‘…a true picture has the power to set the imagination to work, even if it takes time’
(Lam, quoted in M. Fouchet, Wifredo Lam, Barcelona, 1976, pp. 188-89).
Infused with a sense of drama and mystery, Wifredo Lam’s Chant de la forêt captures the dark and enigmatic power of the Cuban landscape and stimulates the imagination in its suggestion of the presence of unseen forces, hidden in the depths of the forest. Fusing vegetative forms with sharply angled curvilinear and rhomboid shapes, the artist creates a hybrid creature, part animal, part plant and part mystical being. At once constructed and organic, the form emerges from the darkness in an interlocking assemblage of shapes, its hybridity simultaneously referencing surrealist thought, the indigenous landscape of Lam’s homeland, and the unique elements of the Afro-Cuban culture which survived there. Painted in 1946, Chant de la forêt was created following Lam’s return to Cuba after almost two decades living in Europe. This homecoming prompted an extraordinary breakthrough in the artist’s work, as he reconnected with his cultural roots in a deeply profound and creative way.
Lam first became acquainted with the Surrealists whilst living in Paris in the late 1930s. Following his flight from Fascist-controlled Spain, the young Cuban had arrived in the French capital with a letter of introduction from the sculptor Manuel Hugué to Pablo Picasso. Picasso was an important influence on the artist, introducing him to cubist forms and traditional African art, as well as an elite circle of avant-garde artists and thinkers, including André Breton, Tristan Tzara, Michel Leiris, Pierre Loeb and Joan Miró. His friendship with these Surrealists was further strengthened after the outbreak of World War II, as the Occupation of France forced Lam, Breton, and others to travel to Marseilles, in the hope of gaining passage on a ship to the Americas. They found refuge at the Villa Air Bel, the French headquarters of the American Committee of Aid to Intellectuals, which was run by Varian Fry. It was here that Lam became involved in collective production with the group, participating in automatic drawing sessions, contributing designs for the tarot pack Jeu de Marseille, and executing a number of India ink drawings in the surrealist sketchbooks which became known as the Carnets de Marseille. Breton chose six of these drawings to illustrate his lengthy poem Fata Morgana in 1941, and these delicate works show early examples of the artist’s interest in hybrid figures, combining elements from the human, animal and plant worlds to create mystical creatures. Lam and Breton departed Marseilles together shortly after the Fata Morgana was banned by the Vichy government, travelling to Martinique before Lam continued on to Cuba alone.
Lam’s return to his homeland induced a new impetus in his painting, and during the 1940s he developed a style that was a unique synthesis of Cubism, Surrealism, and Afro-Cuban sources. As Lam explained, ‘My return to Cuba meant above all, a great stimulation of my imagination, as well as the exteriorization of my world. I responded always to the presence of factors which emanated from our history and our geography, tropical flowers and black culture’ (Lam, quoted in M. Greet, ‘Inventing Wifredo Lam: The Parisian Avant-Garde’s Primitivist Fixation’, in Invisible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Culture, Issue 5, 2003, p. 9). This renewed connection to Cuba manifested itself most notably in the artist’s focus on the country’s indigenous plant forms. In Chant de la Fôret, for example, sugar cane, palm fronds and tobacco leaves become fused to one another in a series of complex assemblages. This fusion of forms recalls the automatism of his earlier surrealist drawings at the Villa Air Bel, whilst simultaneously retaining a strong sense of balance and geometry that recalls his cubist compositions.
Captured in a dark, stylised manner, Lam’s vision of the Cuban landscape directly subverts the traditional representation of the country in tourist brochures of the period. Rather than focusing on the sun-kissed beaches and stereotypical culture promoted in this type of advertising, Lam wished to portray the hidden, true nature of the island, which remained beyond the perception of the foreign viewer. His renderings of the Cuban landscape capture the interlacing perception of terror and enchantment that the dense, lush terrain evoked, focusing on the inherent fantastical and mysterious atmosphere of the forest, which appears as a site for magical, unknown occurrences. Lam believed that by portraying the landscape in this manner, he could act as a ‘Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating figures with the power to surprise’ his viewers and ‘disturb the dreams’ of Cuba as promoted by her ‘exploiters’ (Lam, quoted in M. Fouchet, Wifredo Lam, Barcelona, 1976, pp. 188-189).
This conception of the forest as something equally frightening and enthralling had fascinated the Surrealists, particularly Max Ernst, for years. Ernst called the forest ‘a perfect conductor of dreams’ in his 1934 essay, ‘Les Mystères de la Forêt’, due to its intrinsically mysterious atmosphere generated by the unknown (Ernst, ‘Les Mystères de la Forêt’, in Minotaure, 1934, p. 6, author’s own translation). Speaking of the untamed forests and jungles of Oceania, Ernst believed that the forest sustained itself with its own mystery, describing its untouched woodlands as ‘savage and impenetrable, black and red, extravagant, secular, a hive of activity, diametrical, negligent, ferocious, fervent and pleasing, without yesterday or tomorrow… Naked, they adorn themselves only in their majesty and their mystery’ (Ernst, ibid.). This multi-faceted persona of the forest presented a subject which, through its enigmatic and disturbing nature, could stimulate the unconscious mind and provoke the imagination of the viewer. The forest was a central character of Ernst’s paintings across his career, from the inaccessible, monumental woodlands of the 1920s through to the mystical, otherworldly jungles of the 1930s and 40s, which are populated by fantastical creatures. The threatening, mysterious nature of the forest is enhanced in Chant de la forêt by Lam’s suggestion of the mystical, double horned, hybrid creature emerging from the foliage. This figure appears to reference one of the many spiritual entities which populated Afro-Cuban mythology and folklore, and hints at the concealed spirits that were believed to occupy the island’s forests. Indeed, Lam’s re-encounter with this aspect of his heritage, as well as the many syncretic religious traditions of Cuba, was particularly important in the development of his art, offering him a unique path through which he could explore the surrealist theories of the magical unknown.
The surrealistic nature of Lam’s imagery, whereby distinct elements merge and metamorphose into ambiguous, otherworldly forms, was perfectly compatible with the visual culture of Afro-Cuban religions on the island, which frequently included hybrid deities in their worship and ritual practices. The Lucumi and Santería faiths, which fused elements from Christianity with West African and Amerindian belief, were extremely popular in Cuba during this period, and the artist often observed the ritual religious ceremonies practised by believers. As Lam’s painting progressed through the 1940s, these sources began to play an increasingly central role in his compositions, along with traditional Oceanic art, of which Lam was a prodigious collector. Indeed, in Chant de la forêt, the flat, planar shapes of the composition recall the forms of Oceanic wooden sculptures and ceremonial masks, which were coveted by the Surrealists and highly prized for their perceived evocation of primal or tribal magic. Fusing these sources with a uniquely Afro-Cuban visual vocabulary, Lam creates a highly ambiguous assemblage of forms which challenges the viewer in their decoding of the painting’s subject. This ambiguity creates a space for free association, which the Surrealists advocated as a means of liberating the imagination and allowing access to the unconscious mind. Hinting at a presence beyond the conscious world, Chant de la forêt elegantly fuses the unique spiritual elements of the Cuban culture with its distinctively lush landscapes to achieve a bold new approach to Surrealism.