LONDON – Tate Modern will present a retrospective of Wifredo Lam (1902–1982) – the first for the Cuban modernist painter in London since 1952 – from Sept. 14 to Jan. 8.
Including over 200 paintings, drawings, photographs and prints, the exhibition will trace his 60-year career from the 1920s to the 1970s, confirming his place at the center of a cosmopolitan modernism.
His work defined new ways of painting for a post-colonial world and was greeted with both consternation and acclaim during his lifetime. As a Latin American artist of Chinese, Spanish and African heritage, Lam lies between East and West, combining traditional practices, surrealist ideas and complete originality. In an increasingly connected world, Lam’s work brings a historical perspective to contemporary issues.
Lam traveled extensively, living on both sides of the Atlantic during periods of great political change. The exhibition will begin with works produced during Lam’s early years as an artist in Spain following his training in Havana and Madrid. From classically inspired studies such as Self-Portrait 1926, Lam moved toward works engaging with the European avant-garde movements such as cubism and surrealism.
Following the tragic death of his wife and son from tuberculosis, Lam enlisted into the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War. Forced to leave in 1938, Lam departed for Paris where he met Pablo Picasso and continued to experiment with avant-garde techniques, particularly inspired by ancient Greek and African art such as in Figure 1939 and Young Woman on a Light Green Background 1938. Forced to flee again to Marseille following Paris’s occupation in 1940, Lam joined André Breton and other surrealists, participating in collaborative artistic projects such as Collective Drawing 1940, designs for a surrealist pack of Tarot cards, and his own sketch series Carnets de Marseille 1941.
The exhibition will reappraise Lam’s major works within the cultural and political context after he returned to Cuba in 1941. After 18 years abroad and two forced exiles, Lam was disappointed to find corruption, racism and poverty in his homeland and responded by seeking out “Cubanness,” influenced by his friendships with contemporary thinkers and academics. He created works that combined animal, plant and human forms, using symbols borrowed from Cuban Occultism and Afro-Cuban beliefs, exemplified by The Eternal Present (An Homage to Alejandro García Caturla) 1944, The Wedding 1947, and The Threshold 1950.
In 1952, Lam left Cuba once more for Europe where he exhibited frequently alongside the CoBrA artists. He was particularly close to Asger Jorn, who introduced Lam to Albissola, a town on the Italian coast where he would create works until the end of his life. During the 1960s, he worked beside Lucio Fontana and the Situationists, experimenting with new materials such as terra-cotta. Lam created almost 300 ceramics in 1975 alone, using symbols derived from his painting and drawing. During this final period, he made prints to illustrate many works by poets and writers, such as René Char, Gherasim Luca and Jean-Dominique Rey.
The exhibition is organized by the Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, in collaboration with the Tate Modern and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.