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2 / Dreams and Visions

The Jungle
The Jungle
Artist / Origin Wifredo Lam (Cuban, 1902–1982)
Date 1943
Material Gouache on paper mounted on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions H: 8 ft. (24 m.), W: 7 ½ ft. (2.3 m.)
Location The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
Credit © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris/Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by Scala/Art Resource, NY

expert perspective

Whitney ChadwickProfessor Emerita of Art History, San Francisco State University
Judith BettelheimProfessor of Art History, San Francisco State University

The Jungle

» Wifredo Lam (Cuban, 1902–1982)

expert perspective

Whitney Chadwick Whitney Chadwick Professor Emerita of Art History, San Francisco State University

One of the most interesting, I think, examples of a Surrealist, of a painter who really makes a very complex cultural fusion and combines that with a Surrealist vision is Wilfredo Lam, born in Cuba of black Cuban and Chinese parentage and then in Spain in the 1930s fighting on the republican side of the Spanish Civil War. From there he went to Paris, met Picasso. His paintings in Paris are Cubist paintings and they draw on Cubism’s heavy reliance on African masks, on the forms of African art. So Lam, already, is sort of fusing a kind of European style of painting, a European Modernist style of painting with its non-European sources.

And then at the end of the ’30s, the Surrealists—after the fall of France—the Surrealists leave Paris. They are political leftists. They are endangered in many cases. And they go to Marseille, which is part of a free zone. Lam makes his way to Marseille and from Marseille he will travel with Breton and with the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss to Martinique. On his way back to Cuba, he arrives back in Cuba about 1941 or ’42. And in Cuba, Lam, very much under the influence of Surrealism now, manages to fuse, in very interesting ways, Surrealist beliefs—Surrealism’s commitment to the power of the object, to its transformation—with images, imagery drawn from Santería, from Cuban religious and spiritual beliefs and practices, from voodoo. And he does that very often through composite beings—animal-human avatars, often it’s the femme cheval, the woman who is also horse. Lam is one of the greatest examples of a Surrealist artist, I think, really fusing the languages of Modernism, of Surrealism, and of non-European sources into a very syncretic, a very powerful, and very magical kind of painting.” 

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