CHESTNUT HILL — Ten years in the making, “Wifredo Lam: Imagining New Worlds” is as magnetic an exhibition as you will see anywhere in New England this year. It’s on at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art, through Dec. 14. Curated by Elizabeth T. Goizueta, who teaches Hispanic studies at the college, it tells the story of an undersung artist — he’s been called “a second-tier modernist” — whose achievement critics have always struggled to judge.
What was the problem? Was Lam too manifold? Did he straddle one too many cultures? Or was it simply that his work was not quite good enough for him to be remembered as one of the greats?
Submissions welcome. From my own vantage point, the “second-tier” theory looks ready to collapse, like a sandcastle as the tide comes in.
The McMullen show includes important paintings, drawings, prints, and ephemera borrowed from a range of collections in Europe, Latin America, and the United States. It’s accompanied by a brilliant catalog, with original contributions by a range of scholars. And it heralds an oncoming surge of interest in Lam, who will soon be the subject of major surveys at Tate Modern in London, the Reina Sofia in Madrid, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
The first thing to emphasize about Lam is how gifted and intellectually curious he was. In terms of graphic inventiveness and sheer assurance, his achievement must rank high in any appraisal of modernist art. Anyone who doubts this need only look at the series of colored etchings and aquatints he made in 1969, on display near the end of the show. Full of strange, attenuated figures thrusting dynamically across the page and a Hieronymus Bosch-like amalgam of weapons, sexual organs, hair, tails, hands, and feet, they are the culmination of a life of invention.
The next thing to marvel at is how incredibly well connected Lam was. He knew everyone. Here was a man who fraternized with the leading lights of the Spanish intelligentsia in Madrid in the 1920s and ’30s; whom Picasso loved and called his “cousin”; who was playing games of Exquisite Corpse in Marseilles at the last Surrealist gathering before the outbreak of World War II; who grew close to Aime Cesaire, the poet from Martinique who founded the “Negritude” movement (a reaction against French colonialist racism), and to Alejo Carpentier, the Cuban writer who helped instigate the Latin American movement of “magical realism.” Lam palled around with Claude Levi-Strauss and Peggy Guggenheim, with Andre Breton and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Perhaps in part because of all the influences swirling around him, Lam seems to have taken a long time to come into his own. The McMullen show, spread across two levels, kicks off with his early, academic efforts, and a great many paintings strongly stamped with the influence of Matisse and Picasso.
Thankfully, several paintings from Lam’s breakthrough period — the 1940s — are visible across the gallery. You see them — big, strange, commanding paintings — and can’t help wondering how he got from this . . . to that!
Lam was born in Cuba in 1902. He had a Chinese father and a mother of mixed African, Indian, and European descent. He spent his formative years in Madrid, where he moved in 1924 to study under F. Alvarez de Sotomayor, the director of that city’s great museum, the Prado. His paintings from this period — a still life, a street scene — are assured, if unremarkable.
More noteworthy are two large-scale portraits of peasants, a man and a woman, executed in pencil on yellowing paper. Fastidiously finished, they exude a sobriety that, in spirit, goes straight back to the genre scenes of Velazquez and Ribera. They hint, too, at Lam’s instinctive sympathy for the plight of the poor.
Married in 1929, Lam lost both his wife and child to tuberculosis just two years later. The ensuing depression hit hard. But he gradually returned to painting, and continued a shift away from realism that had already begun.
In paintings like “Composicion I” and “Composicion II,” he cultivated a vision that was both socially engaged and dreamlike, visionary. But this style was put aside as, for several years, he fell under the influence of Matisse. Then in 1936, still in Spain, Lam saw a show of work by Picasso. He was spellbound.
Bruised by the Spanish Civil War, in which he’d fought on the Republican side, Lam went to Paris, carrying a letter of introduction to Picasso. “You remind me of someone that I knew many years ago,” Picasso is reported to have said: “me.” (Classic Picasso). Lam felt an instant affinity. “There was no question of imitation,” he said, “but Picasso may easily have been present in my spirit, for nothing in him was alien or strange to me.”
Lam used the same kind of language to describe what happened next. Forced by war to flee Paris, he traveled — via Marseilles and Martinique — back to Cuba. There, his art underwent a massive transformation.
At first, he was depressed. He missed Paris. Havana evoked painful memories: “The whole colonial drama of my youth seemed to be reborn in me,” he said. But on his voyage back to Cuba he had met, and read writings by, Cesaire. Influenced by his own time in Paris, Cesaire was advancing the counter-colonialist “Negritude” doctrine, backing full independence — both political and spiritual — for Latin Americans.
Lam was inspired. He kicked against the reality around him: “I decided that my painting would never be the equivalent of that pseudo-Cuban music for nightclubs. I refused to paint cha-cha-cha. I wanted with all my heart to paint the drama of my country, but by thoroughly expressing the Negro spirit, the beauty of the plastic art of the blacks.”
The new aesthetic he formulated, beginning in 1942-43, was still heavily influenced by Picasso and the surrealists. But it drew, too, on Cuba’s native flora, on the flickering light and color of the tropics, and above all on a new vision of the human that seemed indivisible from the animal and the vegetable.
This vision was inspired in part by Santeria, a syncretic Afro-Caribbean religion that combines Yoruba beliefs and traditions with elements of Roman Catholicism. Devilish heads atop totemic forms, or cup- or horseshoe-shaped figures representing Yoruba gods like Eleggua and Oggun, began to appear in Lam’s work. “I have spontaneously rediscovered these forms!” he claimed, a little dubiously. “They have emerged within me as ancestral spirit.”
A visit to Haiti, and exposure to the Voodoo cult, in 1946 crystallized his new, hybrid aesthetic. Certain symbolic motifs — such as the “femme-cheval,” or woman horse — began reappearing in his work.
What followed, over several restless decades, was a cascade of fascinating work, all of it attesting to an elastic imagination, great passion, and tremendous graphic invention.
The question that hovers around Lam is this: Was he “returning to his roots” when he developed his mature style (which dates from the return to Cuba), in the process becoming a more authentic and politically significant artist?
Or was he merely extending liberties carved out for him in Europe by Picasso and the surrealists, who had been looking at art from Africa and the Pacific for years, albeit from an ignorant, colonialist perspective? Was Lam, that is to say, superficially adopting African and Latin American motifs in which he did not really believe (he was an atheist), because it helped his credibility with European audiences and bolstered a jerry-built identity?
Put crassly like this, the question sounds vitally important. It’s addressed in depth in a subtle catalog essay by Claude Cernuschi. But I would caution against getting too caught up in it. Lam was influenced less by big ideas than by poetry. He sought to infuse his art with the same liberty and the same rich ambivalence as the poetry he loved.
Obviously, he cared about ideas. He hated injustice, and he was scarred like everyone by the violent convulsions of his era. But he was absorbed above all by lines, shapes, colors, and by the different methods of applying these to paper and canvas.
To stress that is not to try to evacuate meaning from his work. It is only to acknowledge that, while in questions of cultural identity the idea of authenticity has little purchase, in art, lines and shapes and colors do. You must reckon first and foremost with what you see before you.
Luckily, that’s rewarding in Lam’s case. There’s something almost sticky about his best work. It’s adhesive. Once he has worked through his Picasso period, his forms feel clear, and even familiar, but no longer borrowed. He has made them his own. They’re haunting, convulsive, violent, erotic, totemic, dynamic, and — once seen — indelible.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.