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The uncommon art and times of Wifredo Lam are the focus of a McMullen Museum show
In an office brimming with art books in Devlin Hall last May, Professor Elizabeth Goizueta peered down into a scale diorama of the McMullen Museum of Art that rested on a table. As the lecturer of Romance languages and literatures navigated her hand through the miniature museum, she commented on each postage-stamp-sized painting and sketch, tiny reproductions affixed to the walls of the white foamcore model. And she told the story of their source, Wifredo Lam (1902–82), the subject of the museum’s next exhibition, Imagining New Worlds, which Goizueta curated and which opens this fall.
Lam was an artist of the world. He was born in Cuba to parents of Chinese, Spanish, and African descent, and he studied his craft in Spain, France, Italy, Cuba, and Haiti. His 1943 masterpiece-on-paper The Jungle (roughly eight by seven and a half feet) has occasionally hung in the entryway of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and, now quite fragile, remains in the museum’s permanent collection, together with 24 other Lam works. The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns five Lams, the Guggenheim four. But despite (some might say because of) Lam’s international range, the artist’s talent has often been overlooked.
Wifredo Lam was born in northern Cuba, a region of sugar cane plantations, on December 8, 1902, to a Chinese merchant who fathered him in his 80s and a mother of African and Spanish stock. On an island where borders between religions were known to blur, he learned the rituals and spirit system of Santería, a blend of Catholic and African beliefs, from his godmother. It was her hope that he would follow in her footsteps as a healer.
The family had other plans, however, and moved to Havana in 1916. There, Lam was made to study law. Within two years, he was attending classes at art school, and by the early 1920s, himself barely 20, his work was being exhibited at the salon of the Association of Painters and Sculptors. In 1923, Lam traveled to Madrid to train under the conservative, academic painter Fernando Álvarez de Sotomayor, director of the Museo del Prado. He quickly grew adept enough at the classical style to secure portrait commissions. But, like fellow pupil Salvador Dalí, Lam became a surrealist.
Centered in France, the surrealists (writers and painters alike) took their cues from Freudian themes—the subconscious, myths, dreams—as they sought to liberate the imagination. The Spanish surrealists had a unique character, says Goizueta, infused with baroque, religious undertones. Dalí, in 1955, put the distinction this way: “France is the most intelligent country in the world, the most rational country in the world. Whereas I, Salvador Dalí, come from Spain, which is the most irrational and the most mystical country in the world.” Lam would be influenced by both strains.
Most scholarly research into Lam’s work pinpoints his relationship with Pablo Picasso as a turning point in his career. It was in 1936, while Lam was in Spain, that he first encountered Picasso’s work, in a traveling exhibition (the Spanish Picasso was already living in Paris). Lam, says Goizueta, described the experience as an “exaltation.”
When Lam left Spain in 1938, after producing propaganda posters for the Republicans and joining their defense against the siege of Madrid, he carried with him a letter of recommendation from a Spanish sculptor, addressed to Picasso. Lam found the artist in his Paris studio on the Rue des Grands-Augustins, and the two felt an instant connection. As Goizueta relates, Picasso told Lam, who was 21 years his junior, “You remind me of someone that I knew many years ago . . . me.” Lam would say of the meeting, “Picasso may easily have been present in my spirit, for nothing in him was alien or strange to me.”
Lam’s son Eskil, who provided artwork, family photographs, and other items for the McMullen exhibition, told Goizueta that Picasso “empower[ed]” his father. Unravelling the assertion in her essay for the show’s catalogue, Goizueta put it this way, “Picasso’s tacit approval allowed Wifredo Lam the freedom to develop his own style.” The two artists would exhibit works together.
Before he left Spain, Lam’s paintings had begun to take a geometric turn, and he would write later of the effect on him of seeing African art in a museum in Madrid. Picasso too had been incorporating African figures and motifs into his works—for decades—and when he met Lam he took it upon himself to see to Lam’s education in museum-quality African artifacts, even arranging for a tutor. Perhaps as a matter of pride, Lam would subsequently say the African forms in his work came to him “spontaneously,” “emerg[ing] within me as an ancestral memory.”
Often at the nexus of politics and art during his life, Lam was again forced to make a move as World War II escalated in Europe. He fled Paris in 1940 for Marseille, where he passed the time with other artists and intellectuals who were hoping to book passage out of the Nazis’ reach. On March 24, 1941, Lam boarded a freighter bound for the Caribbean island of Martinique, secured by the private Emergency Rescue Committee of New York, whose mission in this instance was to aid, in particular, Europe’s intellectuals. The French steamer Capitaine Paul Lemerle carried some 300 such refugees, among them André Breton, author of the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, a scholar of myth and comparative religion (among other interests). “Throughout this interminable voyage,” recalled Levi-Strauss, “we passed the time discussing the relationship between aesthetic beauty and absolute originality.”
