Wilfredo Lam 1902 - 1982
Wilfredo Lam was a Cuban modernist painter whose distinctive style rejuvenated western Modernism. His works introduce the symbolism of his Cuban roots and defined a new way of portraying his heritage is a post-colonial world. As his career progressed, he travelled widely in Europe and the Americas. During this time, he witnessed great political unrest that he explored through his works.
'Lam is one of the most fascinating figures in the history of modern painting.'
Alastair Sooke, Art critic
Lam was born in a small town in Cuba, Sagua la Grande in 1902, to a Chinese immigrant father and a mother who had both Spanish and African roots. Therefore, his unique identity inspired him to discover and examine Afro-Cuban imagery rendering his art very impactful on the modern art world.
In 1916, the family moved to Havana where Lam initially hoped to study and persue a career in law. However, he eventually ended up enrolling at the Havana School of Fine Arts. Here he found his talent for a traditional realist style, mostly painting landscapes and still-lifes. His first venture to Europe came when he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando in Madrid. At the time, he was keen to become a portraitist. He began training to do so, still maintaining traditional skills and ideas. A key motivation for Lam at this point in his early career, were trips to the Prado Museum where he admired the works of Diego Velázquez, Hieronymus Bosch and Francisco de Goya. The influence of Goya can be seen largely in Lam's later paintings that condemn the horrors of war.
'Lam has an Oriental facility for design. He composes as naturally as he breathes.'
Gerri Trotta, Art critic, 1950
By 1931, Lam had been married for two years but lost his first wife and son to tuberculoisis. A time of great grief followed, reflected in some of his early works. Then, in 1936 he was sent to fight in the Spanish Civil War as a Republican troop. The trauma of this experience became a motif in his works as he frequently depicted large, dynamic groups of people.
After a few traumatic years, Lam went to refresh his life in Paris. Whilst there, he befriended Pablo Picasso, who introduced him to a wider circle of leading artists and writers, including André Breton and Joan Miró. Naturally, his work was influenced by a modernist style and he began to experiment with Cubist techniques. He was also interested in the Surrealists attitudes towards automatism and the subconscious. Despite Lam being a member of the Surrealist movement, he did not define himself as a Surrealist painter, stating that, ‘Surrealism gave me an opening, but I haven’t painted in a Surrealist manner’. Therefore, Lam as an artist has been difficult to define within a movement. It was his combining of movements, techniques and ideas that made his work important and were, arguably, a reflection of his own mixed heritage and unique life experience.
"We can appreciate how these symbols … are arranged together with such rhythmic skill and clarity, that their rational organisation almost exorcises their terror."
John Berger, Art critic
Lam spent 18 years away from his homeland of Cuba. In 1941, armed with a new political and worldly awareness, he returned to Havana and was shocked by the strong sense of racial inequality and political corruption that persisted there. He began to confront such issues in his works that became full of reference to Cuban culture. He explained that he ‘wanted with all my heart to paint the drama of my country’. For this reason, we begin to see a rediscovery of the natural landscape in his works, a new colour palette that blended earthy tones with vibrant greens, reds and oranges and the even more prominent incorporation of Afro-Cuban imagery. He was also fascinated by the highly-ritualistic Santerían religion. The depictions of masks and hybrid figures, who represent the corruption and poverty of Cuba, were born out of this interest and would become some of the most recognisable images in his works.
Later in his career he continued to work in and around Europe, despite frequently returning to Cuba. He experimented with other materials and techniques such as ceramics, sculpture and printmaking before dying at the age of 80 in 1982.
Tate Modern staged a retrospective of Lam's work in 2017 - you can watch their fascinating introduction here. There is also a centre dedicated to his work in Havana.
Slade House collects and owns original lithographs, giclees and limited edition prints by all of the artists represented here - only some of which are for sale online. Please get in touch if you would like to see our wider collection.