Wifredo Lam: the Cuban artist who merged African spirituality with European modernism

The art of Wifredo Lam is a melting pot all of its own, reflecting copious influences — from war, revolution and personal tragedy to Picasso, Surrealism and voodoo — encountered over the course of his many travels in Europe and the Caribbean

Wifredo Lam in Cuba, 1950

Wifredo Lam in Cuba, 1950. Photo: Mark Shaw / mptv / eyevine. Artwork: © Wifredo Lam, DACS 2023

In May 1938, a battle-weary Wifredo Lam (1902-1982) arrived in Paris from Spain carrying a letter of introduction to Pablo Picasso. For two long years the 35-year-old Afro-Cuban painter had been fighting Fascism alongside the Republican forces. Now Franco’s Nationalists were advancing on Barcelona and it was time to get out. On alighting at the Gare de Lyon, Lam wasted no time in seeing the celebrated artist: ‘I set out on foot for the rue de la Boétie… A uniformed chauffeur greeted me… and said, “You can give him your letter personally at four this afternoon at the rue des Grands Augustins.”’

The meeting was a great success. Picasso and Lam forged a strong friendship based on their mutual respect for each other’s cultures. Through Picasso and his partner Dora Maar, Lam met the regulars of Les Deux Magots: Fernand Léger, Yves Tanguy, Roberto Matta, Gordon Onslow Ford and André Masson. Chief among the protagonists was the poet André Breton, leader of the Surrealists, who immediately co-opted Lam for the cause.

Ever since the poet had roared the left-wing art movement into life through the 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism, the group had been shocking society with its transgressive ideas. Surrealism appealed to artists from all backgrounds. Its focus on dreamworlds, nightmares and fantasies meant that it could be shaped to fit multiple definitions. 

By the late 1920s, Surrealism’s miraculous possibilities were flowing out of Europe, finding channels in the Caribbean, West Africa and the Middle East. As the Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor observed, ‘We accepted Surrealism as a means, but not as an end, as an ally, and not as a master.’

Wifredo Lam (1902-1982), Untitled, 1969. Oil on canvas. 38⅞ x 31⅝ in (98.8 x 80.3 cm). Sold for £378,000 on 28 February 2023 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Wifredo Lam, DACS 2023

Gods, monsters and the femme cheval

For an artist such as Lam, who had left Cuba to study at the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid in 1923, Surrealism was an opportunity to synthesise European modernism with his Afro-Cuban heritage. Soon his paintings abounded with gods and monsters, the most common being a horse-headed woman.

‘The femme cheval  is among the most iconic of his images,’ says Latin American Art specialist Kristen France. ‘That horse/woman hybrid bridged the gap between the human and the spirit worlds.’

This intensely creative period was brutally cut short in 1940 when Germany invaded France. Lam and his partner Helena Holzer, who would become his second wife in 1944, joined the exodus of refugees heading south. (Lam’s first wife, Eva Piriz, and the couple’s young son, had both died of tuberculosis in 1931.)

Together with André Breton and his wife Jacqueline Lamba, they took refuge at the Villa Air-Bel, a chateau just outside Marseille which served as a safe house for intellectuals fleeing the Nazis. Evenings were spent playing the parlour game cadavre exquis (‘exquisite corpse’) with other Surrealists while they waited for exit visas.

Escape to Martinique… and Haiti

In March 1941, Lam, Holzer, Breton and Lamba secured a passage to Martinique, from where they hoped to connect with a group of Surrealists who were unsettling Mexico City, among them Leonora Carrington, Wolfgang Paalen and Oscar Domínguez.

In Martinique, Lam failed to get a visa for Mexico and returned to Cuba, deeply disappointed. ‘If you want to know my first impression when I returned to Havana, it was one of terrible sadness… The whole colonial drama of my youth seemed to be reborn in me,’ he said.

Wifredo Lam, Damballah, circa 1947

Wifredo Lam (1902-1982), Damballah, circa 1947. Oil on canvas. 49¼ x 60¼ in (125 x 153 cm). Available through Christie’s Private Sales.

However, Lam’s time in Paris and in Martinique had revealed to the artist how Surrealism could be used to assert another cultural identity. The poet Aimé Césaire, who had established the Négritude movement in Paris before returning to Martinique and founding the literary review Tropiques  with his wife Suzanne, showed Lam how art could be an ‘act of decolonisation’.

In Cuba, Lam was not entirely cut off from his fellow Surrealists. He was invited to Haiti with Breton in 1945 to exhibit at the Centre d’Art gallery. There he met Hector Hyppolite, a voodoo priest and painter who combined politics and the miraculous by blurring the distinctions between voodoo and Haiti’s bloody revolutionary history.

Lam settled in Italy in 1961, once again making ‘the journey of Christopher Columbus in reverse, from the Antilles to Liguria’

Damballah, which is offered for private sale, was painted on Lam’s return to Cuba from Haiti, and it reflects what Breton described as an ‘endless transmission of freedom’. It combines African religious motifs, European modernism and ancient alchemical ideas involving human, plant and animal hybrids.

‘You see him really embracing his unique Surrealist language,’ says France. ‘The figures bear reference to Afro-Cuban spiritual practices, particularly Santería, and the various spirits associated with it.’

Beautiful flecks of rich tropical colour capture the wild beauty of Haiti. Breton later recalled Lam’s paintings from this time: ‘I remember the enthusiasm with which he painted his first canvases clearly expressing the emotions of black magic.’

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A new home in Italy

After the war, Lam returned to Europe, visiting Picasso in France and the Danish painter Asger Jorn in Italy. In 1961 he settled in the coastal town of Albissola, near Genoa, with his young family — the previous year he had married the Swedish artist Lou Laurin, with whom he would have three sons — once again making ‘the journey of Christopher Columbus in reverse, from the Antilles to Liguria’. He remained in Italy for the rest of his life.

Untitled (1969) is ‘an excellent example of Lam’s mature style at a time when he was also engaged in ceramics and more sculptural works,’ says France. It is offered in The Art of the Surreal Evening Sale in London on 28 February, and comes from an San Francisco collection of 25 works exploring the creative exchanges between leading Surrealists across Europe and the Americas.

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