During a brief stay in Martinique, Lam found a new influence, and a friend for life. Like Lam, the Martinique poet and playwright Aimé Césaire (1913–2008) spent key years in Paris—studying classic French poetry and steeping himself in the modern literary movements, including surrealism. While in France, Césaire also read the writers of the Harlem Renaissance and befriended the poet and future Senegalese leader Léopold Senghor. With Senghor, he is considered a founder of the anticolonial Négritude movement that stressed black pride and the beauty of African cultures. It was Césaire who coined the term.
Like Césaire, Lam would come to make art that he called “an act of decolonization.” For him, says Goizueta, the catalyst would be his return to Cuba in July 1941, after an absence of 18 years.
“If you want to know my first impression when I returned to Havana,” Lam told a biographer, “it was one of terrible sadness. The whole colonial drama of my youth seemed to be reborn in me.” The racism, the degrading spectacle of blacks displaying diminished versions of their culture for tourists, says Goizueta, gave him a new purpose.
“I decided that my painting would never be the equivalent of that pseudo-Cuban music for nightclubs. I refused to paint cha-cha-cha,” Lam explained. “I wanted with all my heart to paint the drama of my country, but by thoroughly expressing the Negro spirit, the beauty of the plastic art of the blacks. In this way I could act as a Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating figures with the power to surprise, to disturb the dreams of the exploiters.”
Claude Cernuschi, a Boston College professor of art history and a co-curator of the McMullen exhibition, describes Lam’s achievement this way in his essay in the McMullen catalogue: “Lam adapt[ed] European modernism to an anti-European agenda . . . and celebrat[ed] African art in the process.”
Lam left Cuba to live in Europe in 1952, just ahead of the Cuban Revolution. He was not a critic of the Castro regime and he returned from time to time for visits. He lived the remainder of his years in France and Italy, painting, sculpting, and etching.
Imagining New Worlds is an exhibition of 68 pieces by Lam, including 47 paintings from three periods of his life—the Spanish period, the French period, and the Cuban period. It’s a project seven years in the making.
The show’s story begins with the arrival of Elizabeth Goizueta and her husband, the Flatley Professor of Catholic Theology Roberto Goizueta at Boston College more than 15 years ago. Elizabeth is a scholar of 20th-century Latin-American and Spanish literature; Roberto is a Cuban-born theologian who specializes in Latino belief systems (his essay on the role of religion in Lam’s art appears in the McMullen catalogue). The couple had become involved in thriving Latin-American art scenes while living in Miami and Chicago, and wanted to bring their interest to Boston. “They felt that Latin-American art, in particular, was not well-represented in American museums, and there was a lot of scholarly work that could and should be done,” says Nancy Netzer, the McMullen Museum’s director.
The Goizuetas and Netzer collaborated on a show of works by the Chilean surrealist painter Roberto Matta (1911–2002), bringing in Cernuschi, who specializes in 20th-century art, as a fourth co-curator. After successfully staging the Matta exhibition in 2004 (the Boston Globe called it “a dive into the complicated, vibrant depths of [a] 20th-century genius”), the group continued to discuss potential projects that focused on Latin-American artists. Elizabeth Goizueta and Cernuschi also were collaborating on an undergraduate seminar course examining surrealism—combining readings of Freud and the Mexican poet Octavio Paz with study of Matta and Lam. The curators agreed, Lam should be their next focus.
Shows of Lam’s work have been few in this country. Imagining New Worlds will be the largest to date. Yet when Lam’s art has been exhibited—as it was at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2008, in a major survey of Cuban works—the critical response has been nearly uniform. The New York Times‘s reviewer wrote, “If there is a star to be celebrated in this show, it is . . . Wifredo Lam.” Brookline-based Jason Silverman collects works by Lam and other 20th-century Cuban vanguardia artists. “My personal fascination with Lam,” he says, “is that he truly is a global artist with a unique set of influences that I think set him apart from his contemporaries.” Silverman adds, “He is definitely a cult of personality.”
So why has Lam not received more recognition? “One could say,” replies Cernuschi, that “Latin-American art is . . . still playing second fiddle to European art”—that “as an Afro-Cuban, the prejudices of the art world and the prejudices of society may still [be] factors in his marginalization.”
Cernuschi, however, is the first to say the answer is more complex than that. Lam has long received attention in Europe, he says, especially in France. And as scholarly interest in the effects of colonialism has grown, so too has consideration of non-Western artists. But Lam is a “hybrid,” Cernuschi continues. “He doesn’t really fit in the domain of Western art history or Cuban art history or African art history,” even as he has a place in all three.
Wifredo Lam: Imagining New Worlds is on view at the McMullen Museum August 30 through December 14, 2014. The show will open at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in February 2015.
Janelle Nanos ’02 is a senior editor at Boston Magazine and a visiting lecturer at Boston College, teaching “Magazine Journalism.”
Read more by Janelle Nanos