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Wifredo Lam

Wifredo Lam. Born Sagua la Grande, Cuba, 1902. Died Paris, 1982.

Wifredo Lam attended San Alejandro between 1918 and 1923; at that time he painted mostly still lifes and landscapes, which he showed in some of the yearly salons organized by the Association of Painters and Sculptors of Havana. In 1923 he left for Spain to further his artistic education. He first lived in Madrid, where he enrolled in the studio of the academic painter Fernando Alvarez de Sotomayor and frequented the Prado and the Archeological museums. Lam remained in Spain until 1938, traveling and living for periods of time in Cuenca, Leon, and Barcelona while painting portraits, landscapes, city scenes, and interiors in styles that ranged from realism to cubism and surrealism.

Toward the end of his lengthy stay in Spain he joined the republican side in the Spanish civil war.
The turmoil in Spain finally drove Lam to France. He arrived in Paris in 1938 with a letter of introduction to Picasso. The latter put him in touch with the Parisian avant-garde, including Henri Matisse, Fernand Leger, Joan Miro, and Benjamin Peret. In 1929, Pierre Loeb gave Lam his first one-person show, in which he exhibited numerous paintings on the mother-and-child theme.

At this time Lam practiced a style of simplified forms influenced by cubism and African sculpture. Lam's Parisian stay was cut short by World War 11. In 1940 he took refuge in Marseilles, where he developed close ties with a group of surrealists that included Andre Breton, Max Ernst, Oscar Dominguez, Victor Brauner, and Pierre Mabille. He participated in the group's activities, such as the making of the Tarot de Marseille, and helped produce collective drawings. He also illustrated Breton's poem Fata Morgana with six drawings that prefigured his mature style and iconography. In 1941 he joined three hundred intellectuals escaping war-torn Europe aboard the Capitaine Paul Merle en route to Martinique.

The salient event of his seven-month trip to Cuba was meeting the poet Aime Cesaire, whose exploration and affirmation of Afro-Caribbean culture influenced and paralleled his own.

Lam's rencounter with his native land in 1941 had a decisive effect on his art, perhaps more so than in the case of his contemporaries due to his long absence. His paintings immediately began to reflect his rediscovery of the Cuban landscape and of his Afrocuban heritage. He developed a formal vocabulary, appropriated primarily from Picasso and African sculpture to express African deities and myths still active in Cuba. Up to the mid-1940s he located Afrocuban signs--hybrid figures and ritual objects or attributes--in a tropical and symbolic landscape of sugarcane and tobacco leaves, as seen in La jungla (The Jungle, 1943). His paintings took on a dark and more violent tone after a visit to Haiti in 1946. The hybrid figures became more totemic, the tropical landscape gave way to somber, ambiguous spaces, and the bright neoimpressionist colors turned to earth tones, black, grays, and white, as seen in La boda (The Wedding, 1947). In Haiti he witnessed voodoo ceremonies in the company of Mabille and Breton, which reinforced and expanded his visual-poetic expression of Afro-Caribbean culture and identity.

Between 1947 and 1952 Lam lived and worked in Havana, New York, Paris, and Albisola. He then settled permanently in Paris. During the rest of his long and productive career his style and iconography evolved along a steady course toward greater simplicity and abstraction, at times bordering on the decorative. From the late 19505 on he dedicated increasing attention to graphics and ceramics. The outstanding characteristics of his mature art are a sharp and refined draftsmanship, a violent sensuality, and a highly personal version of modern primitivism. Lam's art began to draw national recognition and international renown in the 1940s.

In Havana he held his first one-person show at the Lyceum in 1946 and won the first prize at the 1951 National Salon. The Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York gave him five one-person shows between 1942 and 1950. In the 1944 exhibition, La jungla was universally well received by the critics in the local press; that same year James Johnson--director of the Museum of Modern Art--bought the painting for the museum's collection.

His work also was featured in full-length articles in Magazine of Art (1949) and Art News (1950). At about the same time Lam's work gained recognition in Europe. He held one-persons shows in London in 1946 and 1952 and in Paris in 1945 and 1953. Full-length articles on his work appeared in Horizons (1945) and Cahiers d'art (1946). Over the past thirty years Lam has been the subject of several monographs and numerous retrospective exhibitions. His paintings are in museums and private collections all over the world.

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