1943. Gouache on paper mounted on canvas, 94 1/4 x 90 1/2" (239.4 x 229.9 cm)
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.”1 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.”2 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.
One who produces a three-dimensional work of art using any of a variety of means, including carving wood, chiseling stone, casting or welding metal, molding clay or wax, or assembling materials.
A loosely defined affiliation of international artists living and working in Paris from 1900 until about 1940, who applied a diversity of new styles and techniques to such traditional subjects as portraiture, figure studies, landscapes, cityscapes, and still lifes. Among the artistic movements associated with the School of Paris are Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, and Symbolism.
A term broadly applied to all the visual arts to distinguish them from such non-visual arts as literature, poetry, or music.
One who applies paint to canvas, wood, paper, or another support to produce a picture.
A rendering of the basic elements of a composition, often made in a loosely detailed or quick manner. Sketches can be both finished works of art or studies for another composition.
1. The range of colors used by an artist in making a work of art; 2. A thin wooden or plastic board on which an artist holds and mixes paint.
A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.
The customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.
A three-dimensional work of art made by a variety of means, including carving wood, chiseling stone, casting or welding metal, molding clay or wax, or assembling materials.
A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.
A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).
A representation of a human or animal form in a work of art.
A closely woven, sturdy cloth of hemp, cotton, linen, or a similar fiber, frequently stretched over a frame and used as a surface for painting.
An artistic and literary movement led by French poet André Breton from 1924 through World War II. Drawing on the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, the Surrealists sought to overthrow what they perceived as the oppressive rationalism of modern society by accessing the sur réalisme (superior reality) of the subconscious. In his 1924 “Surrealist Manifesto,” Breton argued for an uninhibited mode of expression derived from the mind’s involuntary mechanisms, particularly dreams, and called on artists to explore the uncharted depths of the imagination with radical new methods and visual forms. These ranged from abstract “automatic” drawings to hyper-realistic painted scenes inspired by dreams and nightmares to uncanny combinations of materials and objects.
In popular writing about psychology, the division of the mind containing the sum of all thoughts, memories, impulses, desires, feelings, etc., that are not subject to a person’s perception or control but that often affect conscious thoughts and behavior (noun). The Surrealists derived much inspiration from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s theories on dreams and the workings of the subconscious mind.
A distinctive or characteristic manner of expression.
The context or environment in which a situation occurs.
Modern can mean related to current times, but it can also indicate a relationship to a particular set of ideas that, at the time of their development, were new or even experimental.
A water-based matte paint, sometimes called opaque watercolor, composed of ground pigments and plant-based binders, such as gum Arabic or gum tragacanth. The opacity of gouache derives from the addition of white fillers, such as clay or chalk, or a higher ratio of pigment to binder.
Resembling or using the simple rectilinear or curvilinear lines used in geometry.
A person who draws plans or designs, often of structures to be built; a person who draws skillfully, especially an artist.
Originally a term of derision used by a critic in 1908, Cubism describes the work of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and those influenced by them. Working side by side, they developed a visual language whose geometric planes and compressed space challenged what had been the defining conventions of representation in Western painting: the relationship between solid and void, figure and ground. Traditional subjects—nudes, landscapes, and still lifes—were reinvented as increasingly fragmented compositions. Cubism’s influence extended to an international network of artists working in Paris in those years and beyond.
The arrangement of the individual elements within a work of art so as to form a unified whole; also used to refer to a work of art, music, or literature, or its structure or organization.
The perceived hue of an object, produced by the manner in which it reflects or emits light into the eye. Also, a substance, such as a dye, pigment, or paint, that imparts a hue.
French for “advanced guard,” this term is used in English to describe a group that is innovative, experimental, and inventive in its technique or ideology, particularly in the realms of culture, politics, and the arts.
A Snail Out of Its Shell
Though Lam spent most of his adult life abroad, meeting and learning from leading European modern artists, he never forgot his Cuban roots. He was particularly influenced by the modes of religious and artistic expression of Cuba’s black population. “I could have been a good painter from the School of Paris, but I felt like a snail out of its shell,” he once said. “What really broadened my painting is the presence of African poetry.”3