Museum of Latin American Art ,|
Jun 15, 2008 - Aug 31, 2008
Long Beach, CA, USA
Wifredo Lam in North America
by Beth Rosenblum
Although the exhibition does not feature work from 1941, such an informative year in Lam’s life, the evolution of Lam’s femme cheval can be traced through the works on view from 1942 and 1943. As stated, Lam began to create works that combined animal and human characteristics during his sojourn with the surrealists in 1940. By 1942 his painting Personaje con sombrero includes a figure with a horse head and bulbous chin. Yet, the gender of the sitter is unclear. Homme cheval, also from 1942, depicts a reclining figure with a face that is mask-like, with the forehead and nose in the shape of a horse’s head, a bulbous chin, and two small pointed ears, identified as a male in the title. Finally, the femme cheval with a horse-head, bulbous chin, large lips, and stacked breasts, is seen in a work of the same title, from 1943. While the gender is never evident in these works, other than as identified by a title, the figure becomes known as female. Yet, the spherical forms hanging from the chin are often thought to be testicles, while the tropical fruit shaped breasts imply the figure is female. This metamorphosis of the body has been compared by Charles Merewether to what Andre Breton, the surrealist and close colleague of Lam’s, called çconvulsive beauty’ "in which identities between male and female collapse and sexual organs conjoin in a union of sexual energy." (4) Merewether continues to explain that for Lam, all forms of metamorphosis are a process of being possessed. This concurs with Lowery Stokes Sims’ discussion of Lam’s femme cheval in the exhibition catalogue, where she states that the femme cheval can be viewed as a possessed devotee of Santería. (5) In Santería, a horse signifies this possession, which is also referred to as "being ridden" by the orisha/god, who enters through the devotee’s head. The Eleguá head also featured in Femme Cheval from 1943 becomes another leitmotif in Lam’s work. It is a small face, often with horns, similar to the small handmade Eleguá heads that are commonly placed on home altars to pay tribute to the messenger between the orishas and humans. Lam’s observation of home altars and various practices clearly influenced the development of these motifs.
The presence of Afro-Cuban elements in Lam’s work is paralleled by a certain energy in his brushwork and palette. His Le sombre Malembo, Dieu du carrefour (1943), titled by Lydia Cabrera, contains multiple Eleguá heads, horse heads, hooves and tails, stalks of sugar cane, and tobacco leaves in a vibrant shade of green, with hints of reds, blues, and yellows. This palette is far more bold than work seen before, and reminiscent of his masterpiece La Jungla (1943). While the exhibition includes a study for this "large painting," as it was referred to by Lam, the final piece, which is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, was not part of the exhibition. Lam caught the attention of MOMA curator Alfred H. Barr, during Barr’s research trip to Cuba in 1942. Although Lam elected to display La Jungla at the Pierre Matisse gallery in New York in 1944, and not in the "Modern Painters of Cuba" exhibition at MOMA, because he didn’t want to be typecast as a Cuban painter, the museum championed his work and La Jungla was purchased for MOMA in 1945.
The relationships between MOMA and Lam, and Lam and the New York artists are omitted from the exhibition and could have offered another aspect of Wifredo Lam in North America. Perhaps the subject was avoided since the Studio Museum in Harlem’s 1993 exhibition "Wifredo Lam and his Contemporaries: 1938-1952" touched on this theme. Yet, it should be noted that Lam traveled to New York on a number of occasions, showed in New York galleries, and was considered among the emerging abstract expressionists. This is evidenced in an article in Newsweek from 1946 that singles out Lam, Robert Motherwell, and Adolph Gottlieb as being forerunners to "paint abstractly, butçnot, like the School of Paris followers, abstract real objects and people. Instead, using the surrealists’ method of free association, they evolve shapes, images and ideas out of the subconscious. Unlike the surrealists, however, they do not paint dream, nor do they paint in literal representational styles." (6) Sims has also written on the relationship between the New York abstract expressionists and Lam, and their shared interest in mythic and totemic imagery. (7) An exploration of this relationship could have provided another reason for Lam’s significance in North America.
An untitled painting from 1947 concludes the "Return to Cuba" section of the exhibition. This striking work demonstrates a move away from the stippled brushwork seen in his work from 1944-45, for a more saturated effect. This painting includes a number of Eleguá and horse heads transmutating into other forms. The horizontal composition of this work is reminiscent of the "Haitian drawings" completed by Lam following his observation of Vodou rituals in Haiti during winter 1945-46. There are no works on view from 1946, and there is no mention of Haiti throughout this entire section of the exhibition, making the inclusion of this painting an anomaly.
The final section of the exhibition, "Return to Europe," states that the artist moved between Paris, New York, and Cuba between 1947 and 1952, before settling in Paris (and Italy, which is never mentioned), however, how this is reflected in his work is not revealed. What is revealed is that as Lam got older his work became quite formulaic and repetitious. Numerous paintings in this segment of the exhibition, featuring work from 1947 through the 1970s and ephemera, include the femme cheval and Eleguá heads. Yet, there are works displayed here that stand out for their inclusion of birds in or on women’s heads. Birds are believed to be symbolic of ashé, the Afro-Cuban life force. Ashé clearly ran through Lam’s veins, especially during the years he spent in the Caribbean and United States. A more in depth investigation of this period in his career could have made for an even more fruitful exhibition that truly explored Wifredo Lam in North America and its surroundings.
1. Curtis L. Carter, "Wifredo Lam: Cultural Globalizer," Wifredo Lam in North America, Milwaukee: Marquette University, 2007.
2. Judith Bettelheim, "Lam’s Caribbean Years: An Intercultural Dialogue," Wifredo Lam at Miami Art Museum, Miami: Miami Art Museum of Dade County, 2008, endnote 34.
3. See Judith Bettelheim, "Lam’s Caribbean Years: An Intercultural Dialogue," Wifredo Lam at Miami Art Museum, Miami: Miami Art Museum of Dade County, 2008. This catalogue was published for Miami Art Musuem’s display of "Wifredo Lam in North America."
4. Charles Merewether, "At the Crossroads of Modernism: A Liminal Terrain," Wifredo Lam: A Retrospective of Works on Paper, New York: Americas Society, 1992, 23.
5. Lowery Stokes Sims, "Lam’s Femme Cheval: Avatar of Beauty," Wifredo Lam in North America, Milwaukee: Marquette University, 2007.
6. "A Way to Kill Space," Newsweek, August 12, 1946, 106-107. As quoted in Lowery Stokes Sims, "Myths and Primitivism: The Work of Wifredo Lam in the Context of the New York School and the School of Paris, 1942-1952," Wifredo Lam and His Contemporaries 1938-1952, New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 1992.
7. See Lowery Stokes Sims, "Myths and Primitivism: The Work of Wifredo Lam in the Context of the New York School and the School of Paris, 1942-1952," Wifredo Lam and His Contemporaries 1938-1952, New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 1992.