This review by Chris Bergeron appeared in Medways’ Country Gazette.
Born in Cuba of several races and cultures, Wifredo Lam pursued his passion for painting around the world absorbing influences from many of the 20th century’s great artists to forge his own distinctive style.
A groundbreaking retrospective at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College showcases more than 80 of Lam’s paintings, drawings, etchings, lithographs and sculptures to reveal an innovative visionary whose achievement, like his life, transcended national boundaries to eventually encompass the globe.
Organized by Elizabeth T. Goizueta, “Wifredo Lam: Imagining New Worlds’’ presents varied and striking works that let viewers accompany an artist who deserves to be better known on an improbable odyssey from humble origins to international prominence.
What a journey! Like the “human chameleon’’ Zelig in Woody Allen’s 1983 movie about a man who appeared at many of the 20th century’s seminal events, Lam (1902-1982) participated in many of the creative movements that revolutionized art. Unlike the nondescript Zelig in the movie, Lam never abandoned his individuality to blend it, but incorporated his many influences into his own multicultural cutting edge.
Lam followed his muse from rural Cuba to Havana and on to Spain where he met artists shaping new modes of expression. After fighting in the Spanish Civil War, he moved to Paris where Pablo Picasso befriended him and introduced him to eminent artists including Henri Matisse, Joan Miro and George Braque. Following the outbreak of World War II, he returned to Cuba, eventually spending time in New York, Latin America and Europe.
Viewing Lam’s work is like reviewing the history of 20th century art with stops in surrealism, Cubism, modernism, magical realism and postmodernism that contributed to a hybrid style that was greater than the sum of its parts.
A lecturer in Romance languages and literature at BC who curated an earlier exhibit at the McMullen, Goizueta said she designed the exhibit to give “a global perspective’’ on Lam’s achievement.
“Lam absorbed influences from the centers of creativity where he lived and the artists he met but he put his own distinct mark on it. You can see Picasso in his work but not just Picasso. Lam’s work showed surrealist influences but it wasn’t just surrealist,’’ she said. “There was something recognizable from those influences but his own work was finally unique.”
Goizueta said the McMullen was “the first museum to unite Lam’s paintings with his drawings, etchings, portfolios and books to make new connections among them.’’
Organized into seven sections that combine chronology with stylistic growth, the exhibit presents dazzling art that shows Lam appropriating influences that he transforms into something that’s distinctly his own.
In his 1923 cityscape, “Plaza de Segovia, Madrid,’’ painted shortly after arriving in Spain, Lam displays his earlier academic training while imbuing an everyday scene with somber overtones. Seven years later, the boldly sensual woman in “Composicion I,’’ arching her back to the moonlit night, reveals the influence of Spanish surrealism on Lam who was transcending realistic figuration to explore complex psychological realms.
Over the following years, Lam painted a series of women whose faces and figures juxtaposed geometrical forms to evoke an enigmatic eroticism that continued through his career.
Museum Director Nancy Netzer said an interdisciplinary team of scholars who contributed to the exhibition’s approach and catalogue have “forged a new understanding of Lam’s relationship to artistic, literary, religious and political movements of the last century.’’
Following the exhibit chronologically, visitors will likely see the appropriateness of its title – “Imagining New Worlds.’’
Rather than settling into one familiar style, Lam kept evolving, transforming influences he had passed through into imagery that reflected the 20th century movements he’d learned while reaching back to his Caribbean roots.
In works like his 1948 oil painting, “Femme Cheval’’ (“Horse Woman”) or his 1969 etching, “Passage,” Lam went way beyond his earlier teachers to forge his own iconography of powerful images of horse-headed women, saucer-headed gods and tropical flora.
Rather than abandoning his origins as he was exposed to global influences, Goizueta said Lam celebrated his Afro-Caribbean heritage for its beauty, deep roots and imaginative power.
“Lam’s achievement is typical of the Latin American experience that resides in the ‘both / and’ rather than the ‘either / or’ his Western counterparts,’’ she said. “Lam was exposed to many movements and then created his own imagery. In the end that elevated him to be one of the great Modernists.’’
Goizueta suggested visitors unfamiliar with Lam’s art “come in and view it with an open mind without preconceived notions.’’
“Approach it like you approach poetry, open to your own interpretations. Feel confident in making your own interpretations,’’ she said. “With Lam, it’s always a discovery.’’
“Wifredo Lam: Imagining New Worlds’’
WHEN: Through Dec. 14
WHERE: McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College
INFO: 617-552-8100; http://www.bc.edu/artmuseum
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