‘All Art Is Tragedy’: Wifredo Lam Paints a Picture, in 1950

Wifredo Lam, Untitled (La Brousse), 1958, mixed media on paper pasted on canvas. COURTESY GALERIE GMURSZYNSKA/©ADAGP, PARIS 2015

Wifredo Lam, Untitled (La Brousse), 1958, mixed media on paper pasted on canvas.


Wifredo Lam, who was born in Cuba in 1902, was one of the very few artists from beyond the borders of the American and European art worlds to become a genuine star in those locales in the middle part of the 20th century. Lam’s work had a decidedly European look—he was influenced by (and friendly with) Picasso and Matisse, and his work was called “Surrealist” by some critics. But it also was decidedly Cuban in its mythology and cultural references, and curators have begun to focus on this aspect of Lam’s work within the past two decades. With a major Lam retrospective currently on view at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, here is Lam’s September 1950 ARTnews profile. A part of ARTnews’ then-ongoing “Artist Paints a Picture” series, the article follows in full below. —Alex Greenberger

“Wifredo Lam Paints a Picture”
By Geri Trotta

“All art is tragedy,” Wilfredo Lam said in his halting French. “For me, painting is a torment.” He was at that moment frantically at work in his little hibiscus-shaded house on the outskirts of Havana. In the back room he uses as his studio, bare but for a profusion of his pictures, he paints every day—or rather, every evening. He usually begins around 11 p.m. after his guests have left, hopping about, lugging his canvas from easel to floor and back again in an acrobatic ballet that sometimes continues till the early morning light filters through the Cuban shutters.

Corner windows look onto the garden with its hot-flowered Bougainvillea bushes, pathetically overgrown now because his blond Alsatian wife has been working in New York on the Medical Center’s cancer research project for over a year, and Lam has patience for painting and little else.

History and house

Born in Cuba in 1902, Lam, tall, lithe and incredibly young for his forty-eight years, finds himself prisoner in his own country. He first left it as a young man to live and study in Madrid (where he lost everything in the Spanish Civil War) and in Paris. There he came under the influence of Matisse and especially Picasso who considered him a promising pupil.

About ten years ago, Lam married Helena, lived with her in Paris until she was interned by the Germans shortly thereafter. During these six weeks of uncertainty and terror, Lam, left alone, filled a notebook with grotesques—eloquent contour drawings that, echoing his early origins, reverted to the use of African animal symbols. This series brought him beyond the influence of the French atelier into a style of painting, that, while bearing strong superficial resemblance to Picasso, has nevertheless become violently personal.

When an American committee for aid to intellectuals arranged for the Lams to leave Europe, they stopped in Cuba for a visit, and eventually planned to go to Mexico. Then, on a New York holiday, they decided to come to the United States to live, particularly as Helena was offered her present job. Wifredo soon found, unhappily, that he falls under the restricted Chinese quota because his father was Chinese. Though the Lams visit each other as frequently as possible, they are resigned to the fact that his immigration papers may never be approved.

Wifredo Lam, La Jungla, 1943, oil on paper pasted on canvas. DIGITAL IMAGE: THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK/SCALA, FLORENCE/©ADAGP, PARIS 2015

Wifredo Lam, La Jungla, 1943, oil on paper pasted on canvas.


What effect this enforced separation has on Lam’s spirit and painting, one can only guess. Certainly it leaves its imprint on his daily routine, and his house. As you enter it, a huge canvas in warm earthy colors of browns and reds is tacked onto the left wall, dominating the front room. Sitting opposite even this single Lam painting, you feel instantly the savage pattern of an ordered jungle. Although he makes a highly conscious mental approach to his subject, the end result, however abstract, carries a unique emotional impact. His jungle is not the jungle of simple elementals. It is the jungle of controlled complication rediscovered by a mind and eye which have examined the modern world and rejected it.

