Heather Taylor visits the Tate Modern for this fascinating new exhibition from painter, Wifredo Lam.
Wifredo Lam described his art as an “act of decolonisation”. He was born in Cuba in 1902 and sought to reassert the nation’s Afro-Caribbean culture, suppressed in Spanish conquest. His life, however, shows a strong affiliation with Europe. He was something of an itinerant, living in a host of European cities, as well as attempting to gain citizenship in America. This fluid sense of nationality stems from his complex heritage: his father was a Chinese migrant, his mother a paradoxical mixture of African slave and Spanish coloniser.
His early works illustrate skill in portraiture; his naturalistic depictions of Castilian peasants are powerful, the figures appearing steady, defiant and almost majestic. Lam’s self-portraits show the start of his experimentation with the concept of primitivism. In 1938, he depicted himself as an African mask. In the hands of white European artists, this is often viewed as an uncomfortable act of cultural appropriation. Here, it is suggested that fascination with ‘primitive’ art is acceptable when presented by an artist who can claim black heritage.
In 1931, Lam suffered the death of both his wife and son. This loss plunged him into a period of experimentation informed by his exposure to Picasso and Matisse. The Window I (1935) is reminiscent of Matisse’s Interior with a Bowl with Red Fish. Lam paints the view from his studio as flat, removing all sense of receding perspective. The vase of flowers inside the room and the church in the city seem equally close at hand. There is a freshness and joy in the scene; at this stage, painting is clearly a pleasure.
His involvement in the Republican side of the Spanish civil war saw him working in a munitions factory. After six months, he fell ill from exposure to toxic chemicals and travelled to Catalonia to convalesce. His depiction of war is one of condemnation. Scene from the Spanish Civil War (1937) has a hasty dynamism of production: a captive Republican is given dark and anxious holes for eyes; the frantic hands of women struggle to release him, whilst machine guns jut at threatening angles in the background; grey-faced soldiers ominously approach.
In depicting the female form, Lam (at this stage of his career) is simple and un-erotic in his style. Even a reclining nude seems somehow upright and firm, rather than sensuously soft. Mother and Child II (1939) shows a faceless mother and baby, backgrounded by a coffin-like rectangle of blue. Young Woman on a Light Green Background (1938) is stark in its black lines and white ‘flesh’- almost ascetic in its determination to deprive her of sensuality. Her one closed eye seems more the result of an injury than any kind of playful winking.
In 1938, Lam went to Paris where he was lauded by Picasso. However, his time there was brief. The German invasion caused him to flee with his friend, Helena Holzer (a medical researcher), to Marseille. There, he met Andre Bréton and fell in with a circle of displaced intellectuals. This stimulated an assertion of the surrealist quality of his art. Whimsical creatures and esoterically mystical elements appear. Particularly entertaining are “collective” drawings and collages made by the group. They read like comic strips on acid; rainbow oddities of animals, a squirrel with sexy stockinged legs, a Native American who holds a man leaping from a window inside his mouth.
Lam began to repeatedly paint portraits of Helena. She became a kind of malleable form to him with infinite possibilities. The most unsettling depiction is that of her as a sprawling pale grey-green creature. She is horned, her face flattened and expanded, her breasts crammed together, while the rest of the body seems to take on a doubleness. It’s almost amphibious, illustrative, of the adaptive potential Lam saw in her form. She is erotic, yet alien; appealing, yet untouchably cold. In Marseille, Lam’s notebooks show the emergence of these kind of hybrid creatures which would go on to define his work.
An opportunity to flee Marseille came in 1941. Lam and Helena sailed to Martinque, under French Vichy rule. This kindled his desire to fight against colonialism, a fight he took to Cuba after an 18 year absence. He saw his country as “decadent, racist and poor”, yet reconnected with the beauty of the natural landscape, discovering the Santería religion – a fusion of West African mysticism, overlaid by Catholicism.
Collaborations at this time were fruitful. The anthropologist, Lydia Cabrer, educated Lam on Santería. During his voyage home, he worked alongside the poet Aimé Césaire on a work entitled Return to the Native Land. This sense of exile returned, and his desire to educate himself on the culture of his “own” people revealed an urge to reconnect with and possibly settle in Cuba – something that Lam would never quite achieve.
However, Lam’s homeland did bring about a reconnection with fertility. His work began to show a tropical, erotic Eden, inhabited by hybrid deities that bloom from gentle brush strokes. There is no lurid heat, rather an enveloping humidity which guides the eye towards the complexity of these absurd, yet alluring figures. These deities seem to have no morality attached to them; they simply exist within the landscape. Lam described his painting as responding to “poetic excitation” rather than conforming to any “symbolic tradition”: his deities do the same.
Lam had the ability to combine very different forms of spiritual or religious practice, both in terms of geography and time, as seen in the triptych of Nativity (1947), The Wedding (1947), and Belial, Emperor of the Flies (1948). The eternal struggle between good and evil does not, and cannot, disappear. Lam is able to explore the constantly shifting nature of morality, in that it is always contingent on context. The repeated motif of figures hanging upside down evokes a sense of humanity constantly being “turned on its head” in the ceaseless quest for moral truths. Lam’s embrace of a multitude of belief systems is certainly a product of his global perspective, yet I also feel he recognised it as a crucial mode of survival in an increasingly turbulent 20th century.
During the later part of his life, Lam focussed more exclusively on the suppression of Afro-Cuban religion. When the Batista dictatorship came to power in Cuba in 1952, he left Havana and moved back to Paris, continuing to travel extensively. He transitioned into grey-brown, sombre tones and commented poignantly “all art is tragedy” and that “painting is a torment”. The exuberance of his earlier works was replaced with a distressing forcefulness of form. In Rumblings of the Earth (1950) we see his usual hybrid forms reduced, almost like severed limbs. It is uncertain if they are moving apart or together. Perhaps they are re-assimilating into the deity they once formed, or perhaps this is the butchered burial of the Santería religion.
After marrying Swedish artist, Lou Launin in 1960 and settling in Zurich, Lam began to collaborate more extensively with poets, suggesting a need to tether image and word together – the one fortifying the other. He described himself as a “Trojan horse” that “spewed forth hallucinatory figures with the power to surprise, to disturb the dreams of the exploiters.” It would seem he saw himself as a kind of virtuous invader, usurping oppressive colonisers by depicting unsettling truths.
Significantly, the final work in the exhibition, made towards the very end of his life, shows a deity of unity. Lam was undoubtedly divided as his complex heritage, ceaseless changing of location and range of artistic experimentation, combine to prove. Unity for him was perhaps unattainable: in reasserting Afro-caribbean cultural values, he would inevitably be forced to question his strong European ties and influences. It is this perpetual flux which lends a mystical complexity to his work – a complexity that makes observing it such a brain-baffling, occasionally terrifying act.
This exhibition runs at the Tate Modern until 24th January 2017.
Featured image: Tate