Wifredo Oscar de la Concepción Lam y Castilla was born on 8 December 1902, in Sagua la Grande, Cuba. Surrounded by many people of African descent, Lam was exposed from a young age to various diasporic beliefs – Santería, Palo Monte, Abakuá Secret Society – which would prove his most significant artistic influence. In 1916, he moved with his family to Havana, where he would study at the Escuela de Bellas Artes from 1918. In 1923, Lam moved to Madrid, where he studied at the studio of Fernando Álvarez de Sotomayor y Zaragoza, the Director of the Museo del Prado and teacher of Salvador Dalí. Lam’s early work from this period betrays the influence of Spanish Modernism. In 1929, he married Eva Piriz, but both she and her young son died in 1931 of tuberculosis; this personal tragedy may have contributed to the dark and brooding nature of his later work.
Surrealism and the work of Henri Matisse are notable influences on Lam’s work from the early 1930s. A travelling exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s work in 1936 would prove inspirational, and in 1938 Lam would move to Paris where he would become close with Picasso, who encouraged his interest in African and ‘primitive’ art. Lam would also travel to Mexico that year, staying with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Lam’s multicultural heritage was becoming increasingly fundamental to his work, and he was soon associating with the Surrealists; he had his first solo show at the Galerie Pierre, Paris, in 1939.
During the Second World War, Lam spent much of his time in the Caribbean, initially with Claude Lévi-Strauss, André Masson, and André Breton, before returning to Havana. Newly introduced to the theories of Carl Jung, Lam would fuse Cubist and Surrealist techniques and visual language with Afro-Caribbean spirit and subjects, exemplified in works such as La Jungla, 1943 (Museum of Modern Art, New York). Lam exhibited regularly at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, between 1942 and 1950. In 1946, Lam settled to Paris, though he would travel regularly and establish a studio in Albisola Mare, Italy, in 1960. Lam died on 11 September 1982, in Paris.
Lam’s work can be found in the following selected international collections: the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Menil Collection, Houston; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA); Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon; Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Tate Collection, London.
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