For the rest, the room is furnished by a few anonymous chairs, a sofa, a radio and a coffee-table that holds, in addition to the waiting whisky and glass, a charming mobile by Calder, whom Lam considers the outstanding American sculptor. On the radio, beside the constantly jangling telephone, stands a wood and stone abstraction that actually is a ceremonial ax which New Guinea natives use to decapitate distinguished enemies. There are also several examples of African sculpture, in which Lam has a special interest—his mother was a Cuban Negro.

Here Lam receives and entertains his friends and visitors who call on him when in Cuba. The conversation usually boils simultaneously in Spanish, English and French, because rarely do all the guests have a single language in common. Lam himself speaks Spanish, limited French, a bit of Chinese and absolutely no English. Excepting Chinese, his wife speaks them all fluently, in addition to German, so he is accustomed to relying on her as interpreter. That, plus the fact that he can express himself in his drawing, makes him a stubbornly undocible language student.

The other little rooms, strung off a long central corridor, have no separate identity whatever. Save for the kitchen and, unexpectedly, the modern tiled bath, the whole disordered house, one story high, merges into a kind of vast gallery, crammed full of sketches and pictures stacked against every wall. They play a dual part as decoration and as company, now that his wife as gone, with an iron bed (the sole concession to a bedroom) shoved absent-mindedly somewhere among them. When parted from his pictures, as during his most recent one man show at Pierre Matisse last spring [A.N.; Summer ’50], Lam experiences a heightened loneliness and melancholy. According to his wife, “that was always the trouble—sending the paintings away.”

Way of working

Since the Madrid days, some fifteen years ago, Lam has never used a model. When one painting is finished, he ponders perhaps overnight on the subject for another. Then rising late, as is his habit, he lunches well (despite his ascetic mien, he is a thorough sybarite about food and a sophisticated chef with a predilection for rich sauces, elaborate dishes and whipped-cream desserts). Then, he often lies in bed reading French books on art, philosophy or science till about noon, rising to spend the afternoon in the preliminaries of painting.

He fills two or three small pieces of any paper that falls to hand with numerous meticulous drawings that have a Chinese delicacy of design. He usually works in pen and ink (or, occasionally, with a fine brush that he uses like a pen) to make tiny contour drawings. He invariably considers each sketch in relation to its frame, which he indicates by long, outlining strokes. These sketches evolve from fairly natural forms toward abstractions, with many experiments in position and arrangement in the progression, as one can see in the two sheets of sketches reproduced on page 42.


Wifredo Lam, Nativité, 1947, oil on jute canvas.


When ready to begin the actual painting, Lam selects a canvas from those scattered around the house. He had already previously stretch and prepared them himself with a basic white or yellow casein. In his workroom, he stands the canvas on the easel, pins to it the sheets of sketches and turns on the Phillips radio for company, since he’s usually alone. (Until we arrived, his wife was the only person who’d ever seen him work, and, as a concession to use, he began painting in the late morning, so there’d be a daylight for photographing.)

On second glance, two of the sketch sheets dissatisfy him entirely, so he discards them at once. Holding the charcoal firmly in his long, slender fingers, he outlines his pictures on the canvas, composing it cleanly and with confidence. It is by no means a copy of any of his sketches; they become merely points of departure or notes for the actual painting. Lam has an Oriental facility for design. He composes as naturally as he breathes.

After luncheon, he begins applying the pigment. He snatches the canvas from the easel and lays it on the floor. Lam’s palette is informal. He mixes tube or ordinary house paint—French, American or English, or any combination of these—with turpentine and almost no oil. From the floor, littered with uncovered tin cans (Nescafe, Carnation milk or Libby vegetables) that hold leftover bits of colors, he chooses one, pours some turpentine into the nearly-dry paint to give it the thinness he prefers, selects a large, stiff brush and starts.

