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By Michael E. Miller
More than a quarter-century after his death, Cuba's greatest artist is finally getting his due in Miami.
"Wifredo Lam in North America," on view at the Miami Art Museum (MAM), marks the first large-scale solo exhibition of the Chinese-Afro-Cuban master's work in South Florida.
The beautifully encyclopedic show, organized by the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University, features more than 60 paintings and drawings spanning the breadth of Lam's prolific career. The Miami version of the traveling exhibition has been beefed up with nearly 30 additional works loaned by local collectors, many of them Cuban Americans.
The well-curated retrospective of the modernist painter includes terrific examples of Lam's early, midcareer, and mature periods in works culled from North American collections. It reflects the artist's wide-ranging influences, from Cubism to Surrealism to the Afro-Cuban myths of his childhood that infused his mature work with a singular vibrancy and brought the artist universal acclaim.
In addition to MAM's Lamstravaganza, several local galleries, including Cernuda Arte (3155 Ponce de Leon Blvd.) and Tresart (550 Biltmore Way, Ste. 111) in Coral Gables, and Gary Nader Fine Art (62 NE 27th St., Miami) in Wynwood, have mounted piggyback shows banking on the master's prestige — and skyrocketing prices.
Of the three, the last is the most impressive, featuring more than 60 of Lam's important works, many of which Gary Nader says he purchased on a worldwide shopping spree over the past three years. The garrulous dealer quickly points out he was peddling Lam's work locally long before the competition.
"It's a fucking shame what these Gables galleries are doing," he says. "They are exhibiting a few paintings and ceramic plates and calling them tributes to Lam. It's bullshit."
Nader, who has been selling Lam's work for decades, says he is thrilled Lam is finally getting local attention. In 1992, thieves broke into the dealer's Gables gallery, he says, and made off with 14 major Lam works. "It was the biggest art heist in Miami at the time," Nader recalls. "The paintings were cut from the frames, and all but two were recovered in a Hialeah dumpster." He goes on to say no one was ever arrested. "Who knows, it may have been some of those same people who hated Lam."
He adds he's disturbed by the Miami Herald's coverage of the political controversies that dogged Lam in the Cuban exile community.
Herald articles by Fabiola Santiago and Ana Menendez both mentioned the problems of mounting a local Lam museum show because of the artist's support of the Cuban revolution. Menendez went on to call the MAM exhibit a sign of Miami's cultural maturity. Santiago spelled out how Lam's family failed to bring an exhibit of his work to our city a decade ago because of Lam's ties to Castro's Cuba.
"It was those same people who picketed my gallery when I gave Manuel Mendive his first show in my Gables gallery in 1994," Nader sniffs. "That crazy cartoonist [José] Varela, who stormed El Nuevo Herald with a toy gun, painted a cartoon comparing those who sold Cuban art in Miami with jineteras, Cuban prostitutes."
Lam's support of Castro was just one chapter of an epic life, which is explored in a room at MAM that offers an intriguing look at scores of family pictures, as well as the artist's sketchbooks, letters, and notebooks.
Lam (1902-1982) was born in Sagua La Grande, Cuba, to a Chinese father and a mother of African and Spanish ancestry. As a youngster, Lam was exposed to the rites of Afro-Cuban religion through his godmother, Matonica Wilson, a Santería priestess.
He later attended Escuela de Bellas Artes in Havana, earning a scholarship in 1923 to study in Madrid, where his teacher was Fernando Álvarez de Sotomayor, curator of Museo del Prado and an instructor of Salvador Dali's.
Early examples of Lam's work in Spain include Casas Colgadas, III, a 1927 painting of cliff houses in a realist style rendered in ochre, salmon pink, and muddy gray hues.
During the Spanish Civil War, Lam sided with the Republicans and was wounded in Madrid in 1937. A Matisse-influenced Portrait of Sra. Garcia de Castro, II, painted that year, is on display at MAM.
Lam moved in 1938 to Paris, where he gained the support of Picasso, who introduced him to other leading artists of the time. Lam and Picasso exhibited together at the Perls Galleries in New York the following year.
Femme aux Cheveux Longs, I (Woman with Long Hair, I), a gouache-on-paper work from 1938, hints at Picasso's influence through its depiction of a woman with a stylized African-masklike face and angular arms.
When the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, Lam left for Marseilles and later joined other intellectuals on a steamer to Martinique, only to be imprisoned for six weeks. At the time, the French colony was loyal to the Vichy government.
His brief ordeal on the Caribbean island proved to be a turning point when Lam met poet Aimé Césaire, who helped found the international Négritude movement, which protested colonial domination of indigenous cultures. Lam's career was revolutionized by Césaire's message that the languages, religions, music, and dance brought to the Americas by African slaves were just as valid as European traditions.
Returning to Cuba after nearly 20 years in exile, Lam exploded. He fused elements of Afro-Cuban symbolism with the aesthetics of the European avant-garde, soon painting his masterpiece The Jungle, one of the most important works in the collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art.
Study for The Jungle (1943), a striking oil-on-paper piece mounted on canvas, is on view at MAM. It depicts the hybridized, spiritually charged part-human/part-animal figures, inhabiting lush tropical thickets that best reflect Lam's mature style.
The work depicts a mysterious Afro-Cuban deity with a gibbous moon-shaped head and a monstrously proportioned foot. A snake slithers against a sugar-cane stalk off to the side, while a foxlike bird appears suspended in midair. The mysterious forms are rendered in subdued tangerine, lime, chalk white, and red hues.
One of the works from this period that should freeze spectators in their tracks is the ominous Le Sombre Malembo, Dieu du Carrefour (Dark Malembo, God of the Crossroads), also from 1943.
The painting detonates with the dazzling tropical palette of Lam's homeland, with rich greens, blues, yellows, pinks, and purples filling the canvas. Two powerful figures dominate the composition. The one on the left sports a horse's tail; the one on the right a horse's hooves. Both have round, horned heads, a nod to Eleggua, the Afro-Cuban deity and trickster figure who guards the crossroads.
In Santería, priests who channel the spirits of powerful deities are called caballo, or horse, describing they are being "ridden" by an orisha during possession.
Several of Lam's paintings on exhibit feature female subjects with horse heads, tails, and hooves, which directly reference spiritual transformation.
Perhaps the most arresting work here is La Rumeur de la Terre (Rumblings of the Earth), a sprawling horizontal painting from 1950 rendered in dark monochrome tones and loaded with palpable erotic tension. Hallucinatory, almost abstract figures populate the scene of what appears to be a black magic ritual.
Although there are plenty of compelling works from Lam's later production — including a silly untitled Jackson Pollock-inspired dripfest — his stunning works from the Forties and Fifties steal the thunder.
It's difficult to imagine anyone protesting such compelling art. But while there have been no public denouncements of the MAM show, the Herald's blogosphere has been swamped with troglodytes slamming Lam's Castro connections.
Local dealer David Castillo expresses surprise at the reactions, noting that art is a fundamental expression of freedom separate from the opinions of those who create it.
"This is a wonderful show for Miami because of the Cuban population here. It is a rare and special treat focusing on Cuba's most important artist, encompassing his entire career, and one we should all be proud of," Castillo says.
For anyone here who doubts it, a visit to MAM sweeps away the cobwebs. Cubans on either side of the pond might now call Lam their island's greatest painter, but the world claimed him long before Fidel appeared on U.S. radar. Lam's art belongs to the ages, and the unassailable proof has finally arrived on our doorstep.