The EY Exhibition: Wifredo Lam retrospective at the Tate Modern

  • Art
The EY Exhibition: Wifredo Lam retrospective at the Tate Modern


Fri, 16/09/2016 - 13:23


The EY Exhibition: Wifredo Lam runs at Tate Modern
15 September, 2016

SPEND time with the early pieces in this show, arranged chronologically, and be amazed a short while later by the phenomenal transitions.

Yet with more than 200 works on show at Tate Modern’s retrospective of Wifredo Lam (1902-1982) we see a continuum, from subtle drawings such as that of his father Lam-Yam in 1922 to complex mixes of hybrid figures in settings as diverse as The Wedding, an oil, from 1947 and even ceramics and prints from the 1970s, in a career spanning a turbulent half-century. 

All this from an artist Tate Modern’s director Frances Morris describes as “a kind of cosmopol­itan modernist”, but who has also been dubbed the “Cuban Picasso”.Yet even that is misleading because Ln Eskil says his father was proud of his “mixed heritage” African, Chinese and Spanish, thought of himself as a surrealist “from time to time,” and embraced the avant-garde. One striking self-portrait is simply mask-like.

Born in Sagua la Grande, Cuba, Lam studied art in Havana from 1918 to 1923 and won a scholarship to Madrid and the Prado and royal academy, where he was influenced by both Valázquez and Goya. 

He travelled extensively in Europe having lost his first wife and young son to tuberculosis in Spain in 1931, a personal tragedy which shaped his views on poverty and equality. 

Other major artistic influences would be Matisse and, notably, Picasso whom he met in 1938 and who admired and helped promote his work.

Lam had been in Madrid at the outbreak of the civil war in 1936, volunteered for the Republican militia, and worked in a munitions factory. It was the sculptor Manolo Hugué who urged him to leave Spain and provided the introduction to Picasso. Lam stayed two years in Paris before fleeing in 1940 to Marseilles and then to Vichy-controlled Martinique and a brief period of internment. He returned to Cuba in 1941.

As the Tate’s Matthew Gale and Katy Wan, co-curators with Catherine David, note: “After 18 years away he saw the country with new eyes. He became acutely aware of its decadence, racism and poverty, but also rediscovered the natural landscape and became fascinated by the Santería religion, in which rituals and beliefs from West Africa were overlaid by aspects of Catholicism.”

What emerged from all this was a unique, if somewhat obscure, style borrowing from the cubists and surrealists and others, offering a very personal take on the relationship between European and African art. And a “rediscovery” of Afro-Cuban culture. 

Added into the hybrid mix can be seen not only the half-animal, half-human figures and intricate vegetation but strains of spectres, myths, of the occult, and not a little sexual referencing.

A work such as The Wedding illustrates the complexity of the imagery. This almost altarpiece-like painting, a struggle of good and evil, was inspired by a passage from the Uruguay-born French poet, Isidore Ducasse, in which a man is hung by his hair for three days. It was exhibited with other large scale symbolic works in New York in 1948. 

Lam applied unsuccessfully for permanent residency but was turned down by the US author­ities because of his father’s Chinese nationality.

Although he would return to Cuba periodic­ally, by 1952 Lam had moved back to Europe and lived variously in France, Switzerland and Italy –where he would go through a short expressionist phase – before his death in France in 1982. A couple of years before that Lam, when asked about his work, said: “My painting is an act of decolonisation, not in a physical sense but in a mental one.”

Images pictured above: 
From left: Wifredo Lam, (1902-1982) The Wedding, 1947, oil on canvas, 216 x 200cm, Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
© SDO Wifredo Lam

Wifredo Lam, Untitled (Caiman Eating an Elephant), c1943, ink and watercolour on paper, 23.8 x 15.9cm, Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, Florida, bequest of Lydia Cabrera © SDO Wifredo Lam

• The EY Exhibition: Wifredo Lam runs at Tate Modern, Bankside, until January 8.

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