For The Horse (which we shall call this still-untitled picture) he decided on pale green and applied the watery paint with swift, sure vertical and horizontal strokes over the background, which he fills in first, covering it with a light, almost transparent coat. Working with darting frenzy, he looks around, settles on a lavender color in another can, liquifies it with turpentine and begins painting the second largest mass or the stylized shadow of the figure. This done in a matter of minutes, he props the picture against the easel, studies it attentively.

He concludes that the pale green lacks definition, discovers a little emerald-green in another can (Libby’s wax beans), thins it with turpentine, puts the canvas on the floor and covers the pale green. He props up the canvas once more, stands back to consider it.

At that second, the doorbell rings, accompanied by wild barking from a small, woolly white dog named Khachaturian—he was born on the day Lam first heard that composer’s concerto—and from Perlita, Khachaturian’s tiner grandmother, as they scoot up the corridor. Lam goes to the door. It’s the man come to deliver more turpentine.

Lam has many empty bottles filled, returns to the workroom, puts the canvas on the floor again, squeezes some tube black into a can which already holds the dregs of some dark, forgotten color, thins it characteristically with turpentine and begins to overpaint the lavender shadow with this black which has memories of too many other colors in it to be true black. The telephone rings. Lam is visibly annoyed. “My God,” he cries. He hates to be interrupted—especially in the middle of a color—which is why he likes to paint at night. He works with one color at a time in a spurt of passion until he has put it everywhere he wants it. Then he sets it aside, goes on to the next color. He may use it later to mix into a new shade, but seldom returns to it in its original form.

Having answered the phone (it was the Cuban Art Commissioner wanting to discuss the monograph the government is preparing on Lam), he finishes applying the near-black over the lavender. The colors are so liquid and contain so little oil, they dry as rapidly as watercolor. Now he tightens his canvas on all four sides, stands it against the easel and eyes it critically.


Wifredo Lam, La Ventana I, oil on canvas.


The emerald-green looks “too artificial and too pretty.” (Six years ago, when Lam first returned to Cuba, he was attracted to the lovely, gay colors he saw in the lush landscape, and used them extensively instead of the greys and browns of the French school during this period, but he currently rejects such delicate tones as “false.”) He looks around the room at his paint cans, sees no color that satirizes him, so he pours a strong grass-green into what’s left of the near-black and makes an olive green. At first, its seems too dark. He adds more green, and lots of turpentine. He dips his brush in it, tests the color with a few strokes. All this time, he’s been using the same flat, bristle brush which he’s wiped on a rag in between changes of colors, or on the daisy-tiled floor that serves, quite casually, as a general palette. He puts the canvas back on the floor, pauses hesitantly, then covers the emerald with the olive-green, working as if pursued and muttering: “There’s a moment in painting when everything must be stalked; either the work will be killed, or it will be born.”

Once the emerald is completely hidden, the canvas returns to the easel for appraisal. Lam feels pleased, finding the black and olive tones “deeper and more profound.” Outside, the rosy light is fading at this point, about midway in the painting, emotionally wrung out and physically exhausted, Lam stops working for the day.

Despite the freedom and ease of Lam’s broad brush strokes, they’re canceled out by the successive layers of paint, applied one on the other, giving the background a smooth, unblotched texture with a deceptive flatness. Each color has a surprising depth and richness. The glad colors are there, under the brooding ones, lending them the utmost subtlety and variety of nuance.

The Horse is already a strong painting, tender and brutal, with symbols made uncommunicatively personal. The face of the figure becomes a generalized mask or abstraction, spiked and aggressive in contrast to the vulnerable, soft breast and buttocks, flattened into a two-dimensional motif. The tusk on the mane connotes to the artist the budding banana; the tiny eyes on the horn jutting from the top of the vestigial suggestion of the urban household god, Eleggua, that, years back no pious family would be without. Eleggua was represented, simply, by a small stone with painted eyes and mouth that superstition demanded be handed down from one generation to the next to ward off evil spirits. Ultimately, however, inescapably and perhaps most important to the artist and beholder, here is a bold composition of beautifully balanced shapes, the stimulus of uncalculated colors.

