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Wifredo Oscar de la Concepción Lam y Castilla (December 8, 1902 – September 11, 1982)

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 twentieth 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 and ceramics 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 ancestry: his father, Yam Lam, was a Chinese immigrant and his mother, Ana Serafina Lam, 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 Santeria 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 Alvarez de Sotomayor, the curator of the Museo del Prado and teacher of Salvador Dalí. In the mornings he would attend the studio of the reactionary painter, 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 1930's Lam was exposed to a variety of influences. In his work, the influence of Surrealism was discernable, as well as that of Henri Matisse. Throughout Lam's travels through the Spanish countryside, he developed empathy for the Spanish peasants, whose strife, in some ways, mirrored that of the former slaves he grew up around in Cuba. Therefore, at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Lam sided with the Republicans where he 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 Huguë. 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.

In 1938, Lam moved to Paris. Picasso quickly became a big supporter of Lam, introducing him to many of the leading artists of the time, such as Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Joan Miró. Picasso also introduced him to Pierre Loeb, a Parisian art dealer; Loeb gave Lam his first exhibition at the Galerie Pierre Loeb in 1939, which received an enthusiastic response from critics. Picasso and Lam also exhibited their work together at the Perls Galleries in New York in the same year. Lam's work went from showing the influence of Matisse seen in his still lifes, landscapes and simplified portraits to being influenced by Cubism. Mainly working with gouache, Lam began producing stylized figures that appear to be influenced by Picasso. Much of his work in 1938 possessed emotional intensity; the subject matter ranged from interacting couples to women in despair and showed a considerably stronger African influence, seen in the figures’ angular outlines and the synthesis of their bodies.

While Lam began simplifying his forms before he came into contact with Picasso's work, it is apparent that Picasso had a significant impact on him. With regard to Picasso's exhibition, Lam said that it was "not only a revelation, but… a shock." Lam gained the approval of Picasso, whose encouragement has been said to have led Lam to search for his own interpretation of modernism.

With the outbreak of World War II and the Germans invading Paris, Lam left for Marseille in 1940. There, he rejoined many intellectuals, including the Surrealists, with whom he had been associated since he met André Breton in 1939. In Marseille, Lam and Breton collaborated on the publication of Breton's poem Fata Morgana, which was illustrated by Lam. Though the drawings he created in Marseille between 1940 and 1941 are known as the Fata Morgana suite, only about three inspired the illustrations for the poem. In 1941, Breton, Lam and Claude Levi-Strauss, accompanied by many others, left for Martinique only to be imprisoned. After forty days, Lam was released and allowed to leave for Cuba, which he reached in midsummer 1941.

Lam, like many of the most renowned artists of the twentieth century, combined radical modern styles with the "primitive" arts of the Americas.While Diego Rivera and Joaquin Torres-Garcia drew inspiration from Pre-Columbian art, Wifredo Lam was influenced by the Afro-Cubans of the time. Lam dramatically synthesized the Surrealist and Cubist strategies while incorporating the iconography and spirit of Afro-Cuban religion. For that reason, his work does not singularly belong to an art movement.

He held the belief that society focused too much on the individual and sought to show humanity as a whole in his artwork. He painted generic figures, creating the universal. To further his goal, he often painted mask-like faces. While Cuban culture and mythology permeated his work, it dealt with the nature of man and therefore was wholly relatable to non-Cubans.