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Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 1923-1982

Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 1923-1982

This wide-ranging study explores Wifredo Lam's enduring contribution to world art history—the reclamation and projection of an African identity within mainstream art.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

January 2002
This book is out of print and no longer available.
311 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 16 color and 130 b&w illus |

With its signature style that marries Cubism and Surrealism with Afro-Cuban and Caribbean motifs, the art of Wifredo Lam occupies a unique position in the history of modern art. Like many modern artists, specifically Pablo Picasso, Lam participated in the primitivist movement, drawing inspiration and imagery from non-western, pre-technological cultures. Yet, unlike European and Euroamerican primitivists, Lam, who was a Cuban of Spanish, African, and Chinese descent, was engaging with his own cultural heritage in his works. His authenticity as both "primitive" and "primitivist" challenges the fundamental tenets of primitivism and makes Lam an ambiguous, fascinating figure in twentieth-century art.

This wide-ranging study explores Lam's enduring contribution to world art history—the reclamation and projection of an African identity within mainstream art. Lowery Stokes Sims surveys Lam's work, focusing on the period from 1947 onwards, in which he demonstrated the viability of nationalist pursuits within modernism to a new generation of artists. She traces his career and life and the critical reception of his work in Cuba and Latin America, the United States, and Europe as each locale predominated in his career.

This masterly assessment of Lam's later work demonstrates the evolution of primitivist concepts in modern art from the specifically ethnographic to the more psychic and existential. What emerges from Lam's story is the fate of Surrealism in the postwar era as it permutated into international artistic movements such as the CoBrA, the Group Phases, and the International Situationists.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. The "Primitive" within "Primitivism": Lam's Encounter with the School of Paris
  • 2. Mediating the Sacred and the Profane: Lam's Cuban Work in the 1940s
  • 3. Myth and Totemism: Lam and the New York School, 1942-1952
  • 4. Surrealism after World War II: Lam in Europe, 1947-1960
  • 5. "Lo Maravilloso" and the Antillean Ethos: Lam in Cuba and Latin America, 1946-1960
  • 6. The Demise of Surrealism: Lam and the U.S. Art Scene, 1950-1980
  • 7. The Artist in the Revolution: Lam in Cuba, 1960-1982
  • 8. A Shaman for Modern Times: Lam in Europe, 1960-1982
  • 9. New Means and New Media: Lam's Late Work, 1970-1982
  • 10. The "Deft Juggler of Cultural Modes": Lam in the Postmodern Context
  • 11. Toward a New Art History: Lam Scholarship in the Twenty-first Century
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index

Lowery Stokes Sims is Executive Director of the Studio Museum in Harlem.


