Wifredo Lam's Biography
Wifredo Lam (Sagua la Grande, 8 December 1902 – Paris, 11 September 1982). Cuban painter, Wifredo Lam was born in Sagua la Grande, a municipality located in the Cuban province of Villa Clara, the eighth son of a wealthy 84-year-old Chinese merchant and a mother of Afro-European origins. In early autumn 1923 he embarked for Spain where he lived for 14 years.
Since childhood, the lush nature of Sagua the Great has had a surprising impact on Lam. One night in 1907 he is startled by the strange shadow, reflected on the wall of his room, of the flapping of a bat’s wings. Later he will describe the episode as the first magical breakthrough of another dimension of existence.
In 1916 Lam and a part of the family settled in Havana. Wifredo enrolled at the “San Alejandro” Academy of Fine Arts in Havana, where he continued his studies until 1923. It was during this period, during which he exhibited some works at the Salón de Bellas Artes, that his vocation as a painter matured. In 1923 he received a scholarship from the municipality of Sagua la Grande to be able to study in Europe. In the autumn of the same year, at the age of twenty-one, he left for Spain.
His stay in Spain, which was supposed to be only a short stop on the way to Paris, lasted 14 years. This period is fundamental for Lam’s artistic formation. In Madrid he comes into contact with the ideas and movements of modern art and regularly visits the Archaeological Museum and the Prado rooms. He studied the great masters of Spanish painting, Velázquez and Goya, and was particularly impressed by the works of Bosch and Bruegel the Elder. He discovers surprising correlations between Western art and so-called “primitive” art
In 1929 he married Eva Piris with whom he had a son. In 1931 Eva and her son died of tuberculosis. Lam’s pain is immense and will find outlet and expression in numerous paintings depicting the subject of mother with child. Lam takes refuge with Spanish friends and comes into contact with various political organizations. In 1936, with the help of his friend Faustino Cordón, he joined the Republican forces in the fight against Franco. He designs anti-fascist posters and contributes to the struggle by working in an ammunition factory. The violence of the fighting inspires the great painting entitled La Guerra Civil.
In 1938 Lam leaves Spain for Paris, shortly before his departure he meets Helena Holzer, who will become his wife in 1944. The decisive meeting with Pablo Picasso is from this period, introducing his new “cousin” to his friends painters, poets and art critics: Joan Miró, Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, Paul Éluard, Georges Braque, Leiris, Tzara, Kahnweiler , Zervos. Lam also met Pierre Lœb, owner of the Galerie Pierre in Paris, where his first solo show was held in 1939. Shortly before the arrival of the German troops, Lam leaves Paris for Bordeaux, then for Marseille, where many of his friends, mostly surrealist, have gathered around André Breton at Villa Air-Bel: Pierre Mabille, René Char, Max Ernst, Victor Brauner, Oscar Domínguez, André Masson, Benjamin Péret. Here Lam gets to work and creates, in particular, a series of ink drawings, forerunners of those hybrid figures that characterize his stylistic code and which will find full maturity during his Cuban stay from 1941 to 1947.
Between January and February 1941, Lam illustrated Breton’s poem Fata Morgana, which was censored by the Vichy government. On March 25, Lam and Helena Holzer embark on the steamer “Capitaine Paul-Lemerle” in the company of 300 other artists and intellectuals for Martinique. André Breton and Claude Lévi-Strauss are among them. Upon their arrival, the passengers are interned for forty days in Trois Îlets. It is during this forced stage, before returning to Cuba, that Lam and Aimé Césaire meet and become friends.
Returning to his hometown after about twenty years of absence, Lam deepens his artistic research and infuses it with new life by drawing on the world of his childhood and youth. His sister Eloisa, to whom he is very attached, introduces him to the Afro-Cuban rituals in detail, which he begins to witness in the company of some friends. Lam affirms and consolidates his style by enriching it with elements of Afro-Cuban culture and will come to paint more than a hundred paintings, including La Jungla, making 1942 the most productive year of this period. In the following years, a series of exhibitions followed in the United States, at the Institute of Modern Art in Boston, at the MoMA in New York and at the Galerie Pierre Matisse, where La Jungla is presented for the first time, causing scandal.
