Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 23, 2015
Elizabeth T. Goizueta, ed. Wifredo Lam: Imagining New Worlds Exh. cat. Boston: McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 2014. 150 pp.; 50 color ills.; 100 b/w ills. Paper $40.00 (9781892850232)
Exhibition schedule: McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, August 30–December 14, 2014; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, February 14–May 24, 2015

The Jungle (1943) no longer hangs by the coatroom of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, as John Yau once decried (“Please Wait by the Coatroom,” Art Magazine 63, no. 4 [December 1988]: 56–59), and no doubt the critical fortunes of Wifredo Lam have risen auspiciously over the past quarter-century. Lam scholarship surged in the 1990s and early 2000s amid a disciplinary climate in full flush of postcolonial revision and a continuing anthropological turn. From the exhibition Wifredo Lam and His Contemporaries, 1938–1952 (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 1992) to the publication of Lowery Stokes Sims’s definitive monograph, Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 1923–1982 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), Lam has been mobilized as an exemplar of postmodern hybridity and transculturation. Gerardo Mosquera and Julia Herzberg, notably, have situated his work within African diasporic (and specifically, Afro-Cuban) contexts of religious cult practices and iconographic systems. Recent exhibitions such as Wifredo Lam in North America (Haggerty Museum of Art, Milwaukee, 2007), which traveled across the United States, and Wifredo Lam: Voyages entre Caraïbes et avant-gardes (Musée des beaux-arts de Nantes, 2010) have considered the American and Caribbean contexts of his work, focusing on sundry conjunctions of Surrealism, Négritude, “lo real maravilloso,” and Santería. Lam’s practice lends itself readily to exhibitions, which in turn have driven scholarly attention to the work, and the latest contribution is Wifredo Lam: Imagining New Worlds, organized by Elizabeth T. Goizueta for Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art.

Published to accompany the exhibition, the catalogue includes a fully illustrated checklist of sixty-eight works, drawn mostly (and most richly) from the 1930s and 1940s, alongside essays by Goizueta, Sims, Claude Cernuschi, Roberto Cobas Amate, and Roberto S. Goizueta. Although the catalogue includes a series of graphic works from the 1960s and several large, late-career canvases, the visual and textual focus falls on the evolution of Lam’s iconography from his years in Spain (1923–38) and France (1938–41) through the consolidation of his practice in the decade following his return to Cuba in 1941. Though familiar, this chronological period is no less fascinating for the ways in which Lam apprehended European avant-gardes and their use of African sources (vis-à-vis Pablo Picasso and Michel Leiris) and then leveraged his practice as a decolonizing “Trojan horse,” subverting modernist forms through the introduction of polymorphous African iconography. In her essay, “Wifredo Lam’s Poetic Imagination and the Spanish Baroque,” Elizabeth Goizueta examines Lam’s encounters with the Spanish avant-garde, describing the literary and artistic impact of the proto-Surrealist (and, suggestively, neo-baroque) Generación del 27 and its reverberations in his later negotiations of French Surrealism and the “magical realism” of the Caribbean. Sims reprises material published in her 2002 monograph in “The Graphic Work of Wifredo Lam: Drawing into Painting,” tracing Lam’s graphic output from points of origin in Paris, for a Surrealist exhibition, and Stanley Hayter’s Atelier 17 in New York to its apotheosis in collaborations with Giorgio Upiglio in Milan over the last two decades of his career. In the book’s lengthiest contribution, “The Art of Wifredo Lam and the Anthropology of Lucien Lévy-Bruhl and Claude Lévi-Strauss,” Cernuschi revisits the period discourse around non-Western art and “primitivism” through the critical lenses of structuralism and colonialism. Cobas Amate attends to Lam’s Cuban works in his short essay, “Wifredo Lam: The Ascending Spiral,” in which he notes formative contacts with Lydia Cabrera and Alejo Carpentier and considers the larger Antillean context in which Lam circulated. Finally, theologian Roberto Goizueta brings evocations of the “numinous” to bear on Lam’s cosmology in his essay, “Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinas: The Pre-Theistic Art of Wifredo Lam.”

In later years, Lam downplayed the Paris- and Picasso-centric narrative around his development—“outside of Cuba, Spain has been the most direct fountain of information,” he declared (3)—and Elizabeth Goizueta pursues this lead, recuperating the prior Spanish period as aesthetically formative. (This pattern of privileging Paris as the nexus of transatlantic exchange has long characterized scholarship on early twentieth-century Latin American avant-gardes.) Her essay first lights upon Surrealist points of encounter with a “New World” imaginary and magical realism (André Breton, Carpentier), a topic later reprised as she follows Lam’s transatlantic movements during subsequent decades. This diffuse chronological treatment brackets the essay’s more suggestive arguments, which emphasize the period resonance of Spain’s Generación del 27, its intellectual debt to José Ortega y Gasset, its relationship to the Generación del 1898 (in particular, the writer Miguel de Unamuno), and its affinities with literary Surrealism. The formal elaboration of Lam’s receptivity to the poets Rafael Alberti and Federico García Lorca, for example, is admittedly circumstantial; still, Goizueta argues thoughtfully for shared experiences of exile and alienation rendered through bodily metaphors of amputation and degradation (9–11). Somewhat sidelined are the visual history of the Spanish baroque (compare Jonathan Brown, ed., Picasso and the Spanish Tradition, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996) and Lam’s contemporary visual engagements—e.g., with Catalan symbolism, Benjamín Palencia and the “Vallecas School,” even Surrealism and African art in the late 1920s. Notoriously amorphous, the “baroque” appears at most an allusive strand within Lam’s oeuvre; far more generative is the call for renewed attention to the Spanish years and the diversity of experience they presented.

