The National Galleries of the Grand Palais have sponsored a very successful exhibition, “Aimé Césaire, Lam, Picasso ‘Nous nous sommes trouvés.’” The exhibition, organized as part of the 2011 Année des Outre-mer [2011 Year of Overseas (Departments and Territories)], takes place under the patronage of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. It was curated by writer Daniel Maximin, curator of 2011 Année des Outre-mer in collaboration with Sylvie Poujade, and Eskil Lam (in charge of the Wifredo Lam archives). This unique exhibition has been on view since March 16 and will close on June 6, 2011. It will subsequently be shown in Martinique and Guadeloupe.
The exhibition celebrates the 70th anniversary of the seminal meeting between Martinican poet Aimé Césaire (1913-2008) and Cuban painter Wifredo Lam (1902-1982), who were “instantly taken in by each other” as the poet said and “two brother artists” in the words of the painter. It explores the interconnections and exchanges between Césaire and Lam; Césaire and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), who first met in 1948 at the World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace in Wroclaw, Poland; and Picasso and Lam, who was welcomed in Paris by Picasso and other artists of the time.
Césaire / Lam: During World War II, Lam found refuge in Marseilles along with many other intellectuals and artists fleeing the Nazis, including André Breton, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anna Seghers and Victor Serge. On March 25, 1941, the Emergency Rescue Committee and its representative Varian Fry succeeded in securing their passage to America. Upon the ship’s arrival in Martinique, the French authorities loyal to the Vichy government confined the passengers to house arrest on the island Les Trois-Ilets. Some of them managed to go to Fort-de-France, André Breton among them. Here, Breton discovered the journal Tropiques and met its founders Suzanne and Aimé Césaire. He experienced Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, published in 1939, as a true shock and proclaimed it was “the greatest lyrical monument of his time.” Lam, who shared Breton’s enthusiasm, would develop a creative, lifelong friendship with Césaire. He continued his journey until he reached his native Cuba, which he had left in 1923. Inspired by his meeting with Césaire and his experience of Absalon forest in Martinique, Lam painted his masterpiece “The Jungle” in 1943, now a part of MOMA’s permanent collection in New York.
In 1981, Lam, too weak to paint, asked Césaire to resume work on “Annonciation,” a series of etchings that he had started in 1969. Responding to the painter’s request, Césaire wrote a poem for each one. The etchings were finally published in 1982, in Italy. Shortly after, Césaire’s poems inspired by Lam’s work were published by Le Seuil in Moi, Laminaire. This exhibition brings together these powerful engravings with the ten poems. It also presents some of the major works Lam created after his return to Cuba, masterpieces housed in museums and private collections around the world, and unpublished work by Césaire (1941-45), contemporaneous with “The Jungle” and his first meeting with Lam.
Césaire / Picasso: Aimé Césaire and Pablo Picasso met for the first time at the Peace Congress in Wroclaw in 1948. In 1950, a collection of ten poems by Césaire, illustrated by thirty-two etchings by Picasso, was published as Corps perdu. The frontispiece is of a black man wearing a laurel wreath in profile, entitled “Crowned Poet,” a symbolic reference to Césaire himself. It was used for the poster for the first congress of black writers and artists that Présence africaine organized at the Sorbonne in 1956.
Picasso / Lam: “I have never been wrong about you. You’re a painter. That is why the first time we met I said you reminded me of someone: me” (Picasso to Lam). When Lam left Spain in 1938, he was welcomed in Paris by Pablo Picasso who introduced him to Mirò, Breton, Éluard, Zervos, Kahnweiler, Pierre Loeb, and others. It was a fruitful encounter and the two shared a language in common, prompting Picasso to say: “Lam, I think that you have my blood in you, you must be one of my relations, a primo, a cousin.”
For a fascinating video on the artists’ relationship, see http://www.exponaute.com/expositions/705-aime-cesaire-lam-picasso/