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Art Through Time: A Global View

Dreams and Visions Art: The Jungle

» Wifredo Lam (Cuban, 1902–1982)

The Jungle

The Jungle
Artist / Origin: Wifredo Lam (Cuban, 1902–1982)
Region: Mesoamerica, Central America, and the Caribbean
Date: 1943
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
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

Cuban artist Wifredo Lam, like many of his Surrealist colleagues, was deeply interested in mysticism and mythology.

Many of the most prominent European Surrealist painters and writers, among whom he lived and worked during the 1920s and 1930s, influenced both his style and his subject matter. During his years in Europe, he also worked with Pablo Picasso, whose impact is unmistakable in many of Lam’s artworks and especially in The Jungle. Since the beginning of the century, Picasso had been collecting and studying traditional African masks and incorporating images of them into his paintings in place of more naturalistic depictions of faces. Lam uses this same strategy in an image like The Jungle, but in his work there is also a personal component. Lam’s ethnic and cultural heritage included the African diaspora in Cuba, and when he returned to the island in the 1940s, he became reengaged with the concerns of its Afro-Cuban community.

The Jungle is a huge painting with an extremely intricate, complex composition. There are four female figures in a row across the canvas. Difficult to make out, they seem interwoven among tall stalks of sugarcane, and their unnaturally long, straight limbs blend in with the similarly shaped plants. Lam’s interest in the traditional African religions practiced in the Caribbean—Santería in Cuba and Vodun in Haiti, for example—is suggested in the rightmost figure, which appears to be a woman-horse hybrid, a form characteristic of spiritual entities.

Clearly, this painting is no realistic representation of people in a specific natural environment. Rather, the artist has depicted a primordial vision of mythic forces. Even the painting’s title adds to the visionary qualities of his subject. To call it The Junglesuggests a search for some primitive culture. However, the plants Lam has included in his painting are sugarcane and tobacco, which are domesticated crops, not wild plants.

Expert Perspective: 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.”

Expert Perspective: 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.”

Additional Resources

Ades, Dawn, Edward Lucie-Smith, Paula Schulze, and Wifredo Lam. Wifredo Lam in North America. Milwaukee: Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University, 2008.

Balderrama, Maria R., ed. Wifredo Lam and His Contemporaries, 1938–1952.New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 1993.

Fletcher, Valerie. Crosscurrents of Modernism; Four Latin American Pioneers: Diego Rivera, Joaquín Torres-García, Wifredo Lam y Roberto Matta.Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1992.

Sims, Lowery S. “Syncretism and Syntax in the Art of Wifredo Lam.” In Readings in Latin American Modern Art, edited by Patrick Frank, 93–97. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Sims, Lowery Stokes. Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 1923–1982. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

“Wifredo Lam. The Jungle. 1943.” In The Collection. Museum of Modern Art Web site.

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