Wifredo Lam, Our Eleguá

Wifredo Lam, Our Eleguá

Wifredo Lam, 1964

Wifredo Lam, 1964

Atlanta is not one of my favorite cities. Decentered, inhospitable, hazardous or impossible for urban walker: Atlanta is not given to open the visitor who arrives there. Several times I have visited that city and always, despite my efforts to establish a friendly relationship with her, on leaving I have sworn not to return. But despite that Iñaki and I decided that the trip back to Gainesville from Tuscaloosa would be via Atlanta, we would spend the night there. Two reasons led us to make that decision: the first one, a dinner with María Mercedes Carrión, a dinner with Marimer, who always defends this city where she lives and always the same is made more pleasant by the mere fact of being there, and, the second, a retrospective exhibition of the great Cuban painter Wifredo Lam (1902-1982).

The games of Eleguá always surprise and, when we realize their tricks, the oricha makes us smile in complicity. I say this because this exhibition, organized by the McMullen Museum of Art of Boston College, was shown the last time we visited that other city, so different from Atlanta. (Boston has the name of insignificant English medieval saint and Atlanta, of pretentious Greek goddess: from the name emerge the marked differences between the two.) But then we did not see it, we could not see it, although several friends recommended it to us with great enthusiasm. But now Elegua opened the doors to that same exhibition. After a quiet trip from Tuscaloosa to the suburbs of Atlanta where we would spend the night (in the center of the city the hotels are at prohibitive prices for our pocket), and of a nice dinner with Marimer, the next day, we were early at the High Museum to see the exhibition of Lam.

We were the first to enter. A very old black guard, but with a child’s smile, welcomed us. I thought it was Elegua himself who received us with that smile that confirmed his arbitrary and playful power: old and boy at the same time. I closed the doors in Boston, but I open them now in Atlanta: they seemed to tell us with their welcoming smile and their eyes that also smiled the oricha transformed into a guard. During the three hours we were in the exhibition, very few – two or three people to the maximum – shared with us the rooms where the representative sample of all the work of Lam was exhibited. We were at our ease, with no one to compete with to see a piece up close and in detail. The museum was ours: Eleguá continued to favor us.

There were almost seventy works in the sample, sixty-eight, to be exact. Most of them were oil paintings; but there were also a few drawings, a few, and a complete graphic suite in the last room. The exhibition brought together pieces that illustrate the almost complete career of Lam, from his years of study in Madrid, to where he arrived at 21 and after having studied at the San Alejandro Academy in Havana, until almost his last years of production, when He focused mainly on graphic work. The exhibition included works ranging from an oil painting from 1923 to an engraving from 1969. It offered, then, an accurate image of the complete production of Lam, although it did not include sculptures and, above all, although it did not present its production, in all cases, with the canonical works.

Here, for example, there wasn´t “The Jungle” (1943), a work that hangs in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a very important work in the production of Lam, a piece that for some must be read as an aesthetic manifesto From the third world. Here was also not “The Eternal Present” (1944) of the Museum of the School of Art of Rhode Island, one of the most important works of Lam in a US public collection. Neither was the preparatory study of “The jungle” treasured by the Art Institute of Chicago. Neither was any of the canonical pieces of the Museum of Fine Arts of Havana: “The Chair” (1943), “Hurricane” (1945-46), “The Third World” (1965-1966), among many others. Although Havana does not have “La jungla”, there is no doubt that the museum of that city treasures the best Lam collection in the world. For political reasons, the absence of central works in the Lam production found in Cuba is understood. But other absences from works of American museums are not understood, such as the one recently acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston, a piece without title of 1943, a key moment in the artist’s production and that would serve to exemplify the first impact of the santería in the work of Lam since it is a clear representation of Changó. Let’s not talk about the key works that are part of the collection of the Center Pompidou in Paris; They are multiple and of great importance. Only his “Altar for Yemayá” (1945) would have served perfectly well to offer a stronger and more coherent sample of his work, although, I emphasize, the one that was offered to us in the exhibition was valid and representative.

