“The Drawings of Wifredo Lam: 1940-1955,” now on display at the Zoellner Arts Center at Lehigh University, is such a big deal that artnet news, part of a prestigious Berlin art market website, recently named it one of the 30 most important museum exhibitions to see worldwide this season.
It ranks with exhibits such as a Degas exhibit at the National Gallery in London, a 100 years of Rodin show at the Cleveland Museum of Art and a Mark Rothko exhibit at the Museum of Fine Art Boston.
Yet, Lam, a native of Cuba, is not well known and this exhibit is very small — just 21 drawings.
Who is Wifredo Lam and why the buzz?
“He is numero uno …” says Ricardo Viera, director and chief curator of Lehigh University Art Galleries and a renowned expert on Latin American art. “Aside from Diego Rivera, there is no one more revered.”
Lam, a classic modernist in line, color and form, may be a “national treasure in Cuba,” Viera says, but in the United States he gets lost in the shuffle of art history.
If Modernism, the great early- to mid-20th century art movement, were a film it would have a cast of thousands, and at the top would be stars such as Picasso or Miro bolstered by a bunch of great supporting actors in artists such as Wifredo Lam.
Viera, a native of Cuba, has been working for decades to bring this exhibit to the United States. He considers it his swan song — he plans to retire next year after four decades of heading the Lehigh University gallery department.
The works are from the private collection of Lam’s grandnephew Juan Castillo Vazquez, who lives in Cuba, and are being seen for the first time in the United States.
With relations between the United States and Cuba being strained for more than 50 years, it took the restoration of diplomatic relations in 2015 under the Obama administration to bring Lam’s work to the United States.
At Lehigh, Viera has featured them along with the work of Maria Canas, whose large black-and-white photographic contact prints pair perfectly with the drawings of Lam, creating a stunning display of juxtaposition, comparison and homage.
Viera first saw Lam’s works and met Vazquez when he traveled to Cuba in 1997 with the based Brandywine Workshop of Philadelphia as part of its Cuban Project. The Brandywine Project is a nonprofit cultural institution that produces and shares art to connect, inspire and build bridges. Viera has been traveling to Cuba on cultural exchanges for a long time.
Viera became fast friends with Vazquez, who said he could exhibit the works at Lehigh whenever he could get through the red tape. Viera suspects that getting Lam’s works into the United States was even more difficult because Lam was a staunch communist.
The life of Wifredo Lam (1902-1982) is the stuff of movies.
The descendant of Cuban, Chinese and West African heritage, Lam was heavily influenced by the mix of Catholic, Asian and African cultures he was exposed to as a child. He saw the hallucinatory rituals and rites that characterize Cuban Santeria, images that would later appear in his art.
Lam went to Madrid, Spain, to study art under Fernando Zaragoza, curator of the Museo del Prado and teacher of Salvador Dali. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, Lam sided with the Republicans, the anti-fascists, and made posters and propaganda.
After he was wounded inthe siege of Madrid, Lam was sent to Barcelona to recuperate and was given a letter of introduction to Picasso. He moved to Paris in 1938 and ended up in the inner circles of Modernism and Surrealism with Picasso, Andre Breton and Joan Miro.
When World War II broke out in the early 1940s, Lam and other members of the intellectual elite fled Europe for the Americas and the Caribbean. Lam returned to Cuba after a 21-year absence and immersed himself in the culture, fusing the Cubist and Surrealist approaches he learned in Europe with native Afro-Cuban motifs, resulting in hybrid figures with mask-like faces and exaggerated angular bodies. His works combined elements of humans, animals and plants.
Ultimately, what is impressive about Lam’s work is how easily he seems to synthesize Cubist principles and create his own unique dynamic figures. This was a seminal time in Lam’s body of paintings where line and form overlap and play.
Lam’s most famous work “The Jungle,” from 1943, is considered his masterpiece. Inspired by Santeria, it depicts exaggerated figures emerging from a dense jungle in African-inspired masks, illustrating Lam’s often biting social conscience.
The works on view are more of experiments in Modernist Abstraction, with whimsical moments overlaid on broad strokes in “Mujer-Cadalla Reclinada,” from 1953, and airy, wispy color in “Compasicion con Mascara,” from 1940. Often bold, more times subtle and complex, these drawings show Lam’s complete mastery of Modernist style and technique, which was all too often overshadowed by more well-known European modernists.
Lehigh’s securing this exhibit is the envy of other art institutions in the United States The works are important because they come straight out of Lam’s most artistic and Modernist period.
“He was under-recognized,” says Viera, tracing the resurgence in interest in Lam to a 2015 retrospective that originated at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and traveled to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid and the Tate Modern in London.
The Lam exhibit has a stunning supporting role with the work of Maria Martinez‐Canas.
Canas’ large black-and-white contact prints fuse the rhythms of Lam’s lines and forms with her own forms of collage and assemblage. Canas also a story fit for film. Her family left Cuba in the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s political revolution; she was raised in Puerto Rico and educated in Chicago and Philadelphia.
Where she differs from Lam is that although she was raised in a Cuban culture, she lacks personal memories to associate with her Cuban identity, resulting in a sense of displacement, a common theme throughout a large portion of her work.
For her images, she uses layering techniques, fragmented forms and images, mixed-media assemblages, photograms and photomontages to create a diverse body of work that doesn’t fit into a neat definition of photography.
‘The Drawings of Wifredo Lam: 1940-1955’
What: 21 works on paper by the Cubist/Surrealist artist from a prestigious private collection, on display outside Cuba for the first time.
When: Through Dec. 10
Where: Lehigh University, Zoellner Arts Center Gallery, 420 E. Packer Ave., Bethlehem
Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Thurs.; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.; 1-5 p.m. Sun.
How much: Free
Related exhibit: Boundary-breaking photography by Maria Martinez‐Canas reflecting feelings of displacement from her Cuban homeland, through Dec. 10, Zoellner Art Gallery. Conversation with Martinez-Canas, 6 p.m. Oct. 20.
Related events: Lecture and readings of Wifredo Lam poetry by Lam’s grandnephew Juan Castillo Vazquez, 4:15 p.m. Sept. 21; Lecture by Lam scholar Lowery Stokes Sims, 6 p.m. Nov. 9, gallery.
Info: luag.org, 610-758-3615