In 1946, Lam and Helena stayed in Haiti and attended voodoo ceremonies together with Pierre Mabille and André Breton. Regarding his Haitian experience, Lam will say: «It is wrongly believed that my work took final form in Haiti. My stay there has only extended it, like my stays in Venezuela, in Colombia, in the Brazilian Mato Grosso. I could have been a good painter at the École de Paris, but I felt like a snail out of my shell. What really expanded my painting is the presence of African poetry».
Lam then goes to New York, where he meets Marcel Duchamp and makes new acquaintances: Jeanne Reynal, James Johnson Sweeney, Arshile Gorky, Nicolas Calas, Roger Wilcox, Mercedes Matter, Ian Hugo, Jesse Fernández, John Cage, Sonia Sekula and Yves Tanguy. Towards the end of the 1940s Lam divides his time between Europe, Havana and New York, where he stays with Helena with Pierre and Teeny Matisse and Jeanne Reynal. He associates with numerous artists, including Noguchi, Hare, Motherwell, Pollock, Asger Jorn and the dissident surrealist group CoBrA.
Starting from 1947 Lam’s style evolved. The influence of oceanic art blends with that of African art and the presence of esoteric elements becomes more dominant. His work takes on international prominence with publications in prestigious magazines, such as “VVV”, “Instead”, “ArtNews” and “View”, and with exhibitions in the United States, Haiti, Cuba, France, Sweden, England and Mexico, in Moscow and Prague.
After his divorce from Helena, Lam moved to Paris in 1952. In 1955 he met the Swedish artist Lou Laurin, whom he married in 1960. He was awarded the grand prize of the Havana Motor Show. In 1958 he was appointed a member of the Guggenheim Award in 1964.
During the 1950s, Lam, while continuing to have close relations with the Cuban artistic environment, worked with artists from the CoBrA group and the Italian avant-garde. He also joins several post-war art movements, such as the “Phases” and Situationist movements.
In 1954 Lam met the poets Gherasim Luca and Alain Jouffroy. He also goes to Italy, to Albissola, where an international meeting of sculpture and ceramics is organized on the initiative of Asger Jorn and Édouard Jaguer. Appel, Baj, Corneille, Dangelo, Fontana, Scanavino and Matta participate. Encouraged by the art dealer Carlo Cardazzo, the artists transformed the small village on the Ligurian coast into a place of encounter and artistic experimentation for the entire period from the late 1950s to the late 1960s. For Albissola Marina, Lam also made a drawing for the realization of a mosaic of the famous Walk of the artists.
During the 1960s, Lam’s work reflected a growing interest in engraving. In collaboration with poets and writers, he creates numerous large-format portfolios, printed in various famous engraving workshops, including those of Broder, Mathieu and Upiglio: La terre inquiète by Édouard Glissant (1955), Le voyage de l’Arbre by Hubert Juin (1960), Le rempart de brindilles by René Char (1963), Apostroph’Apocalypse by Gherasim Luca (1965), L’Antichambre de la Nature by Alain Jouffroy (1966), Annonciation by Aimé Césaire (1969). The meeting with the master printer Giorgio Upiglio, in the Grafica Uno studio in Milan, inaugurates a period of intense creativity that will last until Lam’s death in 1982.
Starting in 1964, Lam divides his time between Paris and Albissola Marina, Italy, where he sets up a studio in his new home. Lam will make friends with numerous writers and artists and his work will be celebrated in numerous exhibitions and retrospectives of international importance.
Lam’s style is the sum of the numerous pictorial currents encountered during his long journeys: his works are characterized by traits similar to those of primitive graffiti but also light Cubist influences, all mixed in a surrealist atmosphere. Lam’s most famous and representative painting is The Jungle (1942).
He was credited with being the first non-white artist to boast official recognition within the historiography of Western art. Considered, together with René Portocarrero, the greatest Cuban artist, he was an exponent of the movement called “Negrismo“.
He died in Paris, Fidel Castro in agreement with his wife granted Wifredo Lam’s wish to be buried in Cuba, also creating the WIFREDO LAM MUSEUM in Havana.