In general terms we can understand these absences for political reasons, especially the works of the Cuban museum, and for economic reasons, those of European museums, and even for reasons of nature of dealings between the great American museums -New York, Boston, Chicago- that they would not lend important pieces to a small museum like the McMullen of Boston College. In short, there are few exhibitions that manage to gather all the key pieces of a painter or a theme. For this reason André Malraux spoke of the art book as the imaginary museum and this exhibition proves once again that Malraux was right: we have become so accustomed to seeing art from the point of view of reproductions in books that when we face reality concrete of the museum, always with its limitations, we do not stop looking at the concrete piece, for good and for bad, from the prejudices formed by the study of reproductions. In other words, I saw the exhibition in Atlanta from my perspective as an admirer and scholar of Lam’s work and, therefore, I noticed the notable absences. (I clarify: the redundancy here goes very well, emphasizes my point of view and the importance of what was missing.)

Clear and notable are the absence, but we must also pay attention to the presences, to the pieces that the organizers of the exhibition could put together to build the image of Lam that they presented. Of the sixty-eight pieces that made up the sample, the vast majority were from private collections or galleries; only nine are part of museum collections: Miami, Museum of Modern Art in New York, Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Houston and Rhode Island. I emphasize, the works were representative of the production of Lam and were of merit, but the practice of relying on pieces from private collections and galleries is not the most appropriate for an exhibition in a museum since in many occasions these are lent because their inclusion serves to increase its monetary value. I do not know what was done or what was left to do to organize this exhibition; I do not know the limitations of resources to organize it. But I emphasize that the practice of relying almost exclusively on loans from private collections or galleries is not the most suitable for exhibitions in museums.

One of the most concrete products of these samples – beyond the pleasure it produces for the visitor, like us, who enjoy Lam’s works immensely and, therefore, we appreciate the opportunity to see them – is the catalog: document that remains after the exhibition, which is in our hands and through which we can see what we have seen again. I read with great interest the one of this, Wifredo Lam: Imagining New Worlds compiled by Elizabeth T. Goizueta, professor of Latin American literature at Boston College. The reading made me go back to other books and catalogs about Lam that populate the shelves of my library. The catalog of the exhibition brings texts of interest and importance for the study of the work of the Cuban artist. For example, a chapter written by Roberto Cobas Amate, the curator of the Lam collection at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, was key to placing the artist’s work in the context of the art of the Cuban avant-garde. Recall that Lam lived in Havana from 1941 to 1952, defining years in the history of the development of Cuban art and top of the artist’s production, according to many scholars. From Claude Cernuchi, professor of art history at Boston College, an interesting study on the impact of French anthropology (Lucien Levy-Bruhl and Claude Levi-Strauss specifically) on Lam’s work is included in the catalog. The problem with this text is that it focuses on two French anthropologists and ignores the direct and marked impact on Lam’s work of the two Cuban scholars who deeply impacted the painter: Lydia Cabrera and Fernando Ortiz. Although Ortiz and Cabrera, in turn, had been influenced by these French anthropologists and although Lam met Levi-Strauss – they fled in 1939 on the same ship from France to Martinique, together with André Breton and other French surrealists; it is said that in the office of the great anthropologist there hung two drawings by Lam-, the great intellectual impact on our painter came through Ortiz and, especially, from Cabrera, not through the French anthropologists.

But the biggest problem in the catalog is that it is a collection of essays about Lam that have no direct relation to the work that is exhibited. In the background, the catalog consists of two independent units: the five texts and the reproduction of the sixty-eight pieces exhibited. And the texts in very few cases refer directly to those works included in the sample. We read the catalog and we were left in a vacuum about works that impacted us when we saw the exhibition.

Given this emptiness and with no intention of remedying it, what I propose here is to briefly comment on four works included in the exhibition, four that seem to me of great importance. I clarify that I arrived at the show with knowledge of Lam’s work and with a certain familiarity with his painting and his graphic. But, despite all my criticisms of this show, I confess that I learned a lot from it. I also add that several texts of the catalog contribute greatly to the study of Lam. In other words, I went in knowing Lam but I got to know him better because I discovered an unknown Lam, at least for me. That justified the trip to Atlanta and the visit to this problematic exhibition, but, anyway, instructive.

