Wifredo Lam was a Cuban artist who sought to portray and revive the enduring Afro-Cuban spirit and culture. Inspired by and in contact with some of the most renowned artists of the 20th century, Lam melded his influences and created a unique style, which was ultimately characterized by the prominence of hybrid figures. Though he was predominantly a painter, he also worked with sculpture, ceramics and printmaking in his later life.More ...
Wifredo Óscar de la Concepción Lam y Castilla (Chinese: 林飛龍; Jyutping: lam4 fei1lung4; December 8, 1902 – September 11, 1982), better known as Wifredo Lam, was a Cuban artist who sought to portray and revive the enduring Afro-Cuban spirit and culture. Inspired by and in contact with some of the most renowned artists of the 20th century, Lam melded his influences and created a unique style, which was ultimately characterized by the prominence of hybrid figures. Though he was predominantly a painter, he also worked with sculpture, ceramics and printmaking in his later life.
Wifredo Lam was born and raised in Sagua La Grande, a village in the sugar farming province of Villa Clara, Cuba. He was of mixed-race ancestry: his father, Yam Lam, was a Chinese immigrant and his mother, the former Ana Serafina Castilla, was born to a Congolese former slave mother and a Cuban mulatto father. In Sagua La Grande, Lam was surrounded by many people of African descent; his family, like many others, practiced Catholicism alongside their African traditions. Through his godmother, Matonica Wilson, a Santería priestess locally celebrated as a healer and sorceress, he was exposed to rites of the African orishas. His contact with African celebrations and spiritual practices proved to be his largest artistic influence.
In 1916 Lam moved to Havana to study law, a path that his family had thrust upon him. Simultaneously he also began studying tropical plants at the Botanical Gardens. From 1918 to 1923, Lam studied painting at the Escuela de Bellas Artes. However, Lam disliked both academic teaching and painting. He left for Madrid in the autumn of 1923 to further his art studies.
In 1923 Lam began studying in Madrid under Fernando Álvarez de Sotomayor y Zaragoza, the curator of the Museo del Prado and teacher of Salvador Dalí. In the mornings he would attend his conservative teacher's studio, while he spent his evenings working alongside young, nonconformist painters. At the Prado, Lam discovered and was awed by the work of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel I. While his early paintings were in the modernist Spanish tradition, his work soon became more simplified and decorative. Though Lam's dislike for academic conservatism persisted, his time in Spain marked his technical development in which he began to merge a primitive aesthetic and the traditions of Western composition. In 1929 he married Eva Piriz, but both she and their young son died in 1931 of tuberculosis; it is likely that this personal tragedy contributed to the dark nature of his work.
During the 1930s Lam was exposed to a variety of influences. The influence of Surrealism was discernible in his work, as well as that of Henri Matisse. Throughout Lam's travels through the Spanish countryside, he developed empathy for the Spanish peasants, whose troubles in some ways mirrored those of the former slaves he grew up around in Cuba. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he sided with the Republicans and used his talent to fashion Republican posters and propaganda. Drafted to defend Madrid, Lam was incapacitated during the fighting in late 1937 and was sent to Barcelona. There he met Helena Holzer, a German researcher, and the Catalan artist known as Manolo Hugué. Manolo gave Lam the letter of introduction that sparked his friendship with Picasso, whose artwork had impressed and inspired Lam a year before when he saw an exhibition in Madrid.
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