that deeply affected his artistic vision. While there, he befriended Pablo Picasso and also established himself as an integral member of the Surrealist movement. Lam merged the artistic and cultural traditions of Europe with those of his homeland when he returned to Cuba in 1941 and renewed his familiarity with its light, vegetation, and culture. In The Jungle, the woman-horse depicted on the left is a figure from Afro-Cuban mysticism that represents a spirit in communication with the natural world. Through a masterful exercise in the language of European modernist painting, Lam asserted the African roots of Cuban identity and addressed the troubling reality of Cuba’s colonial legacy—a reflection of his own confrontational dialogue with the European interest in so-called primitive art.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Wifredo Lam: Mix-Master, Modern Artist
At the end of his life, the celebrated painter, draftsman, and sculptor Wifredo Lam (Cuban, 1902–1982) was asked to reflect upon why he painted. “It’s a way—my way of communicating between human beings,” he stated. “Just one of the ways one can try to explain with full liberty. Some will do it with music, others with literature, I with painting.” With his multicultural heritage, extensive travels and life experiences, and active participation in both the Cubist and Surrealist movements, Lam was an artist with a lot to communicate.
He was born in Sagua La Grande, Cuba, of mixed Chinese, European, Indian, and African descent. Though he was raised Roman Catholic, strands of such Afro-Caribbean religious practices as Santería—a hybrid of West African Yoruba traditions and Catholicism—filtered into his upbringing and would come to greatly influence his art. In 1916, he moved to Havana, where he began sketching the tropical plants at the botanical garden. By 1923, he had completed his studies in painting. That same year, feeling a distaste for academia and a passion for painting out-of-doors and in the street, he moved to Spain.
In Spain, Lam experienced European artistic practices firsthand, working and studying with radical, nonconformist painters and absorbing early influences from the compositions of Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin during regular visits to museums. He moved to Paris in 1938, where he met Pablo Picasso. The elder artist became his friend and supporter, introducing him into his circle of Cubists and other avant-garde artists. In 1939, Lam met poet and founder of Surrealism André Breton and became associated with the Surrealist movement, which affected his style. Working mainly in gouache, he began painting fantastical figures with fragmented, geometrical bodies and often with a combination of human and animal parts and faces resembling the African carvings that so fascinated him and his peers.
In 1941, Lam returned to Cuba. Moved by the hardships of his country’s black population and fascinated by their worship rituals, he aimed to express their culture through his art. He blended elements of Cubism, Surrealism, African, and Afro-Cuban art in paintings that became further dominated by his combined human-animal figures, which seemed to fuse with the lush, tropical flora that sometimes surrounded them.
Lam settled in Paris in 1952. In his later works, he continued to develop his earlier imagery, while simplifying his overall compositions and deepening the richness of his palette. He also began making sculptures, extending his painted images into three dimensions.
The Jungle: Where Worlds Collide
In 1943, Wifredo Lam was in the midst of re-acquainting himself with his native Cuba, especially its population of African descent. “I wanted with all my heart to paint the drama of my country, but by thoroughly expressing the black spirit, the beauty of the plastic art of the blacks,” he once said. “I knew I was running the risk of not being understood. … But a true picture has the power to set the imagination to work even if it takes time.” The “true picture” of which he spoke is his monumental painting The Jungle (1943).
Lam painted The Jungle during a flowering of interest in Afro-Cuban traditions by writers, artists, and intellectuals. The artist’s own family included people of African descent. Already immersed in African art during his time in Paris, in Cuba he began to frequent Santería ceremonies. Originally enslaved by Spanish and Portuguese traders and brought to the island to work its sugarcane fields, Africans were forced to abandon their native beliefs and convert to Catholicism. In response, they overlaid their own traditions onto Catholicism (creating Santería), while continuing to practice their religions, such as Voodoun, in secret, in such hidden settings as the jungle that crowds Lam’s painting.
In The Jungle, Lam blends Afro-Cuban and African artistic and cultural traditions with the European modernist movements of Cubism and Surrealism. At nearly eight feet high by just over seven-and-a-half feet wide, this gouache on paper and canvas composition can feel immersive, or engulfing. Four part-human, part-animal figures, with exaggerated hands and feet and faces recalling African masks, stand side-by-side. In Cubist fashion, their bodies are fragmented into individual parts that do not seem to fit together logically. With their fantastic appearance, they seem as if they could have sprung from the artist’s dreams or possibly from his unconscious, the workings of the mind that especially interested the Surrealists.
The figures seem to simultaneously emerge from and merge with a dense wall of vegetation composed of thick, banded stalks suggestive of the sugarcane that grew in the fields the slaves worked. The rightmost figure holds a pair of shears, a possible reference to harvesting, while the leftmost figure, with its horse-like features, could be seen to hint at one of the spirits in Afro-Cuban mysticism. Since Lam chose a color palette of blues and greens, with touches of yellow and white, this could be read as a moonlit night scene, or as taking place during the day, under the cover of the deep shade of the jungle.