Wifredo Lam (1902-1982)

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Voodoo rituals. European culture. Chinese and Caribbean heritage. All of these things represent the culmination of Wifredo Lam’s artistic career. Perhaps one of the most eclectic painters in the world, his work is one part Afro-Cuban inspired, one part abstract and surreal and one part his own innovation and style. It has been argued that he is one of the most important artists to come out of the 20th century.

Born in the turn of the century in Cuba, Lam was able to go to school in Europe during some of the most important movements in art. His mother was of Afro-Cuban lineage and his father was Chinese. He grew up watching his grandmother perform Voodoo rituals that later influenced his art. While in Europe, he was highly impacted by the work of Henri Matisse and had a very close friendship with Pablo Picasso, who was also his associate. Lam eventually joined the Surrealists, thought his best-known work later on was clearly abstract and Cubist. Though he lived most of his life in Paris, he used his Cuban heritage as inspiration in conceiving his art.

Lam’s work is often full of dark themes; death, anger, and sometimes even fear. This can be attributed to the death of his wife and son early on in his career. After only two years of marriage, he lost both his wife and infant son to tuberculosis in 1931. This no doubt affected the themes in his art after this time, along with the war in Europe and the ever changing social and political conflicts in Cuba.

A painter, printmaker and sculptor, his art is all his own. He painted with a very tropical color palate, using the vibrant greens, reds and oranges of the Caribbean isles. For a while, he did an extensive study of tropical plants, from which he adapted this palate. One example of his style is “Mulitples des Membres des Loa” (1973).

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Mulitples des Membres des Loa

This style is typical of his lithographs, which usually contain a preying mantis/organic subject, and are reminiscent of Cuban and Voodoo cultural elements. These lithographs were mostly created in the early 70′s and are unique in the fact that they were all printed into signed and numbered into limited editions of 99, not an even 100. Furthermore, due to the fact that he lived primarily in Paris, his art titles are in French, and not Spanish.

One of his best examples of Lam’s work from his time in Europe is “Anamu” (1942). One can clearly see the Cubist influences that Lam uses in this oil on canvas painting.

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Anamu

His interest in African art and primitive masks can clearly be seen in this painting, which is another theme in his art. His Afro-Cuban themed art works take on a usually earthy color palate, with darker tones and Cubist elements.

Lam’s work from 1947 to 1952 became increasingly more Cuban inspired due to his move back from Europe to Havana. He often incorporated his Cubist and Surreal influences with Afro-Cuban aspects to create his art at this time. His painting “Mere et Infant” (mother and child) is a perfect example of the style he was creating at this time.

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Mere et Infant

In the beginning of his career while studying at San Alejandro art school in Cuba, Lam initially painted in the traditional realist style, doing mostly landscapes and still life. There is little catalogued or publicly or privately owned work of his from this era. It is quite possible that some of his work from this time has yet to be authenticated due to it’s striking contrast from the abstract art he became known for. Some of these would have been painted in Cuba; others in Spain, since he lived there for a time before the war. It is said that these paintings were done in a Realist Spanish style, and would likely have been sold in Europe.

Lam was, among other things, a sculptor. However, he also created decorative pottery and items for the home, such as this jug.

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He was also an avid sketcher, and used linear styling similar to Picasso, creating intricate drawings from one connected line.

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Linear Sketch

Wifredo Lam was a highly respected artist during his lifetime, and to this day, his lithographs alone are worth thousands of dollars. He was unconventional in his styling, and his work is housed all over the world, as well as in private collections.

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