The exhibition opens with pieces that Lam painted in Spain. These demonstrate the artist’s learning process. At the beginning we find realistic portraits, very conventional and made for a bourgeois clientele. The artist’s goal with these works was to survive economically. These portraits show that the painter’s talent was undeniable. But little by little Lam was entering the world of the pictorial avant-garde of the moment and the impact of Matisse and, above all, of Picasso becomes evident in his work of that time, a work that breaks with the commitment of the bourgeois portraits painted by need.

The story of Lam’s encounter with Picasso in 1939, the year when the Cuban left Spain after his support of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, is well-known. In Spain he had married and his wife and his first son died, both of them tuberculosis. The encounter with Picasso in Paris was crucial for Lam, but more important was his return to Cuba two years later. With the example of the work of Picasso that in the background represented for Lam a search in itself of the African – an essential element in the development of Picasso’s cubism -, Lam discovered or rediscovered the black world in his native Cuba. In that rediscovery, Fernando Ortiz and Lydia Cabrera, intellectuals who were at the center of studies of the Neo-African culture in Cuba, had a great impact.

But a piece included in the exhibition made me think that the scheme we accept about the aesthetic and ideological development of Lam is more complex than we think. We usually see this process as steps from the formal imitation of Picasso’s cubism, to the encounter with Picasso himself, to the impact of André Breton and surrealism, on his return to Cuba, to the discovery of Haiti and the rest of the Caribbean sustained by the support intellectual of Cabrera and Ortiz. Is that process so clear? Do we know it so well?


Wifredo Lam, “Untitled” (1940). Gouache on paper.

That doubt planted for me a painting without title of 1940. This is a typical Picasso portrait and in it, as in the work of his teacher, Lam resorts to the lesson learned from the African masks, so admired by the two artists. With the model of these masks Lam builds the face of the woman he portrays (Helen Holzer, his wife then?) Picasso had already done the same for years, from his “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907). But in this painting of Lam something new appears: a figure that resembles a bird and that breaks with the accepted scheme of the development of his work because it advances his great Caribbean production that we say begins in 1941. Recall that his masterpiece of this period, “The jungle”, work that can only be understood from the lessons learned with Lydia Cabrera, is from 1943. This curious portrait that advances an image taken from the symbols of Santería is from 1941. Here for me appears a Unknown Lam or a Lam that forces me to review the accepted scheme about its production.

It was also a discovery a curious fan painted by Lam in 1943. For whom he painted this object that conjugates images that recall previous works -the face close to Matisse that is the biggest of the fan- with butterflies and decorative birds, even sweet, with a little yellow devil that occupies the same physical center of the composition? It must be remembered that Lam painted several portraits of women with fans in hand. Is this one of those represented in those pieces? How much is needed to give us concrete information about the works included in the exhibition! Here we verify that the absence of a critical apparatus on these is the great failure of this catalog. For example, a clarification on the origin of this painting painted on a fan would serve to clarify its meaning since the decorative character of the piece breaks with the tone of political affirmation of the work of Lam of this period. This object – why a fan, an object associated in Cuba with the Spanish culture – returns to rethink the need for a more detailed study of the aesthetic evolution of Lam.

Wifredo Lam, “Sin título” (1943). Madera, papel, óleo.

Wifredo Lam, “Untitled” (1943).

Abundant in the exhibition samples of the most important period of Lam, the years from 1941 to 1952, when he lives in Cuba where he rediscovers his African roots and realizes that Picasso was right: Africa lived inside and Lam did not have, therefore , that to go to look for the negritud in a museum nor in trips to other countries. This is the best-known and best-quoted period of Lam. For that reason I do not stop in any piece of those years, beyond the range of 1943.


Wifredo Lam, “La plume verte (Nature morte)” (1955). Óleo sobre saco.

But I was surprised, yes, a work of the following decade, a rare in its production: “La plume verte” (1955). For several reasons I was struck by this painting. First, surprised by the clear and accurate representation of Eleguá. The scholars of Lam’s work are debating the problem of the direct incorporation of symbols and images taken from Santería in his work. I think that the dominant opinion – although there is no absolute agreement in this respect – is that Lam uses very imaginatively and indirectly the symbolism he takes from Santeria. We can not read his painting as a catalog of symbols of Neo-African religious practices, as some have wanted to do. But at the same time it is recognized that the image of Elegua is the one that the painter most often uses among the Santeria symbols that populate his production, and that if there are direct loans from this religion, this orisha is the one that most frequently appears in his work. There are those who have associated Lam himself with Elegua as soon as it was he who opened the doors of the negrista imagery in Caribbean art. Therefore, the privileged role of this oricha in his work is not surprising.

