Curated by Matthew Gale, Head of Displays, at Tate Modern, London, and Catherine David, General Curator at the Centre Pompidou / Musée national d’art moderne, Paris, The EY Exhibition: Wifredo Lam is a major exhibition which explores and identifies with the cultural and political contexts of the Cuban artist.
Running through into the new year, the show charts the life and works of an artist who – amongst a myriad of other dramatic journeys – encountered two forced exiles. As an interrogation of identity and cultural change, this season-spanning show displays the career of a pre-eminent modernist painter that pushed the boundaries of cultural and artistic change.
Defining a new pathway for practitioners, Lam was at the forefront for cosmopolitan modernism within the 1920s to the 1970s, whilst being at the centre of a post-colonial world. A Latin American artist with Chinese, Spanish and African heritage, Lam’s paintings can be seen as a unifying medium between various cultures and languages, whilst forging ahead with new influences of avant-garde surrealism and classically inspired studies.
A veteran of dramatic change and social upheaval, the artist’s life was informed by instability: his wife and son died from tuberculosis, and he enlisted his services in the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War. It was these actions that led to him being forced to leave his own country, and follow his searing pathway into becoming one of the most important painters of his time. Fleeing to Paris in 1938, Lam met Pablo Picasso and married influences from Ancient Greek and African art with new, avant-garde techniques. Returning home after 18 years to find corruption, racism and poverty, the artist then proceeded to leave one more time in 1952 under completely different circumstances. Exhibiting frequently in Europe after a developing and acclaimed career, he settled in Albissola, Italy, where he met a number of poetic and artists influences (such as René Char, Gherasim Luca and Jean-Dominique Rey) and worked alongside Lucio Fontana until the day he died.
Featuring human figures, animals and plant matter, his works trace a lost sense of “Cubanness” and the entrance into a new, surreal and patchwork world. Representing the landscape and people around him with altered perceptions and diverse cultural belonging, Lam started to borrow symbols from Cuban Occultism and Afro-Cuban beliefs, which can be seen in, for example, The Wedding (1947) and The Threshold (1950).
Tate Modern’s Autumn show encompasses over 200 drawings, paintings, photographs and prints, and six decades of the artist’s life, creating dialogues between his works and displaying the evolution of an artist who would become a figure of modernist fluctuations and cultural development.
1. Wifredo Lam Umbral (Seuil) 1950 Photo: Georges Meguerditchian/Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Dist. RMN-GP. ©Adagp, Paris