Wifredo Lam was born in Sagua La Grande, Cuba, on December 8, 1902. His father, Lam-Yam, was of Chinese origin, from Canton, who in 1860 had emigrated to America, settling in Cuba, where he married Ana Serafina Castilla, a Cuban descendant of families from Africa and Spain, a multicultural heritage that will become evident in the visual discourse of this artist, who worked as a painter, sculptor, engraver, illustrator, muralist, and ceramics artist (1).
Wifredo Lam’s Jungle
In 1916, Lam enrolled in the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro, in Havana, where he remained until 1923, a period in which he reaffirmed his willingness to be an artist, in which, in addition, he held several exhibitions at the Salón de Bellas Artes, organized by the Association of Painters and Sculptors of Havana, and obtained a scholarship to study in Europe, in Spain, the country where he lived for 15 years before traveling and settling in Paris. In Madrid, at the beginning, Lam received classes from Fernando Álvarez Sotomayor at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, but later, when he became a consistent visitor to the Prado Museum, he became interested in the work of Velázquez, Goya, Bosch, Brueghel the Old and later he was drawn to and familiar with the aesthetics of modern art movements. During his stay in that country, Lam lost his first wife and son, in 1931, victims of tuberculosis, a tragedy that left the artist with great pain, which he expressed in his works produced between that year and 1939 (2); He also participated in the Spanish Civil War together with the Republican forces that fought against Franco (3).
In 1938, Lam left Spain and went to Paris, where he met Picasso, whose relationship turned out to be very significant. Picasso welcomed him and made him known among the circle of his painters, poets and critics friends, and nurtured his interest in African art and primitive masks. On this occasion, Lam also met the gallery owner and art dealer Pierre Loeb, owner of the Pierre Gallery in Paris, where he had the opportunity to hold his first solo exhibition in 1939. The painting that Lam did between 1938 and 1940 was inspired by the mask and African geometrism in the manner of Picasso (4).
Before the German invasion of France, Lam left Paris for Marseilles, where many of his colleagues, mostly Surrealists, rallied around André Breton; By then, under the influence of surrealism, particularly, and cubism, Lam made a series of drawings that anticipated the hybrid figures that he would develop more freely during 1941 and 1947, the period in which he lived in Cuba, after almost 20 years after leaving his native country, and he also visited Haiti to study voodoo ceremonies. During this time, under the influence of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung ─who incorporates knowledge derived from anthropology, the interpretation of dreams, art, mythology, religion, and philosophy into his methodology─, Lam delved into his research on Afro-Cubans rituals, Santeria, and other Afro-Caribbean manifestations. One of his famous large-format works, La jungla, 1943 (5), belongs to this period, which was characterized as being very productive, and in which his style became established. Regarding this work, the artist stated: "My painting should convey a psychic state." This is, we think, generating a connection between the structure of the psyche and its products or cultural manifestations.
This iconic and enigmatic work, belonging to MoMa in New York, is characterized by being so profuse and hybrid, formally and conceptually speaking, that it is impossible for us to stop thinking about horror-vacui, about the baroque. This happens because Lam represents in his work a particularity, not only of Cuba, but of the continent, that is, the multiple, the diverse, the symbiotic, which, according to Alejo Carpentier, “engenders a baroque style”, typical of the multiculturalism. In this composition, beings proliferate, multiply, intermingle and metamorphose; the human, the animal, the vegetal (a sugar cane plantation), the magical, mythical, and religious merge, completely invading the surface of the pictorial support. In La Jungla, Lam synthesizes his Afro-Cuban, Afro-Caribbean imaginary, and inspired by cubism and surrealism, he combines both aesthetics, thus creating his own language, a unique, unusual style, of a wonderful real nature.
Lam’s artistic life was spent between Cuba, New York, and Paris. Many retrospective exhibitions were held on his visual production, and he received numerous awards and recognitions. Lam died in Paris on September 11, 1982, at the age of 79, but his ashes rest in his native country.
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