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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

Judith Bettelheim Judith Bettelheim Professor of Art History, San Francisco State University

If you look at Lam’s paintings from ’39 and ’40 when he was in Paris you see that he’s still young, he’s in his thirties, and he’s still developing a style. When he returns to Cuba and he then re-introduces himself, in a sense, to the Afro-Cuban world and the sort of the dreams of Surrealism, the Surrealist vocabulary that Lam worked with Breton on a publication called Fata Morgana when they were in Marseille together, all of that gets put in together with a new subject matter.

And that subject matter is best exemplified by his famous painting The Jungle of 1943. He paints the tropics, in a sense. So he encounters vegetation in a way that he never did before, as an adult, as a painter, as an aesthetic person, and so he encounters the vegetation and puts this vegetation into his paintings, which is very, very important. Sugarcane: in the jungle these hybrid creatures are emerging from a densely packed sugarcane field, and some people say there are coffee leaves also. And what’s so important here is the fact that the sugarcane, the coffee, the wealth that Cuba has as a result of that is on the backs of the Afro-Cuban. So that all of those elements are merging in this painting. These hybrid figures—some of them are highly sexualized. There is an enormous amount of prostitution on the streets of Havana during this period. This is the period of the famous Havana casinos. All of those elements get combined, but in a fantastic way, in a fantastic kind of Surrealist narrative. And he’s home again. So he’s developing both aesthetically and, I would say, culturally a vocabulary that grounds him in his home. He’s returned home.

What is so interesting, for example, in The Jungle—by the way, that painting was titled by his then partner Helena Holtzer, he never titled his own paintings; it’s something people don’t have to realize when they think these titles are so symbolic of Lam, well, sometimes they are symbolic of the environment he was in—so what’s so interesting about this painting is that it’s predominantly blue. The jungle is not blue, right? So what Lam is doing is saturating his canvas with color. And I think that this color is what is around him in his backyard, in other people’s backyards in Cuba. So he’s really just, he’s digesting the colors around him in Cuba. It’s part of what is now called Tropical Surrealism.” 

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