Lam, Wifredo – Cuba

1902-1982 | Latin American Art


Wifredo Oscar de la Concepción Lam y Castilla was born in a humble neighbourhood of Sagua la Grande, Cuba on 8th December 1902. His father was a Chinese merchant and notary public and his mother was a mulatto, with a mixture of African, Spanish and aboriginal blood. Due to his maternal heritage, Lam had contact with Santería and magic from childhood, naturally integrating this facet of his culture into his identity.

In 1920 he entered the San Alejandro Professional School of Painting and Sculpture in Havana, where he trained for three years. From the start of his career he became a member of the Association of Painters and Sculptors of Havana and exhibited in the association’s Fine Arts halls.

In 1923 he travelled to Spain on a scholarship to study at the San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid.

Wifredo Lam took part in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. As a member of the international artistic brigades and the union of painters of the Spanish General Union of Workers (UGT) he created propaganda posters during this period.

This time during the civil war was accompanied by family misfortunes. His wife, Eva Piris, and his young son died from tuberculosis in 1931.

Lam travelled to Paris in 1938 upon the victory of the Francoist army. There he was to meet Pablo Picasso, who was a great influence throughout the Cuban artist’s career as well as a great source of support during the start of his time in Paris. He also joined the most select circles of the avant-garde and Parisian bohemia.

After two years in the French capital, and again because of war, Lam went into exile again, in this case in Marseille where he met Breton and other members of the surrealist movement.

In 1941 and after two periods of exile, Lam returns to Cuba, where he finds a deeply depressing scene that leaves him feeling disillusioned. He has a clear purpose after his arrival on the island: to build up an art scene that shows a different side to the story in which Cuban identity and négritude were a source of national pride.

As his international fame and reputation grew, starting in 1952 Lam made a series of trips before finally settling again in Paris, then moving to a small Italian town, Albissola, ten years later. He died in Paris in 1982.



With some academic beginnings in which he mainly painted landscapes and portraits, Lam’s work evolved towards other themes and more modern languages after his stay at the San Fernando Academy. After studying the great masters exhibited at the Museo del Prado and their contemporaries (Matisse, Gauguin, Picasso, Miró and Gris), Lam developed a language close to expressionism (synthesis of shapes and greater emphasis on brushstrokes and colour), which would later lead to a late cubism.

During his time in Spain and at the beginning of the war, Lam survived by painting commissions of landscapes and portraits. After the death of his wife and son, these would be replaced by images of motherhood and scenes of pleading characters, as well as others inspired by scenes of war.

Between 1937 and 1938 there was a significant change in his language. The faces on his figures are replaced by a type of mask, with semi-empty and monochrome ovals with facial features that are reduced to a series of lines. This came about upon his contact with Picasso’s work, which he was to get to know directly during his visits to the Spanish artist’s studio once in Paris, and due to the impact that the Musée de l’Homme had on him; it was not inaugurated until 1938, the year of his arrival in Paris. We can therefore say that Lam had already started on this aesthetic path that defined his work, which was to be supported by other contemporary artists, including Picasso, and not claim it was directly and solely influenced by the latter, as is also noted in other studies.

Proof of this is also the fact that the initial appearance of the mask in Lam’s work is more closely linked to the concept of “masking”, better understood as the concealment of identity in modern psychology than as an African reference.

In Marseille he was to meet André Breton and other members of the surrealist movement, which he would take part in for a short time. The collective practices and psychic automatism of this movement were of particular interest to Lam.

Upon his return to Cuba in 1941, the mask starts to reappear in his work and a dialogue is established between the visible and the invisible, the real and the imaginary, that which is imposed and which is demanded.

Along with other artists and intellectuals on the island like Lydia Cabrera, Fernando Ortiz, Virgilio Piñera, José Lezama Lima and Aimé Césaire, he works to create an alternative to the modern portrait imposed by the government of Fulgencio Batista. The concept of “transculturalization” arises from the hand (or the mind) of Fernando Ortiz (ethnologist, anthropologist, jurist, archaeologist and journalist), with Lam focusing on its artistic aspects. It is precisely the plurality and the mixture of cultures that make up the island’s collective identity, as well as Lam’s own.

His work is a hybrid of influences from the European avant-garde and African, Cuban and Caribbean symbolic iconography. Formally, he continues to be the heir to Picasso, Matisse and Julio González, to which is added African synthetic geometrism. It is in his themes that he differentiates himself compared to his previous work, his great contribution to contemporary Latin-American art and his originality.
During his second stage in Paris, Lam was involved with the CoBrA group, in a stage that was to lead him to experiment with new materials and, again, with randomness and spontaneity in his works. This was the concept that so attracted him to the surrealist collective.

In 1962 he bought a house in Albissola, an important centre of ceramic production. In 1975 he produced some three hundred ceramics, with symbols that refer back to his artworks. During this year he also worked on an autobiographical work that would be entitled “The new New World of Lam” (ending in 1976). It is a cartography of poetic and sociopolitical affinities, with a multitude of references and languages which he uses to produce a personal discourse.

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Website of the exhibition “Wifredo Lam” (from 6th April to 15th August 2016) at Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía: [Date of access: 04/03/2020]

Exhibition brochure “Wifredo Lam” (from 6th April to 15th August 2016) at Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, available at: [Date of access: 04/03/2020]

Website of the exhibition “Wifredo Lam” (29th September to 14th December 1992) at Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía: [Date of access: 04/03/2020]

Exhibition brochure “Wifredo Lam” (29th September to 14th December 1992) at Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, available at:  [Date of access: 04/03/2020] [Date of access: 04/03/2020]