Acknowledging the traditional, iconographic impulse that has propelled scholarship on Lam (79), Roberto Goizueta takes a creatively revisionist approach to Lam’s religious voyaging—specifically, to the relationship posited between the universal and the particular. His “pre-theistic,” or “pre-iconic,” arguments presuppose the Afro-Cuban symbology inscribed by Herzberg et al. and at the same time upend it, explaining Lam’s universalism through recourse to the numinous, a theological notion roughly approximate to the aesthetic sublime. The essay first sketches a phenomenology of religion, outlining the essential mystery of nonempirical experience and the corresponding human drive to objectify it (i.e., to reduce its ambiguity); religious belief is maintained through daily praxis, in the use of symbols and rituals, and through ethical action. For Goizueta, following Fernando Ortiz, Lam’s universalism emerges precisely in his willingness to embrace ambiguity—and, therein, an “otherness” beyond the (Surrealist, or unconscious) self—by allowing representation to remain suggestively “primitive” and liminal (pre-theistic). At the same time, he argues, Lam’s practice is “universal because it is particular” (80; emphasis in original). That is, the specificity of Lam’s Afro-Cuban worldview ultimately allows his work access to the numinous at a universal level (cf., Ortiz’s “cosmic mystery,” 84). The transgressive aspect of the numinous—its passaging between the natural and the supernatural (the particular and the universal)—is persuasively illustrated through discussion of the Annunciation motif and its incorporation of syncretic iconography (e.g., Elegguá, the Santería god of the crossroads). This introduction of theological aesthetics to Lam studies is stimulating, if largely textual and at some distance from the materiality of the work itself. Its proximity to the more familiar, interdisciplinary presence of cultural anthropology draws a connection to Cernuschi’s essay, with which it also shares a disposition toward dialectical reasoning.

Ethnographic approaches to Lam’s work have long dwelled upon first-person analysis, aided by the work of Cabrera and Ortiz, and Cernuschi’s alternative dyad—Lévy-Bruhl and Lévi-Strauss—appreciably complicates the anthropological picture. After a review of postcolonialist discourse and Western modernist contexts, with many parallels drawn to the New York School, the essay segues into Afro-Cuban religion and the synergies between contemporary anthropology and Lam’s practice (acknowledging the lack of material evidence to connect Lam directly with the work of either Lévy-Bruhl or Lévi-Strauss). Cernuschi first fleshes out the differences between them: Lévy-Bruhl’s arguments around a “primitive mentality,” a pre-logical (if not “pre-theistic”) proclivity toward mysticism and totemism in non-Western societies, are set against the structuralist methods of Lévi-Strauss and his elaboration of common demands for order and organization across both Western and non-Western cultures. Lam’s practice emerges betwixt the two, seemingly antithetical poles, able to draw upon the cultural and particularly Cuban values of “magic” while turning Western logos against itself in a canny, decolonizing move. If the conclusion—hybridity—feels familiar, the intellectual exercise (and pleasure) of, for example, a Lévi-Straussian interpretation of the femme-cheval is no less rewarding. Cernuschi’s anthropological critique is encouraging for future sitings of Lam’s work within expanded postcolonial and post- (or anti-)modern perspectives, particularly in regard to such corollary questions as diasporic and exilic identity and black cosmopolitanism. Peripheral comments about modernity—e.g., “Lam adapts European modernism to an anti-European agenda”; “if Western artists could appropriate non-Western forms, then, for Lam, it was perfectly acceptable for non-Western artists to appropriate Western ones” (28)—hint at the work of a third anthropologist (and early student of Lévy-Bruhl), Georges Balandier, who has similarly probed the relationship between (pseudo-)traditionalism and modernity (see Le détour: Pouvoir et modernité, Paris: Fayard, 1985).

A compilation of new and provocatively interdisciplinary research, Wifredo Lam: Imagining New Worlds contributes meaningfully to the existing literature and offers numerous points of departure for further study. With the release of the complete catalogue raisonné of paintings (Lou Laurin-Lam, Wifredo Lam: Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work, Volume I, 1923–1960, Lausanne: Acatos, 1996; Lou Laurin-Lam and Eskil Lam, Wifredo Lam: Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work, Volume II, 1961–1982, Lausanne: Acatos, 2002) and work on paper (Dominique Tonneau-Ryckelynck, Wifredo Lam: Oeuvre gravé et lithographié: Catalogue Raisonné, Gravelines: Éditions du Musée de Gravelines, 1994; Dominique Tonneau-Ryckelynck, Wifredo Lam: Catalogue raisonné: Prints-estampes-grafica, Paris: HC, 2012), scholars are increasingly well positioned to engage Lam’s work. If Lam features less in recent Surrealist publications, as attention has shifted to historically lesser-known artists, his practice should continue to attract fresh interlocutors equipped, as here, with a range of tactical interventions from literature, theology, and anthropology, among other fields. Elizabeth and Roberto Goizueta, with Cernuschi, previously worked on the McMullen Museum’s exhibition Matta: Making the Invisible Visible (2004), and their efforts to cultivate new audiences for Latin American art in Boston are impressive and commendable. Their considered attention to Lam, across this exhibition and its catalogue, has yielded valuable interpretive keys to his work and its significance for multiple intercultural and transnational histories of twentieth-century art.

Abigail McEwen
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History and Archaeology, University of Maryland, College Park