A Review of The EY Exhibition: Wilfredo Lam at Tate Modern, London


With President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba earlier this year, the world focuses with renewed interest on the influence of Cuban social history on Modern and Contemporary art. As such there could not be a better time for Tate Modern’s monographic retrospective of work by Cuban-born Modernist turned Surrealist artist Wifredo Lam. The EY Exhibition, organized in conjunction with Centre Pompidou and the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, and curated by Dr Matthew Gale, investigates what makes Lam so intriguing more than 30 years after his death.

Born in 1902 in Sagua la Grande, Cuba to a Cantonese Chinese father and an African-Spanish mother, Wifredo Lam would later become one of Cuba’s most successful multi-cultural twentieth-century artists. While his early works - influenced by Spanish Masters including Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Goya, studied during his time at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid in the early 1930's - reflect his desire to become a portraitist his later works reflect his engagement with global political and social issues that plagued the twentieth-century esprit. This metamorphic painterly trajectory is beautifully presented in the suite of gallery rooms dedicated to the artist’s oeuvre, and further explored through a large body of archival photographic material from a preeminent private collection in Paris.




The first gallery opens with the 'Early Years' of Wilfredo Lam’s life. The now iconic Self-Portrait II and Self-Portrait III stand in pride of place and announce Lam’s preoccupation with Identity and indeed the Self as a source of creative inspiration. The last gallery, entitled ‘Later Years’, explores Lam’s use of printmaking, most importantly, the medium’s ‘democratic and politically subversive potential to be circulated to a wide audience’. In between the beginning and the end, true to form, we are introduced to Lam’s intellectual contemporaries and most importantly their influence on both his professional and personal life in the 1940's and 50's.

Through engagement with artists, including Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso and celebrated literati such as André Bréton and Aimé Césaire in the years during and following the Second World War, Lam’s work found a psychological depth that displaced it from the mundane to the extraordinary. Grandiose philosophies about the self are explored in the context of post-colonial theories proposed by the Negritude writers including Césaire, triggering a symbolic and striking overturn of cultural hierarchies in his work.




While the retrospective is certainly lengthy with more than 200 exhibits, it is worth taking the time to digest both the intellectual and social movements that inspired Lam as an individual and his oeuvre itself. A presentation of his surrealist compositions of the 1930's and 1940's, together with a plethora of drawings created with André Breton during their 8 months in a refuge community in Marseille in 1940, and his more abstract works such as The Brush, 1958, enables a thorough appreciation of Lam’s stylistic and conceptual development over the years.

With this in mind, look at Lam’s work in relation to no other. While his often macabre colour palette and non-sensical compositions may not be your cup of tea, his life-long quest to unearth the significance of individuality, cultural identity and impact of society on the Self through visual media is so overwhelming that you can’t help but stare in awe. It seems appropriate therefore to conclude with words of the artist himself; ‘A true picture has the power to set the imagination to work’, and that is exactly what the Lam retrospective at the Tate Modern achieves. Go and see the exhibition for yourself before it closes on 8th January 2017.


Wilfredo Lam is at Tate Modern from 14th September - 8th January 2017

Written by Lucy Scovell, a contributor to Arteviste.