Museum of Latin American Art ,|
Jun 15, 2008 - Aug 31, 2008
Long Beach, CA, USA
Wifredo Lam in North America
by Beth Rosenblum
"Wifredo Lam in North America," on view at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California, features 57 works by the great Cuban modernist, from both public and private collections throughout the United States and Canada. This is the first large-scale exhibition of the late artist’s work to travel throughout the United States since the University of Notre Dame’s 1961 exhibition. It was curated by Curtis L. Carter for the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Carter’s interest lies in the relationship between North American museums and collectors and the Cuban artist of mulatto and Chinese descent. In the exhibition catalogue Carter postulates reasons for the large number of Lam enthusiasts in the U.S. and Canada, including the diversity in the U.S.; Lam’s originality; and the relief his work purportedly provides from mid-twentieth century abstraction. (1) Interestingly, the exhibition itself fails to explore the relationship between Lam and "North America" beyond the exhibited pieces’ current provenance. This essay will review the exhibition with an emphasis on Lam’s most pivotal years, during World War II, when he fled Europe and spent time in the Caribbean and visiting the United States, and will fill in some of the crucial information about Lam’s life and work that the exhibition overlooks.
The exhibition is divided into three sections, "Early Beginnings," "Return to Cuba," and "Return to Europe." These three periods denote both formal and terrestrial shifts in Lam’s career. The exhibition opens with "early" works painted in Spain, where Lam resided following his graduation from the San Alejandro Academy in Havana in 1923, through the Spanish Civil war (1936), until his move to Paris in 1938. Works from this period include a surrealist inspired landscape, Casas colgadas, III (1927); a mimetic portrait of a woman, Untitled (1931); and a portrait of a woman clearly influenced by Henri Matisse, Portrait of Sra. García de Castro II (1937). Following his arrival in Paris, and introduction to Pierre Mabille and Pablo Picasso, Lam’s work changed formally. Lam was instantly drawn to African art, in part due to his own African heritage, and also as a modernist painter living in Europe. Therefore Mabille and Picasso encouraged Lam to study with Michel Leiris, who was lecturing on African art at the Sorbonne. (2) Soon after, Lam’s female portraits began to resemble African masks, with oval faces, geometric features, and shell shaped eyes, as seen in Femme aux cheveux longs, I (1938). However, it would not be until his return to the Caribbean that Lam would observe and embrace African traditions, and begin to blend a unique Afro-Cuban sensibility with modernist techniques - both cubist and surrealist - enabling him to push beyond the primitivism common among his European colleagues.
Lam’s return to the Caribbean is the focus of the following section of the exhibition "Return to Cuba." While the wall text and works on display focus on Lam’s time in Cuba, and not throughout the Caribbean and North America, where he actually spent 1941-1946, it is still clear why this stage in the artist’s career is considered his best. Here we can trace the evolution of the artist’s style and leitmotifs. A transitional pastel from 1940, Héctor, Andromache, and Their Son Astynax, illustrated in Marseille, where the artist resided for eight months with members of the surrealist group, reveals the beginning of the artist’s experimentation with animal and human forms. This development has been traced to the "exquisite corpse," a collective, automatic drawing activity popular among the surrealists with whom he was living. In this drawing, three animalistic figures, brightly colored, make a link to Greco-Roman mythological beasts, as evidenced by the title (which was not likely given by the artist, as he almost never titled