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  • 1.1. Ana Serafina Castilla Lam, ca. 1940s
  • 1.2. Lam Yam, ca. 1920
  • 1.3. Lam and Nicolás Guillén, 1963
  • 1.4. Casas colgadas, III [Paisaje de Cuenca]
  • 1.5. Julio [Indio con el búho]
  • 1.6. Retrato de Carmina Calabozo
  • 1.7. Sortilegio
  • 1.8. Doble desnudo, I [Two Nudes, I]
  • 1.9. [Autoportrait, I] (Self-Portrait in Kimono)
  • 1.10. Photo of Lam in a kimono, ca. 1937
  • 1.11. Nature morte
  • 1.12. Photo of Lam and Sebastiana (Eva) Piriz in Madrid, ca. 1929
  • 1.13. Mère et enfant, II (Mother and Child, II)
  • 1.14. Lam and Balbina Barrera, Madrid, ca. 1937
  • 1.15. Sans titre
  • 1.16. San titre
  • 1.17. Figure
  • 1.18. La manchega
  • 1.19. La guerra civil [Guerre civile espagnole/The Spanish Civil War]
  • 1.20. Deux femmes au fauteuil vert
  • 1.21. Portrait
  • 1.22. Composition [The Three Oranges]
  • 1.23. Jacques Hérold, Varian Fry, Helena Holzer, and Lam in Marseilles.
  • 1.24. Fata Morgana drawing (Figure with Spiked Armor Hands)
  • 1.25. Fata Morgana drawing (Angelic Woman)
  • 2.1. Montonica Wilson, 1900
  • 2.2. Autorretrato
  • 2.3. Fidelio Ponce de León, Two Women
  • 2.4. Amelia Peláez del Casal, Fishes
  • 2.5. René Portocarrero, Mythological Personage
  • 2.6. Mariano Rodríguez, The Cock
  • 2.7. La jungla [La jungle, The Jungle]
  • 2.8. Pablo Picasso, Les demoiselles d'Avignon
  • 2.9. Le bruit (The Murmur)
  • 2.10. Le matin vert (The Green Morning) [La mañana/Toi mon regard/Forêt vierge]
  • 2.11. Le sombre Malembo, Dieu du carrefour
  • 2.12. Déesse avec feuillage
  • 2.13. L'âme extérieure
  • 2.14. Lam's garden, Marianao, Cuba, mid-1940
  • 2.15. Autel pour Elegua (Altar for Elegua)
  • 2.16. La silla (La chaise/The Chair) in Lam's studio with Lydia Cabrera, 1943
  • 2.17. Portrait de H. H., III
  • 2.18. Sur les traces [Transformation]
  • 2.19. Oya [Divinité de l'air et de la mort/Idolos]
  • 2.20. L'Annonciation (The Annunciation)
  • 2.21. Lam in his studio in Havana, with left: Le présent éternel [Hommage à Alejandro García Caturla]; right: Le sorcier de l'océan [Alafi Inca/Ogun ferraille]
  • 2.22. La parade antillaise [Défilé antillais]
  • 2.23. Haitian drawing
  • 2.24. Umbral [Seuil] in Lam's studio
  • 2.25. Composition [Ñañigo]
  • 2.26. Untitled [Spanish Peasant Woman]
  • 2.27. Lam and Loeb family and friends, ca. 1942-1943
  • 2.28. Lam in Havana, 1950
  • 3.1. Arshile Gorky, Water of the Flowery Mill
  • 4.1. André Breton, Lam, and Pierre Mabille, Haiti, 1946
  • 4.2. Nativité [Annonciation]
  • 4.3. Les noces [The Wedding]
  • 4.4. Rites secrets
  • 4.5. L'Atelier [Cuarto Famba]
  • 4.6. Lam with his African and Oceanic art collection
  • 4.7. Pasos miméticos, II [Pas mimétiques, II]
  • 4.8. Grande composition
  • 4.9. Bélial, empereur des mouches [Belial, Lord of the Flies]
  • 4.10. La rumeur de la terre [Rumor de la tierra] (The Rumblings of the Earth)
  • 4.11. Je suis
  • 4.12. Lam with shadow, New York, 1950
  • 4.13. Quand je ne dors pas, je rêve (When I Am Not Asleep, I Dream)
  • 4.14. Lou Laurin and Lam, New York, 1960
  • 4.15. Lam and his four sons
  • 4.16. Lam in Malmö
  • 5.1. Noncombustible
  • 5.2. Tresses d'eau [Trenzas de agua]
  • 5.3. Zambezia-Zambezia
  • 5.4. Lunguanda Yembe [Composition/Colombe lunaire]
  • 5.5. La fiancée de Kiriwina [La fiancée à Kiriwina]
  • 5.6. Lisamona
  • 5.7. L'Offrande
  • 5.8. Femme assise [Mujer sentada]
  • 5.9. Lam in Havana studio with Belial, Lord of the Flies in outline
  • 5.10. Le guerrier, I [The Warrior/L'Initiateur]
  • 5.11. Osun and Elegua [Osun, Elegua for Yemanja]
  • 5.12. Coq des Caraïbes (Caribbean Cock)
  • 5.13. Coq caraïbe, II [Coq des Caraïbes/Caribbean Cock]
  • 5.14. Chant de la forêt
  • 5.15. Peinture, nous t'attendons [Nous attendons]
  • 5.16. Lam touching up Totem à la lune
  • 5.17. La selva
  • 5.18. Fresque (Esso Mural)
  • 5.19. Composition [Contrepoint]
  • 5.20. Mural for the Centro Médico de Vedado in Havana
  • 5.21. Mural for the Botanical Garden in Caracas
  • 5.22. La brousse [Manigua/La maleza]
  • 5.23. La Sierra Maestra
  • 6.1. Lam on Long Island, 1946
  • 7.1. Lam and Lou Laurin-Lam in Mexico City, 1957-1958
  • 7.2. Lam at opening of gallery in Museo de Bellas Artes, Havana, 1963
  • 7.3. Participants at the Salón de Mayo, Havana, 1967
  • 7.4. Cuba collectiva mural, Havana
  • 8.1. Lam with artists in Albisola
  • 8.2. Sans titre (Brousse series)
  • 8.3. Sans titre (Brousse series)
  • 8.4. The Guests
  • 8.5. Adam and Eve
  • 8.6. Les Abaloches Dance for Dhamballa, God of Unity
  • 8.7. Entre parents
  • 8.8. L'Entrée [Les gardiens]
  • 8.9. El Tercer Mundo (The Third World/Le Tiers Monde)
  • 8.10. Clairvoyance [Clarividencia]
  • 9.1. Personnage 5/24
  • 9.2. Personnage 7/24
  • 9.3. Les amis
  • 9.4. Composition
  • 9.5. Composition
  • 9.6. Personnage 19/24
  • 9.7. Detrás de espejo/Derrière le miroir
  • 9.8. Le regard vertical
  • 9.9. Lam working on Apostroph' Apocalyse
  • 9.10. Apostroph' Apocalypse
  • 9.11. Annonciation
  • 9.12. Lam working on a plate at the San Giorgio Studio, 1975
  • 9.13. Offrande à Elegua
  • 9.14. Osun, l'esprit de la communication
  • 10.1. Figures grises
  • 10.2. Robert Colescott, Les demoiselles d'Alabama: Desnudas
  • 10.3. Ibaye
  • 10.4. Untitled [Woman Looking in a Mirror]
  • 10.5. Ana Mendieta, Silueta Work (Iowa)
  • 11.1. Harpe astrale [Harpe cardinale] (The Astral Harp)
  • 11.2. Willem de Kooning, Woman, I

