Saturday, August 8, 2015

Wifredo Lam

The Jungle
239 x 229 cm
Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA

Lam painted The Jungle, his masterpiece, two years after returning to his native Cuba from Europe, where he had been a member of the Surrealist movement. The work, “intended to communicate a psychic state,” Lam said, depicts a group of figures with crescentshaped faces that recall African or Pacific Islander masks, against a background of vertical, striated poles suggesting Cuban sugarcane fields. Together these elements obliquely address the history of slavery in colonial Cuba.

Wifredo Lam (1902-1982) was born and raised in a village in the sugar farming province of Villa Clara, Cuba. He was of mixed-race ancestry: his father was a Chinese immigrant and his mother was born to a Congolese former slave mother and a Cuban mulatto father. In his born place, he was surrounded by many people of African descent.

He sought to portray and revive the enduring Afro-Cuban spirit and culture. Inspired by and in contact with some of the most renowned artists of the 20th century, he melded his influences and created a unique style, which was ultimately characterized by the prominence of hybrid figures. While he began simplifying his forms before he came into contact with Picasso's work, it is apparent that Picasso had a significant impact on him. With regard to Picasso's exhibition, he said that it was "not only a revelation, but… a shock." Lam gained the approval of Picasso, whose encouragement has been said to have led him to search for his own interpretation of modernism.

He held the belief that society focused too much on the individual and sought to show humanity as a whole in his artwork. He painted generic figures, creating the universal. To further his goal, he often painted mask-like faces. While Cuban culture and mythology permeated his work, it dealt with the nature of man and therefore was wholly relatable to non-Cubans. Though he was predominantly a painter, he also worked with sculpture, ceramics and printmaking in his later life.