I loved visiting The EY Exhibition: Wifredo Lam at Tate Modern, London (14/09/2016 – 08/01/2017). Lam, a capital 20th century figure, was a Cuban artist who moved to Spain in 1923 to further his fine art training and, as the Tate exhibition shows, absorbed both academic teachings and contemporary Modernist influences in the following years. Caught up in the turbulent tide of the Spanish Civil War (in which he embraced the cause of the beleaguered Second Republic), Lam later moved to France on the eve of World War II, met influential figures like Picasso and Joan Miró, and, following the German invasion, ended up back in Cuba by way of French Martinique, all the time working closely with the European surrealist circle which had coalesced around André Breton and others.
It was back in Cuba that Lam rediscovered the source material that he would draw on for the rest of his career in the shape of Santería, the syncretic polytheistic religion alive throughout the Caribbean which had resulted from the combination of African belief systems with aspects of Roman Catholicism. The exhibition tracks Lam's progressive development of a personal language based on these themes, initially in a rather tentative fashion, then, finally, resulting in landmark paintings like The Wedding (1947), Nativity (1947) and Bélial, Emperor of the Flies (1948), in which a much darker, earthier, pared down palette sets the tone for compositions populated by intricate, disquieting figures which show the influence of Lam's surrealist roots. Lam would thenceforth stick to this signature style. As noted in the exhibition, a fascinating twist in his career came when Danish painter and member of the late 1940s COBRA movement Asger Jorn (himself fond of weaving distorted characters into dark, manic compositions) invited Lam to join him and other artists at Albissola Marina in Liguria, Italy, where Lam discovered ceramics and, crucially, printmaking. Etching and aquatint gave Lam new scope to expand and develop his maze-like compositions and the exhibition includes some breathtakingly beautiful prints.
Wifredo Lam's artistic voice remained fresh and vibrant until his death in 1982 and the Tate Modern exhibition is a fascinating journey through both the developmental decades and the mature period of this central 20th century artist.