Saturday, May 7, 2016

Wifredo Lam in Marseilles

Femme Cheval; Wildredo Lam
by Steve Light

Wilfredo Lam, one of the most inspired painters of our 20th Century modernity, was and remains a quintessential representative of an intercultural and polycultural creation in the best sense of the words. Born in Cuba in l902 to a Chinese immigrant father and an Afro-Cuban mother of Congolese descent, Lam first studied in art schools in Cuba before leaving to Spain for further study. He stayed in Spain for 15 years. A partisan of the Republic, he fought with valor during the Civil War (twice being incapacitated by wounds) and in this was part of a broad anti-fascist and Pan-African group of volunteers. Lam from his earliest days was a proponent of anti-colonialism and of the global Black Liberation Movement—a movement born from places as various as Cuba, Ethiopia, Canada, Uganda, etc. and which also included over 100 African-Americans, men and women who in so many instances gave their lives in a fight for autonomous freedom, men and women whose stories—"proud banners of death/ I see them waving/ there against the sky,/ struck deep in Spanish earth/ where your dark bodies lie..."(Langston Hughes)—have been largely overlooked by history. 

     Finally Lam was forced into exile in France as the fall of Barcelona became imminent in l938. In Paris he met Picasso. He also met Breton and other Surrealists, soon becoming part of the Surrealist movement. Picasso and Breton's enthusiasm helped to make his work better known. But no sooner had he begun to settle into a new life, then the French army was completely routed in the spring and early summer of l940. Along with Breton and many others, Lam found himself a refugee in Marseilles hoping to find passage out of France and back to Cuba. Here Breton asked him to contribute the illustrations for a volume of poetry which Breton was going to have published illegally in Marseilles (Lam's illustrations would also accompany the 1940 first edition of Aimé Cesaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal). Breton’s work, Fata Morgana, with Lam's illustrations, was seized by the Vichy government and destroyed. Only five copies survived. However, certain of Lam's works on paper from the late l930s and from his working days in Marseilles have been located. It is a wonderful opportunity to view the drawings Lam made for Breton's book because we can see the makings of that artistic language which Lam in his enthralling and exuberant sensibility would use in the creation of what could be called a Caribbean form of Surrealism and Modernism. In these drawings we can find, as the art-historian Catherine David has also written, "certain elements of the iconography of the great paintings to come." As Helena Holzer, Lam's wife at the time, sat and translated Breton's poem, Lam in Holzer's words, "worked with a steady rhythm...his easy and precise lineation was elegant and sure, resting the pen only to pick up more ink..."

     At the center of invention in these drawings is the Femme Cheval. And this personage finds herself shaped and reshaped constantly into all sorts of figures both "fantastic and familiar". Human, animal, and vegetable forms collide in these drawings which range from the seemingly grotesque to the most tender and elegiac sweetness to the openly sensuous and erotic. Here we find the Femme Cheval cradling birds and sky and there we find her transformed into an enigmatic bird-like figure cradling fish and flowers. Now the figure is serenely meditative, all eyes and eyelashes. Now she is revealed in all her splendid voluptuousness, arms akimbo and caressing. Here her long hair tumbles across her magnificent breasts. There she cradles her arms across herself as if holding a sea and all of its stars.

     But beyond both the perceptual discoveries and delights which these drawings give us at every moment and the historical specification which these drawings provide, namely that the discovery of Lam's drawings in Marseilles and even before that in Paris and in Madrid show that his signature imagery, thought to have begun only upon his return to Cuba in l941, was already in development. These Marseilles drawings reaffirm once more the grace and spontaneity, the rhapsodic verve and vivacity of Lam's dynamic line and his profound sounding of our torn and tumultuous modernity.

     Exhibitions of these drawings have also included poster-size blow-ups of a number of photographs of Lam. In one we see him with Pierre Mabille and Andre Breton. In another we find him with Picasso. We see him surrounded by paintings in his studio in Paris and then in his studio in Cuba. We see him with his wife, Helena Holzer, accompanied by Oscar Dominguez, Breton, and Breton's young daughter, Aube. Yes, dawn! And as Vladimir Jankelevitch, another courageous combatant against fascism, wrote in a little volume on Chopin published clandestinely during the war, yes! that "the dark night of our distress might become the nocturne of our hope and the certainty of our dawn!"  

     We see a wonderful photo of Lam in 1946 in New York seated at a small cafe table with Arshile Gorky. Lam looks out at the photographer while Gorky gazes across Lam towards the unseen corner of the room. It is the perfect arrangement. Because here we find two of the most lyrically intelligent poets of our painterly modernity, whose legacy, gifts, and painterly vehemence have been taken up in our own time by the supreme and sparkling talents that are Naoko Haruta and Alan Silver. And it is the perfect sign for these Marseilles drawings which speak to us in such a moving and beneficent way of that kind of genuine fidelity to the best portions of the mind and heart to which Lam and others gave themselves in a terrible moment, there as they were, pushed to the edge, from which, happily, on the same boat, Lam, Breton, Levi-Strauss, among others, were able to escape, as, unhappily and so very grievously, so many others were not…

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