His work has been likened to that of Pablo Picasso's, but in truth, Wifredo Lam's seductively Afro-Cuban paintings are altogether their own thing. Yes, hallmarks of the cubist visual lexicon as rendered by many European artists of the time can easily be found across his works.
But where their output plays with form, line, and primitivism, Lam's take comes from a direct conveyance of something more intimate. Often pigeonholed as a 'tropical', Latin American artist or passed over as a Picasso-lite by obtuse art intellectuals who seem unable - or unwilling - to look beyond his earliest works, Lam has been largely relegated to the role of a minor talent working within the zeitgeist of the era. A recent article in the Telegraph - leading with the rather distasteful title of "Wifredo Lam: the unlikely comeback of the Cuban Picasso" - puts this in perspective, whilst recalling the sad truth of Lam's place within a prominent art museum, where his work was hung for decades outside the lavatory.
The new exhibition at Tate Modern in London seeks to rectify Lam's problem of recognition and place, rightfully situating his works within the firmament of international modern art. A laudable feat, considering that Lam is one of a precious handful of New World artists who were able to grow their practice both within and outside the narrow spaces allotted to them as 'exotic' foreigners playing on the continental European field of the inter-war and post-war periods.
A Cuban artist of mixed African and Chinese ancestry, Lam's masterful work is distinctive because of its unabashed Cuban-ness (and Afro-Cuban-ness, at that). His mid-career and later works are particularly breathtaking. Large-scale canvasses drenched in the tones of wet island soil that serve as the backdrop to intricate ritualism practiced by shape-shifting, humanlike bodies painted with a sexual knowingness. To the keen eye, the verdant, unadulterated aspects of the Caribbean landscape radiate from the core of his work, finding form through an intermingling of Afro-Cuban Santeria elements, religious deities, totemic shapes, symbolism, and dreamlike scenes.
For that, his work is perhaps more easily aligned with a kind of surrealism; the exhibition housed a number of personal notebook sketches by Lam which illustrates this in poignant fashion, as does the suite of prints from a collaboration with the poet Aimé Césaire from the 1940s. In all, a mesmerizing survey of work from a monumental artist.
The Ey Exhibition: Wifredo Lam, on view until January 8th, 2017 at the Tate Modern.
The EY Exhibition: Wifredo Lam
The Meeting/La Reunion, 1945. Oil Paint on Canvas
La Fiancée De Kiriwina, 1949. Oil Paint on Canvas
The Wedding/Les Noces. 1947. Oil Paint on Canvas
Words & Images | Lisa-Marie Harris
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