The experience of exile, deracination, was fundamental to Wifredo Lam’s career as an artist, even more so that it was too – say – the experience of the Russian emigré artists who left Russia after the Revolution, or that of the born-elsewhere Americans who played such a prominent role in the Abstract Expressionist movement. Lam made a successful career as an artist, and an international reputation, but never absolutely belonged anywhere. Tate Modern’s new solo show of his work illustrates this point rather amply.
As a West Indian of white descent, from a family that has lived in various parts of the Caribbean since 1635, I have a good deal of instinctive sympathy with his situation, though our backgrounds were very different. Lam had a Chinese father, a local trader born in Canton, who seems to have been aged around 80 when his son was born. His mother was of mixed African and Amerindian stock. He seems never to have identified with the paternal line, only with what came from his mother.
He is now always seen as a ‘black’ artist, perhaps the most important artist with this heritage to have participated in the mainstream of the Modern Movement. In fact, Africa supplied less than half of his bloodline, and he never actually went to see the Dark Continent for himself.
His Africanism came from two sources. One was the various African cults brought to the West Indies and other parts of the Americas by transported slaves – santería in Cuba, voodoo in Haiti, obeah in Jamaica, candomblé in Brazil. His godmother was a priestess of the Lucumi religion, a Yoruba-derived cult related to santería. The other source was undoubtedly through his contact with the Paris-based Modern Movement.
Lam deepened his knowledge of Africanising cults on a long visit to Haiti in 1945, in the company of André Breton, the leading theoretician of Surrealism. Even before his, however, he had, in 1943, completed his most important painting that makes use of this kind of imagery – The Jungle, painted in Havana, shown at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in 1944 (the second of six solo shows Lam was to be had in this space), and purchased in the following year by the Museum of Modern Art. The Jungle is now unfortunately too fragile to travel, and its absence is a big gap in the show.
Lam achieved international celebrity by a circuitous route. Sent to Madrid on a scholarship to study art, he married there, but very soon lost both his wife and his infant son to tuberculosis. He joined the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, worked in a munitions factory and was poisoned by the chemicals used. In 1938 he moved to Paris, armed with an introduction to Picasso from the latter’s old friend the Catalan artist Manolo Hugué. Picasso received him warmly and introduced Lam both to the ethnologist Michel Leiris, whom he instructed to teach this new protégé “about African art”, and also to the influential dealer Pierre Loeb. Lam was henceforth set up as a member in good standing of the Ecole de Paris.
Came World War II, and once again everything changed. Lam found himself on a boat crowded with French intellectuals and artists fleeing from the war. After a sojourn in Martinique, Lam made his way to Cuba once again, after eighteen years of absence. It was his French connections who then opened the road to New York. In 1942 the director of MoMA, Alfred Barr Jnr., visited Lam’s studio and bought a picture. In the autumn of the same year, Lam was included in the exhibition First Papers of Surrealism, a title suggesting that Surrealist Movement intended to take permanent root in America. It was held at the Coordinating Council of French Relief Societies in New York and was jointly curated by Breton and Marcel Duchamp.
One may wonder at this point why Lam didn’t, once the war ended, become an American artist. There is one work in the Tate show, coyly tucked away at the very end of the sequence of colour plates in the catalogue, that indicates that he may have felt the seductions of Abstraction Expressionism, which was, after all, in one sense, a kind of bastard child of Surrealism. An abstract work alternatively called either Untitled or The Brush, and dated 1958, it is something one could hang cheek-by-jowl with a Pollock in the current AbEx show at the R.A., and feel the artists were cousins – though clearly Pollock did this kind of thing much better.
The reasons Lam didn’t take this route, despite his success in the New York market, seem to have been first, that, being Cuban-born, he might have found it difficult to get American citizenship. And, second, that he was already too well established in the European, Paris-centered avant-garde, which expected that once everything returned to normal – their normal – both life and art would be pretty much as they had been pre-war, and the European cultural hegemony would continue unquestioned.
There was also, of course, Lam’s natural sympathy with the Castro regime, after Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Battista in 1959. It is at this point, uttering a tiny squeak, that I can take an equally tiny role in the story. In 1967, under Lam’s auspices, the Paris Salon de Mai was moved lock stock and barrel to Havana. There were about 100 participants from Europe, led by Michel Leiris, mentioned above, and Zette Leiris, his wife, who was the step-daughter of Picasso’s dealer, Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler. I was one of very few Anglophones present (though I speak reasonably good French), and I remember fondly what a crazy circus it was. A highlight was the painting of a Collective Picture: a huge spiral, a design by Lam at the centre, and compartments for everyone else to fill in. Standing on a rickety kitchen stepstool, placed in turn on a high platform with the canvas looming above, I self-consciously filled my allotted space with something uninspired. Below me, on the staircases leading down to the arena where the event took place, shimmied the magnificent, scantily clad showgirls from the Parque de Cristal, a Vegas-style nightclub held over from the bad old days of Battista.
Another Cuban memory – a visit to a collective farm, where they were trying to grow some kind of wilting crop that really didn’t like tropical conditions. Beside me, contemplating a row of sturdy female backsides, stood a diminutive Romanian poet called Gherasim Luca, a collaborator with Lam on an artist’s book called Apostroph’Apocalypse. He looked for a while, and then sighed, and said to me plaintively: “Tu sais que je suis communiste, mais à la façon surréaliste.” Somehow it seemed like the perfect comment on the whole situation.
This, I think, sums up the problem I have with Wifredo Lam’s art, much as I liked him as the person. He was one of the sweetest, nicest big-name artists you could ever hope to meet. As the exhibition at Tate Modern shows, he wasn’t a colourist and, though he often worked very big, he was more interesting as a draughtsman than he was a painter. The book just cited, done with Gherasim Luca, offers some of his best work – elegant, biomorphic Surrealist fantasies, with a bit of voodoo thrown in. In a way, as the title suggests, it is a kind of successor to Blake’s Prophetic Books, though there is no stylistic likeness. Posh artists’ books of this kind form very much the part of the French High Modernist tradition. Picasso produced them, so did Matisse. They are strictly an elite product.
Lam was stuck between cultures, and he was also stuck between the public and the private roles of the artist. Picasso saw him as exotic, therefore in no sense a rival. That was one reason they got on so well. Was he really a spokesman for Castro’s revolution against the hegemony of the United States? Not really. Did he mesh into what was happening in New York, as that city elbowed Paris aside? No, he didn’t. As John Yau pointed out, in a 1988 essay reprinted in Tate Modern’s exhibition catalogue, Lam’s masterpiece, The Jungle, once it had been acquired by MoMA, spent many years hanging in the hallway leading to the museum’s coatroom.
“It’s location is telling,” Yau remarks. “The artist’s work has been allowed into the museum’s lobby, but, like a delivery boy, has been made to stand and hold the package in an inconspicuous passageway near the door.”