Lam, Wilfredo

Lam, Wilfredo Biography

Cuba's foremost modern painter. Wilfredo Lam's oil paintings combine elements of European modernist movements with imagery from African cultures. Born Wifredo Oscar de la Concepcion Lam y Castilla in Sagua la Grande, Cuba, Wilfredo Lam is of Spanish, African, and Chinese ancestry. He moved to Havana in 1916 where he studied art at the San Alejandro Academy from 1918 to 1922. The following year he traveled to Spain where he continued his studies and visited the Prado art museum in Madrid. After the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) broke out, he fought with the loyalist forces until he was wounded in battle in 1938. Wilfredo Lam subsequently left for Paris, France where he met Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. Picasso became a pivotal influence and introduced Lam to cubist techniques for showing multiple perspectives in oil paintings. Picasso's interest in African art led Lam to look to his own African heritage for imagery. Lam also began exhibiting with surrealist painters, who sought to depict in their art the workings of the subconscious.

The German occupation of Paris in 1940 forced Wilfredo Lam to flee. He joined a group of surrealist artists and other intellectuals in Marseilles in the unoccupied southern zone of France, and later went on to the Caribbean island of Martinique. When he returned to Cuba in 1942, he found that a number of Cuban artists and writers had become interested in African contributions to the island's culture. Lam began to include in his oil paintings references to Santerea, a religion brought from Africa to Cuba which his godmother had exposed him to as a child. One of his best known oil paintings, The Jungle (1943, Museum of Modern Art, New York City) depicts distorted human figures with faces that resemble African masks and with long limbs shown from several different viewpoints. The figures blend in with the plants of a lush tropical forest. For the remainder of his life Wilfredo Lam continued to travel widely, dividing his time between Paris, New York City, and Havana and other parts of Latin America.

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