In the early 1950s, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre noted that having "accepted primitive art into itself," European culture was being "colonized in reverse," as "Third World artists were themselves entering [European] culture and...effecting a more complete Africanization of western art." Sartre's admission is a tacit recognition of the inexorable inversion of European colonization that occurred as global trends in the post-World War II era were marked by migrations of populations from former colonies to the centers of world economic, social, and political power.


This Africanization of European cultures is vividly symbolized in a small drawing done by the Afro-Chinese Cuban artist Wifredo Lam in the 1940s (Fig. 10.4) in which a woman—who is clearly European—looks at herself in a mirror and sees herself reflected back as a figure with a face that looks like an African mask. The woman resembles Lam's second wife, Helena Holzer; the reflection represents a version of Lam's avatar of female power, the femme cheval or horse-headed woman. This visual invention is the thematic cornerstone of Lam's work, which created a unique synthesis of European modernist vocabularies—specifically Cubism (with its engagement of African forms) and Surrealism (with its engagement of nonempirical phenomena)—and African religious motifs and symbols which had survived in Cuba. The femme cheval literally represents a possessed devotee in the Afro-Cuban religion of Lucumí (known in popular parlance as the caballo or horse of the orisha or Afro-Cuban deity, who "rides" the devotee during possession) who may be said to effect a shamanistic transformation in the midst of a ritual event.


Reinforcing the sense of reparation, even retribution, in the reversal of cultural imperatives described by Sartre, Lam once cast his art as an "art of decolonization" that was necessary in order to "sever all ties with the colonial culture." Indeed in the drawing of the woman and her mirrored image Lam disrupts the concept of beauty codified in European traditions by confronting it with another aesthetic system that heretofore had been dismissed and reviled. To be sure, this had been predicted at the beginning of the twentieth century in the encounter of French artists such as Paul Gauguin, André Derain, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque with Pacific and African sculpture. The resulting revolution in form and color in European and Euro-American art was codified as "primivitism," a critical construct first defined by Robert Goldwater in the 1930s and embellished by William Rubin in the 1980s. This construct is also an integral element of trends in vanguard artistic and intellectual circles in the European world that search for spiritual systems and values that could provide antidotes to what is perceived as the excessive materialism and scientific focus of Western capitalism. As such Lam's work encapsulates issues of cultural identity and interchange, cultural hegemony, and technological angst that would inform critical matrices in late twentieth century art history.


Despite this romanticization of preindustrial societies—both historic and contemporary—whose connections with nature and the basic instincts of humanity were perceived to have been preserved intact, however, European and Euro-American artists exercised a proprietary ownership of the primitive, thus by implication accommodating the power relationships inherent in colonialism. Within this construct the forms and motifs from non-Western art were appropriated, with scant regard for their original meaning and context, as elements in the formal innovations of vanguard art such as Expressionism and Cubism.


This dislocation from locale and circumstance led, as the Surrealist Georges Bataille pointed out, to an essentialization of primitive forms. This was possible, of course, so long as the creators of these primitive art forms remained anonymous and outside of the modernist dialogue, where they were isolated from the personality-dominated dynamics of Western art history. There was also the additional challenge of confronting the inherently hegemonic aspects of language. The nuances of primitivist and colonialist discourse have been codified over at least four hundred years and carry with them valuative connotations that continue to define the relationship between European and non-European societies: the "center" versus the "periphery," "intellectual" versus "emotional," "objective" versus "subjective," "technological" versus "manual," "conscious" versus "unconscious," and "individual" versus "communal." Through his engagement of motifs from his Afro-Cuban culture, therefore, Lam's work reoriented the trajectory of modernism, forced a confrontation of terms and language, and put an individual face on the artist from a "primitive" culture.


