The Tate Modern has built up a well-deserved reputation for impressive and comprehensive retrospectives and this new show on Wifredo Lam, a Cuban artist of the twentieth century who blended artistic influences from Europe, where he lived and worked, with symbolism and influences from his homeland is no exception.
The Tate has curated together a vast number of artworks (over 200) from across Wifredo’s career to demonstrate the development of his style, and it is undeniably impressive in its examination of how his style and his influences developed over time.
For those unfamiliar with Wifredo, though, just one glance at his canvases and his biggest influence is obvious. Their mixture of sharp angles, soft curves, and contorted forms just screams ‘Picasso’. Wifredo even met and studied from Picasso directly during his time in Europe in the 1930s. And it shows.
At times the paintings seem almost to imitate the great man’s works rather than use them as a source of inspiration. And therein lies a problem because, you know, if you’re going to copy an artist’s style so closely, it invites comparisons.
And any modern artist will come up short when compared to Picasso.
And this I’ve always found to be my biggest challenge when looking at Wifredo’s paintings – to switch off the ‘Picasso’ button in my head and try to appreciate the excellence right in front of me. It can be hard though, even in a retrospective as vast as this.
Sans Titre (Untitled), 1937, is a beautiful and uplifting painting of two women in a warm embrace. But with its fragmented representation of the human form – breasts on the side of bodies, limbs a collection of random shapes – the influence is too obvious.
Similarly, Horse-Headed Woman, 1950, and The Eternal Present, 1944, may be dramatic, challenging paintings but this fusion of animal and human in manipulated forms, the blend of many artistic styles and influences… I’ve seen this somewhere before.
But as you wander from gallery to gallery, you find that the ‘Picasso button’ eventually wears out and you can appreciate Wifredo’s works on their own merits – the dense and complex compositions, the wealth of Cuban cultural and religious references, the blend of the sinister and the sensual in the plethora of these half-human half-animal creatures that fill his paintings, the bold and deliberate brushstrokes….
These works certainly are admirable. However, I was surprised that for all the technical excellence in the method, their emotional impact can be limited. Which is surprising when you consider the period in which Wifredo worked, and the events he witnessed.
Like many European artists, Wifredo was acutely affected by the rise of fascism, the Spanish civil war and the march of the Nazis. It was, in fact, the German occupation of Paris that compelled him to return to his native Cuba in 1941.
Not that this was a tranquil period in Cuban history either. Wifredo hadn’t seen his homeland in eighteen years, and on his return he saw a country riven with exploitation, corruption and on the brink of revolution.
You’d think all of this tumult would have resulted in passionate, ferocious works. Ones that responded to the injustices he saw all around him. But you find, as you wander these galleries, that other than a surprising detour into abstract expressionism around the fall of Batista, you’d be forgiven for thinking these events had little impact on him. Anger, shock and rage are hard to find.
A notable exception to this is women. Wifredo Lam is at his best in his paintings that are on, or about, women. Here he fuses the erotic with myth. The female form of Cuban goddesses and spirits, with huge rounded bottoms and erect nipples, are fused with horse heads and horns (a reference to Santeria and Vodou beliefs) to create these half-horse half-women bodies through which Lam explores female sexuality, and the exploitation of women in the prostitution of poor Cuban women, and in particular, poor black women.
It is these works which are bold – their emotional impact ranging from arousal to anger. There’s sensuality in paintings such as (my particular favourite) The Betrothed of Kiriwina, 1949, a highly charged erotic figure displays her breasts and bountiful bottom in a palette of sky blues and creams. But there’s also the contortion too. Rumblings of the Earth, 1950, in particular is very powerful. A series of spread legs, robbed of all body or context, cover a canvas that is as black as night.
Not all artists benefit from a retrospective – sometimes it’s a disappointment when not all works hit the high notes – but I feel my thoughts on Wifredo Lam have improved from this exhibition.
With his return to Cuba – and his separation from Picasso – the individuality begins to emerge in Wifredo’s work. The longer view gives us time to appreciate the development of Wifredo’s own style, and to see how he brought his own interests and his own heritage to bear in his paintings.
Tate Modern, London to January 8, 2017
Lead Image: Belial, Emperor of the Flies, 1948, Private collection.
All installation photos by me.