Wifredo Lam: the Cuban Picasso

Wifredo Lam is one of the most eminent Cuban artists. His works reflect on the spiritual side of Cuban life and myths particularly connected to the African-inhabited area of Santeria and its many rituals. His works redefined the Western idea of “primitive” art, turning it into a narrative about the complex Cuban history of oppression and struggle.

Horse-headed woman - painting by Wifredo Lam via TATE
Wifredo Lam Horse-Headed Woman, 1950

Early Works

The artist was born in 1902 in Sagua La Grande in Cuba, as Wifredo Oscar de la Concepción Lam. His father was a Chinese immigrant, while his mother was a descendant of Afro-Cuban and Spanish origin. This mixed Chinese, European, Indian, and African origin, had significantly influenced his works, as the artist merged a variety of elements into pieces that simultaneously appear familiar and surreal. 

When the painter was only 14, his family relocated to Havana, the capital of Cuba where he began to study law. However, Wifredo decided to pursue an art career instead, and enrolled himself into the Escuela de Bellas Artes. He quickly gained recognition in the country, by exhibiting in numerous salons, (most famously in the Salón de la Asociación de Pintores y Escultores). 

Following his graduation, Lam won a scholarship for Museo del Prado in Madrid. During his stay in Spain he studied with the Director of the Museo del Prado, Fernando Álvarez de Sotomayor y Zaragoza, previously a teacher of Salvador Dali. During this time, his wife Eva Piriz and child died from tuberculosis, events that painted Wifredo Lam’s later works with a dark and sinister atmosphere.

While in Madrid, the artist was introduced to the modernist Spanish painting tradition and began to mix primitive aestheticism with European influences. A traveling exhibition of Pablo Picasso in the Spanish capital inspired him to move to Paris, where he met his idol.


Painting by Wifredo Lam
Next talk: Cuban Art – Wifredo Lam, Oct 7th @ LEVEL

A Trip to Paris

Picasso took Lam under his wing and encouraged him to learn more about Modernism, Cubism, and African sculpture. Coming from mixed African, Asian, and European descent, the artist immediately drew the attention of Pablo Picasso, André Breton, and other famous artists fascinated with the heritage of Africa, America, and Oceania, (including Matisse, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, and Joan Miro). During his trip to Mexico, Lam was introduced to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

In his early Parisian days, Lam was painting still lifes and landscapes, inspired by Matisse’s paintings. However, he quickly turned to Cubism under the influence of Picasso. Images of nature were replaced by stylized portraits of women and couples with sharp angles, reminiscent of African art. Picasso also introduced him to art dealers who helped propel his career by organizing exhibitions and acquisitions. Following the invasion of Paris in WW2, Lam fled to Marseille, where he collaborated with Andre Breton on the illustration of one of Breton’s poems Fata Morgana.

Return to Cuba

Upon return to Cuba, the artist rediscovered his African and Caribbean heritage. He noticed that Africans in Cuba are still oppressed, as the country struggled to recover from colonial times. Additionally, Lam was appalled to realize that the Cuban culture was increasingly being commodified, to appeal to the tourists. Both of these realizations caused changes to Lam’s style of painting. 

By skillfully combining Cubism and Surrealism with symbolism from the Cuban region of Santeria, the painter created abstract pieces featuring characters composed of human, plant, and animal elements. His most renowned painting was also made upon his return to Cuba. A piece entitled Jungle, reflects on Cuban history of slavery, depicting totem-like figures emerging from sugarcane fields, reminiscent of those owned by Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors. Featuring elongated limbs and wearing African masks, these figures are surrounded by the ominous presence of sharp blades that evoke the notion of danger. 

The 1943 painting represents one of the finest examples of juxtaposition of Afro-Cuban culture and modern European styles of the time. By giving a bleaker tone to Cuban and African culture, the artist actively confronted the Western perspective that viewed the Cuban heritage as simple and playful. Lam’s unusual, original style has drawn the attention of the American experts, who placed Jungle into the New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s collection. The Cuban painter was not a stranger to the American public, having frequently exhibited in Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in the 1940s.

Untitled - painting by Wifredo Lam, via TATE
Untitled by Wifredo Lam

Get to Know the Works of Cuba’s Most Celebrated Painter

By mixing a variety of influences Wifredo Lam emerged as a truly unique figure in art history. Even today, decades after his death, his surreal pieces continue to captivate art lovers all over the globe. For a more extensive look into the fascinating world of Wifredo Lam, visit our new lecture coming up on October, 7th, 2021. 
Jasmine Chohan, a specialist in Cuban art, will discuss the evolution of Lam’s body of work, starting from his Cuban and European influences, to his connection to the region of Santeria visible in his later works. Online talk about Wifredo Lam is a part of our series of lectures, which focus on the history of Cuban art, from the early colonial days to contemporary pieces.

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