When you walk into the McMullen Museum’s latest exhibition, Wifredo Lam: Imagining New Worlds, two words come to mind: not quite. The Cuban artist’s use of the imagination, with figures that blur the line between humanity and the dream world, is not quite surrealism. Lam’s experimentation with geometric form—slightly disorienting and at times confusing—is not quite cubism. For every artistic movement that influenced Lam’s career, it’s clear that he doesn’t quite fit into any category. Rather, he presents a hybrid of styles to showcase his own unique background, or, as the exhibition title suggests, imagine a new world.
Born in Cuba to parents of Chinese and African/Spanish descent, Lam was surrounded by cross-cultural experiences that eventually manifested in his work—often described as an encounter between Western modernism and Afro-Cuban symbolism. Lam’s background is infused into his art, and the effect is commanding—for example, take the very first image in the exhibit, Untitled (1945).
Upon walking into the museum, the viewer is confronted with Lam’s name in bold white letters, with the word “exhibition” spelled out vertically, and arrows directing the eye to each subsequent letter. With a bold orange background and many of Lam’s recurring symbols—arrows, triangular facial forms, and small piercing eyeballs—we get the sense right away that Lam’s personality is unmistakable.
Lam left Cuba for Madrid at the age of 21, and the beginning of the exhibit showcases his academic work as well as his exposure to European modern art movements. His Composicion, I (1930) shows echoes of the Surrealist movement—a dark, erotic piece that shows a brightly colored and curvilinear prostitute in the foreground, with buildings and stairs moving into the background in an abstract, geometric path. The piece evokes a dream world typical of Surrealist art, but also has stylistic components of cubism that Picasso led in the 20th century.
Once Lam moved to Paris in 1938 after the ending of the Spanish Civil War, his work began to shift—and we truly see how Lam took the modernist principles and even subverted them for his own expression. With the guidance of Picasso, Lam began to explore African imagery—similar to Picasso himself, he was struck by the masks, forms, and colors that he found in African art museums and incorporated them into his work.
What’s so unique about Lam’s interpretations is how he fused African iconography with European themes, while injecting his own personal history into the artwork. In 1931, Lam’s first wife and son died of tuberculosis, which many believe led to his numerous paintings of mother and child. Lam’s Mere et enfant, II(1939) exemplifies his fusion of these various modernist forms with his own personal twist—the piece shows a dark, faceless mother composed of simple geometric forms, with a faceless child lying horizontally at her waist. In effect, Lam takes a recognizable image and defamiliarizes it for his audience, resulting in a “non-European, secularized interpretation” of the mother and child, as explained by the informational labels.
By 1941, Lam had returned to his native Cuba, and the exhibit describes his subsequent work as a “metamorphosis of images”—a synthesis of human, animal, and vegetal forms. Also described as a type of “magical realism” and a hybrid form of surrealism, Lam’s pieces begin to shift into a style that is somewhat familiar, but simultaneously new and experimental.
The way he uses body parts is perhaps the most intriguing—again, his beady eyes are not quite human, and the limbs extending outward from all directions are not quite animal either. His Le Sombre Malembo (1943) captures this sense of wonder and mystification, and combines various painting styles such as impressionistic brush strokes, pointillist techniques, and playing of light and color.
Lam’s body of work from this point forward consistently incorporates his preferred motifs—horns, eyes, vegetation, and allusions to Afro-Cuban deities—and gives a more clear vision of Lam’s own imagined new world.
The downstairs area of the museum covers Lam’s work during his return back to Paris, where he remained for the rest of his life. Inspired by New York expressionists, Lam moved more toward abstraction in his later pieces, using techniques such as ink splotching and splattering in his larger compositions.
The exhibit also includes displays of African masks and Oceanic sculptures that inspired Lam’s work—allowing viewers to see how Lam interpreted the facial features and elongated forms of the sculptures in a different medium.
All of Lam’s characters, motifs, and symbols culminate in a series of nine drawings called Etchings from Annonciation, the final component of the exhibit. Frame after frame, we get to see how Lam’s mind works, as if we are moving through his subconscious and witnessing how his creatures would interact on the canvas.
After journeying through Lam’s career as an artist, the series of etchings provides a deeper and conclusive portrayal of Lam’s worlds coming together—both the real and the imagined.
Featured Image by John Wiley / Heights Editor