Wifredo Lam in North America
Museum of Latin American Art
Long Beach, Calif.
Wifredo Lam is one of those brilliant yet little-known artists whose work “isn’t encountered nearly enough,” said Christopher Knight in the Los Angeles Times. Lam was unusual in his time—an Afro-Cuban at the forefront of modernist art. Today he is revered in Europe and is a national icon in his native country. Now “the largest American museum exhibition of Lam’s work” since his death in 1982 lets us see his career whole. The artist’s African heritage and Catholic upbringing undoubtedly influenced his paintings’ mythic and tribal preoccupations. His sophisticated painting style, however, was forged in 1930s Paris, where Lam worked alongside Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Henri Matisse. Lam fled back to Cuba following the Nazi occupation, and there began “to transform, not merely mimic, the myriad influences he had absorbed.” The painter’s first “wholly original masterpiece is Dark Malembo, God of the Crossroads (1943). A many-headed horse-creature peeks out of a shadowy jungle scene “like a magical sentinel at the entrance to a harsh but beautiful world, which can be known sensually if not intellectually.”
“By the late 1950s, museums around the world were showing Lam’s dense, shadowy scenes of sinister creatures in dark Caribbean flora,” said David D’Arcy in The Wall Street Journal. These earned him a place among the era’s most important modernist artists, yet his race made him even more of an exception. While contemporaries like Picasso looked to African tribal objects for inspiration, Lam truly engaged with the culture that had given rise to them. “Multicultural before the term became a trend,” Lam engaged deeply with both his African and Cuban heritage. All his influences can be seen in 1950’s Siren of the Niger, which combines “a Picasso-inspired melancholic austerity with muted colors and proportions borrowed from African sculpture.”