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A wonderful tribute to the Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam
The Cuban surrealist -- who lived in Paris for most of his life and exhibited alongside Picasso, Chagall, Degas, Matisse -- conceived his paintings in a unique pictorial language, incorporating African and Afro-Cuban iconography and symbols in a highly accomplished style.

He transformed women into wildly imaginative creatures and combined human and animal figures with Caribbean vegetation for esthetic and social purposes. Lam painted to mark a period in time, to challenge conventions, to experiment and to exalt the African culture and beliefs that he had rejected early in life.

Given such lushness and transcendence, it's not surprising that Wifredo Lam in North America at Miami Art Museum has attracted spirited attendance -- if not record-breaking, then close to it, museum officials say.

This is a show with something for everyone in South Florida.

''There are so many ways to appreciate the work, whether your interest is Cuban art specifically or 20th century modernism, Afro-Caribbean culture or surrealism or any combination of the above,'' says MAM director Terry Riley. ``Often, attendance drops off towards the second half of an exhibition's run, and that has not happened here.''

The traveling exhibit was organized by the Haggerty Museum at Marquette University. It is the first large-scale museum showing of Lam's work in the United States, and its Miami display has been enriched by MAM curator René Morales.

Morales worked for months with the Lam family in Paris to enhance the exhibit with photos, letters from or about Lam and sketch books that complement the more than 60 paintings and drawings on display.


These accessory items invigorate the story of an artist of Chinese-Cuban-African heritage who left Cuba on a scholarship to study in Spain at 21, a fortuitous move that launched him into an adventurous life of travel and exploration that influenced and nurtured his art.

After he was injured in the Spanish Civil War in 1938, Lam moved to Paris, the right place at the right time, as Picasso and his contemporaries were subverting the refined traditions of European schools and creating revolutionary works of art.

Lam lived among them and worked alongside them, becoming a well-regarded member of the surrealist movement. The MAM show chronicles his status among them, as well as his relationship with such icons as André Breton, the French poet and artist known as the founder of surrealism, and Picasso, who was 21 years Lam's elder.

There's a priceless photo of Lam and Picasso in their swimming trunks in Cannes in 1954. A 1953 photo poses Lam with Juliet and Man Ray in Milan. A 1965 photo catches American sculptor Alexander Calder effusively hugging Lam in Saché, France, in 1965.

The exhibit also shows how Lam experimented with the styles of the artists he studied or met. Composición II, a 1931 tableaux he painted while living in Spain as a young man, features haunting figures similar to those of Goya (Lam studied the old masters at El Prado when he moved to Madrid).

Lam's 1937 Portrait of Sra, García de Castro II, an oil on canvas, can be confused for a Matisse. In the most unusual of all the pieces in the exhibition, a 1958 Untitled oil on canvas, Lam experiments with the style of the abstract expressionists of the New York School. The piece, owned by Miami collectors Paul and Trudy Cejas, is said to have been influenced by Jackson Pollock who was, in turn, influenced by Lam.


But Lam's greatest accomplishment was as the first modern artist to incorporate into his pictorial language the complex myths and traditions of the African culture of the Caribbean and to bring them to art in a highly stylized, universally enjoyable way.

''He draws from a cultural bridge that is rare,'' says Haggerty Museum curator Curtis L. Carter, the exhibition's organizer and researcher.

Curators believe that in Le sombre Malembo, Dieu du carrefour (Dark Malembo, God of the Crossroads) from 1943 Lam portrays an evil force. In The Island Walker from 1944, the vegetation that overwhelms the canvas refers to el monte, the sacred mythical forest where the pantheon of orishas is said to reside.

In various depictions of the femme cheval, the horse-headed woman -- one of Lam's central themes from the 1940s to his death in 1982 -- he alludes to the way the body is ridden by a deity like a horse during the ritual of possession.

Ironically, Lam had rejected induction into the santería religion early in his life and only came to embrace it after his return to Cuba in 1941 when he met anthropologist Lydia Cabrera, an expert on AfroCuban religions.

The University of Miami's Cuban Collection has loaned the MAM exhibit items that illustrate, among other facets, the influence Cabrera, who eventually settled in South Florida, had on Lam.

''People take for granted that Lam came to santería by way of Africa or Cuba, but he came to it as a student,'' Morales says. An early Lam work in the MAM exhibit is a lovely 1943 portrait of a young María Teresa Rojas en un sillón, Cabrera's life-long companion.

Rojas provides an interesting glimpse into what life was like in 1940s Havana in a letter authenticating a Lam drawing. She talks about how Lam and a host of French artists -- ''French immigrants,'' Rojas calls them, including post-Cubist artist Pierre Loeb and surrealist Pierre Mabille -- would gather at the house she and Cabrera shared. The artists would spend the night drawing for fun, each interpreting in his particular style whatever theme she or Cabrera would present.

Basking in the glow of the exhibition's success, Riley says the next step is for MAM to add works by Lam to its collection. Developer Jorge M. Pérez, vice president of MAM's board of trustees, has promised the first gift -- La chevelure (The Tail) from his collection. Riley calls the oil and charcoal on canvas ``a seminal work from the 1940s.''

''No other gifts have been promised to date, although we have had some quiet discussions,'' Riley says. ``I hope that collectors would agree that Miami needs to have a serious representation of Lam's work in a public collection here.''

(Miami Herald)

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