Wlifredo Lam – Tate Modern

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The Alfredo Lam exhibition, now open at Tate Modern, presents an expansive insight into the life and work of this artist. Lam was born in Sagua, Cuba, in 1902. From the beginning of his life, he wanted to be an artist and his family supported this ambition. His solo exhibition in 1922 followed a period as a student in Havana, and won him a scholarship to study in Madrid. There, he made excellent use of his time and encountered the works of Diego Velasquez and Francisco de Goya in the Prado. Soon, he was undertaking portrait commissions and in 1929, he married. Sadly, his wife and baby died two years later. While recovering from his devastation, Lam experimented with the styles of artists like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

The Window (1935) hearkens to Matisse in its simplicity and attention to detail. We see an urban view from an interior perspective, looking through an open balcony door onto rooftops and a church spire. The flat planes of colour are fenced by thick, dark lines and the palette – blues and grey, green and lemon – evoke a slightly giddy, spring morning sensation. This is heightened by the slight angle at which the artist places the view. The round table in the foreground is actually round, a blue disc against the background, instead of an ellipse. This technique of reducing objects to geometrical planes, showing them as they actually are rather than flattened – or distorted – by perspective, is the essence of cubism.

Lam had already experimented with this form. Untitled, 1927, is a representation of two women reduced to geometric planes of subdued colour; circles in place of breasts, squares and triangles, yet integrated into a harmonious whole. In The Awakening (1938), we see women with mask-like faces, not unlike Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon. Lam did eventually meet Picasso; in 1936, the Spanish civil war broke out and Lam volunteered for the Republican militia. For six months, he laboured in a munitions factory and when his health broke down, he moved to Catalonia where he resumed painting while he recuperated. Eventually, the sculptor Manolo Hugue urged him to move to Paris.


Wifredo Lam (1902-1982) Bélial, Emperor of the Flies 1948 Private collection © SDO Wifredo Lam

Picasso admired Lam’s work and introduced him to surrealist artists, like Joan Miro. In the Paris and Marseille  area of the exhibition, we see a group of collective drawings, a montage of miniatures with input from Andre Breton, Andre Masson and Max Ernst.  In Paris, a medical researcher named Helena Holzer became Lam’s companion and in 1944, the German invasion forced the pair to flee to Marseille where they got on board a cargo ship departing for Martinique. Following a month in internment, Lam managed to return to Cuba.

Because of his eighteen years of absence, Lam could see his native country with new eyes, a place filled with poverty and racism. In spite of his worldly successes, the Santeira religion, that is, west African beliefs held a new fascination for Lam and the darker happenstances of his life were creeping into his work. In The Eternal Present (1944), we see humanoid figures with horns and tails engaged in a ritual around a cauldron, a goblin-type creature peeping out of the pot, the flickers of colour on the pale forms giving an almost relief-type appearance to his paintings.

He repeated these themes for the remainder of his life, that is, humanoid figures with animal faces, often horned, the goblin motif repeated again and again. It was if he was blending the darker themes of Francisco de Goya with Cuban culture. But underlying  the myth and magic is a type of arcane rationalism. In Belial, Emperor of the Flies (1948), we see humanoid figures with bestial references, a dark male and a pale female, standing over a grid of numbers – a secret code? As Lam’s life progressed, myth won out over rationalism. Work upon work of pale figures emerging from dark backgrounds, a combination of Goya and voodoo, follows. In Clairvoyance (1950) we see a figure laid on a kind of couch, holding a vessel from which the ubiquitous goblin is emerging.

All the while, his fame grew. The war over, fellow artists promoted Lam’s work abroad, and he began to travel again. By now, he was collaborating with writers and creating prints to illustrate books. The 3D nature of his work is expressed in terracotta sculptures, dated 1975, on display in Later Years (Room 12) of the exhibition. He died in 1982. Wilfredo Lam is open at Tate Modern until 18 January, 2017.

(Mary Phelan, 2016)


About Mary Phelan

I am an art historian, magazine editor and design philosopher. In addition to editing Artyonline, I have my own website, http://www.maryphelan.info/ and write a blog, Design Victim, on the pain and pleasure of encountering designed objects in modern life. http://maryphelan.blogspot.com/ Readers can also follow my latest Hub Pages article that provides directions on how to create Ray Lichtenstein-type images using computer drawing software. http://hubpages.com/hub/Draw-Like-Lichtenstein-Using-Computer-Graphic-Software