During his sixty-year career (1923-1982) Lam was to pave the way for contemporary artists of African, Asian, Pacific, and Native American descent in the international art world. But the road was not always easy or straightforward. His arrival in Paris effectively precipitated the first crisis of modernism by introducing the "primitive" into "primitivism." He confronted European modernists with a real human entity both conversant in his traditional culture and trained in modernist conventions. As an African, Chinese Cuban, however, he was quickly subsumed under those same romantic characterizations of the "primitive," marginalized to an extent as an "authentic" specimen. Descriptions of his work are inevitably modified with signifiers such as "magician," "master of the fantastic," "avatar of the jungle," and "shaman." His situation as both insider and outsider is clearly illustrated in the diagram of the modern art "tree" published by painter Ad Reinhardt in P.M. magazine in 1946. Reinhardt grouped artists of different modernist tendencies on branches off the trunk of modern art. Lam's name can be found near the names of artists whose work manifests a magical, surreal quality—Yves Tanguy, Pavel Tchelitchew, Kurt Seligmann, and Louis O. Guglielmi, who appear as leaves bunched together on the branch. But, tellingly, Lam is literally a leaf out on the same branch by himself.


Considerations of Lam's life and career can now happily benefit from critical trends that have been in play since the 1970s, when multiculturalism and deconstructionism provided paradigms for dismantling the presumptions of primitivism by engaging issues of "authenticity" and "originality." These trends have also accommodated a wider range of non-European signifiers with which to approach Lam's work—Latin American, Asian, even Pan-African American. As we shall see, however, none of these is adequate to convey the totality of Lam's career. Some are, moreover, delimiting in themselves and somewhat peripheral and parenthetical within the art world and thus skirt the issue of Lam's position within the overall contexts of the School of Paris and the New York School within which he functioned. Lam himself was acutely aware of his anomalous situation and strove constantly to maintain his ties within those arenas while at the same time affirming his relationship to Cuba and his natal culture.


These dichotomies make Lam a most illusive subject. The basic facts and truisms that have been reiterated in the existing Lam literature serve as the starting point of this study: he was born in 1902 in Sagua le Grande, Cuba. His father was Chinese, his mother of African and Spanish ancestry. He left Cuba to study art in Spain, where he lived for fifteen years, working his way through academic art and modernist tendencies. He fought in the Spanish Civil War, became debilitated, and was sent to Barcelona to recover. There he met Manolo Hugué, who provided him with a letter of introduction to Pablo Picasso in Paris. Lam escaped from Barcelona just as the Nationalist forces were advancing on that last stronghold of Republicanism. Through Picasso he was introduced to André Breton; through Breton and the Surrealist group he would find an association to help promote his art on the international art scene.


When the German forces advanced on Paris in 1940, Lam began his journey back to Cuba, going first to Marseilles and eventually securing passage to Martinique, where he along with Breton and the artists and intellectuals who accompanied them were detained by the Vichy-controlled regime. From Martinique he went to the Dominican Republic and then to Cuba, where he developed his signature style during the war. That style was characterized by a synthesis and syncretism of African religious motifs, European modernism, and ancient alchemical ideas involving human, plant, and animal hybrids. Through his contacts with Breton, who had gone on to New York, Lam was able to show his work there during the 1940s. After the war he reconnected with the European art scene, turning his attention to Italy, where he established a studio and worked for the last twenty-two years of his career.


Lam's chronicler and scholars have tended to regard his later career between 1947 and 1982 as a footnote to the halcyon years in Cuba during the war. As a result the full implications of the late career within international art circles have been overlooked. This book offers an in-depth study of the last thirty-five years of Lam's life and art. The first two chapters set the stage by examining his career from 1922 to 1947. Subsequent chapters chronicle events in his life, analyze the critical literature, and discuss stylistic developments in his work. His career and associations in Europe, Latin America, and the United States track the evolution of Surrealism into various international artistic movements such as the CoBrA (referring to Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam, where its main adherents were based), the Group Phases, and the International Situationists.


Lam became a mentor as well as associate of this new generation of artists. Having demonstrated the viability of nationalist and cultural pursuits within modernism, he then became a force in the evolution from a more ethnographic primitivism into a more psychic and existential primitivism as his work developed into a corpus of versatile permutations of his signature style. Although he never made political speeches, rarely signed manifestos, and assiduously avoided polemics in his work, Lam was unwavering in his conviction that his work was an instrument of political, cultural, and personal liberation. His most important legacy is the fact that he demonstrated the range of personal potential within modernism and set the stage for postmodernism. The final two chapters examine Lam's work within critical discourses of the late twentieth century and propose new approaches to his work for the twenty-first century.Titles for Lam's work are variously in English, Spanish, and French. The choice is usually predicated on where individual works were first exhibited. The titles have been adjusted to conform to those in Lou Laurin-Lam, ed., Wifredo Lam: Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work, Volume I, 1923-1960. Alternative titles are indicated in brackets; translations are in parentheses where works are better known in one language or another. Unless otherwise stated, all illustrations have been provided by the Société Civile pour l'Exploitation des Droits sur l'Oeuvre de Wifredo Lam (SDO Wifredo Lam, Paris).