But “La plume verte” is a very rare piece in its production. It is a work where we do not find the variegation that characterizes its best known period. There are those who have come to talk about neo-baroque at that time. This, however, is simple and even a classic elegance, very decorative. It is an elegant Caribbean still life; for that reason it carries the subtitle of “Nature morte” aptly. On one side of this piece that stands out for its horizontal shape, unusual in Lam, Eleguá appears and on the other, branches of two different types of leaves. Although in Lam it is always difficult to identify the painted objects since he is not a realistic artist, I think we can say that those pages are made of tobacco -with more security in this case- and, with less certainty, of cane. This combination of cane and tobacco also appears, if we follow the reading that Kristine Juncker makes in Afro-Cuban Religious Arts: Popular Expressions of Cultural Inheritance in Spiritism and Santeria (Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 2014, p.26), in famous picture of Lam “The chair” (1943). But both Juncker and I, in the background, presuppose the kind of sheet that Lam represents. But in the case of “La plume verte” the juxtaposition is revealing. Eleguá, tobacco, cane: given these identifications I propose to read this still life as a tribute to Fernando Ortiz author of a classic text that impacted Lam: Cuban Contrapunteo of tobacco and sugar (1940), central book in the revaluation of the Neo-African culture in Cuba. I launch this proposal that will have to be explored. I launch it with the hope that other scholars of Lam’s work will explore it in more detail and with greater rigor.

The last piece in which I stop is a 1969 engraving entitled “Nouvelle bonté”. The piece is part of a cycle of engravings by Lam that inspired his friend Aimé Césaire, who wrote poems based on them. This particular piece was not a discovery for me because years ago I treasure a copy of it that I got luckily. (Another favor from Elegua?) This etching, I think, sums up a lot of Lam’s work. It is a synthesis of all his work, but the first time I saw it seemed incongruous, since it presents images in different styles. On the right appears one of those classic female heads that survive in all periods of Lam’s work, heads that I associate with the drawings of Matisse and the engravings of Picasso. On the right we see an Eleguá, here much more elaborated than others of his work. In the very center of the piece there is an image very studied in the work of Lam: the woman-horse. (I clarify that this is what the scholars of Lam have called it, using the French: “femme-cheval”) This figure has been prefixed to the surrealist minotaur of Picasso (man-bull). “Nouvelle bonté” is, then, a tight synthesis of many of the symbols that populate and shape the production of Lam. That’s why my heart skipped a beat when I saw the piece in the last room of the exhibition in the High Museum. I felt justified and gratified: there was my Lam!

Wifredo Lam, “Nouvelle bonté” (1969). Aguafuerte y grabado a color.

Wifredo Lam, “Nouvelle bonté” (1969). Aquatint and etching.

Why do I care about Lam and why should we care?

There is no doubt that this is an important artist in Cuban art, an essential painter for the Caribbean, for Latin American art as a whole, and even for the Third World. Lam, like his favorite oricha, Elegua, opened the door for us, he discovered paths for us. His work, more than the synthesis of the essential miscegenation of our world, represents, as an antithesis to that thesis, our Africania, a feature so often denied by the defenders of the thesis of an excessive Hispaniopia and by those who defend a sometimes absurd indigenism, a tainism or neotaínismo at all costs and that often serves only to deny our black cultural and biological roots. Recall that Lam himself was a racial synthesis Caribbean – Chinese, black, Spanish – and that his life was a constant attempt to assimilate the whole world, despite its marked interest in emphasizing its African roots.

We know that Lam was not a believer in Santeria; I’m not either. But both he and I recognize that in our complex mestizo world, the Neo-African element has not been taken into consideration. In that sense, he, especially he, and I are faithful children of Elegua. For that reason I deviated from the route from Tuscaloosa to Gainesville and stopped in Atlanta to see a problematic but revealing exhibition of his work. For this reason I thank Eleguá for opening the doors of this exhibition of that other Eleguá, Wifredo Lam.

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