The next afternoon, when we returned to watch Lam continue, The Horse was standing on the easel as we’d left it with but a single revision. The hand had been redone with the straight fingers now clenched into a fist, which he explained was “more plastic.”

Selecting an inch-wide flat bristle brush, he begins to paint the sections under the mane—first lavender, then black, using them also to slice off the round belly. Now he brushes turpentine over the figure proper, blends the least bit of grey paint into it, and watery turkey-red around the breast over which he applies more grey, extending it down the length of the arm. Again he mixes his color on the floor, arrives at the pale stem-green for the mane of the horse. He paints out part of the black under the breast with olive-green, puts the canvas back on the floor, re-does the black entirely with a blacker black to make it smooth, more positive opaque.

Wifredo Lam, Lumière de la forêt, 1942, gouache on paper on canvas. GEORGE MEGUERDITCHIAN/©ADAGP, PARIS 2015/CENTRE POMPIDOU, MUSÉE D'ART MODERNE, MNAM-CCI, DIST. RMN-GP. GOVERNMENT PURCHASE, 1974

Wifredo Lam, Lumière de la forêt, 1942, gouache on paper on canvas.


“How does it look?” he asks. “I think because, as I work, I do everything intuitively.” Lam sets the canvas back on the easel, looks and deliberates. Without warning, he rushes into the next room and returns with a frame which which he holds around the pictures to study the relation of one to the other.

After restating the intricacies of the mane with charcoal, he repaints its interwoven strands in pale emerald and red, blending them into the pale green. The watery pigment over the charcoal softens the color and diffuses the line. The canvas counts as white (which is not in his palette) and, generally, the darker colors, since they’re arrived at by several layers of paint, are more complex than the lighter ones, which are apt to be one extremely economical layer of paint, scarcely concealing the canvas. With a barely-moist brush, Lam introduces saffron-yellow into the mane, adds a touch of green to it for tonal effect.

Back on the floor goes the canvas. Suddenly, he pours the contents of several cans together, concocts a dark olive-green and re-does the whole background, giving it a fourth complete coat. He paints nervously and rapidly, swept up by activity, assailed all the while by fear and doubt. The painting seems to evolve by itself, and almost against his well or knowing. “My God,” he says, seeing the dark olive-green, “but it’s too black.” He goes over the figure, with darker gray. Disappointed and let down, he ends the day’s work, nodding his head. “It’s sad. Art is an agony.”

Two days later, he goes back to the canvas, carries the grey onto the hand, re-enforces the rhythmic pattern of the mane and tail with charcoal. Several days after that, he darkens the torso, head and hand with more grey, sprays the canvas with charcoal fixative and announces that the picture is finished.

The Horse is one of about a dozen pictures that may be considered a series of explorations of the same figure, or, more accurately, the same design element. This design element, used in a different position and attitude for each study, bears the equine mask, mane and tail and the female torso. Intermittently, over a period of several months, this theme will recur until Lam feels he has exhausted its possibilities. Simultaneously, he is concerned with a more Oriental arrangement of light and dark shapes, which he refers to jokingly as “diabolical birds.”

Quite a lot of words have already been written about Lam. Often they confuse more than they clarify. Spectators insist on attributing to his pictures subjective content, which they then describe variously as phallic, religious or even anthropological. Suburban matrons find a sexual threat in every curve and thrust (they have the most trouble with vegetal signals, such as the budding banana); anthropologists look searchingly for voodoo symbols (Lam has been to the Nigo rites exactly four times in his life—taken there by a sight-seeing Frenchman); old school die-hard interpret intensity as religious fervor (Lam, on the contrary, eschews religious feeling, finds it a flaw in El Greco, whom he otherwise ardently admires).

The fact is that, more positively than many of his fellow-abstractionists, Lam evokes unequivocal emotions, but everything else be as it may, Lam utilizes his symbols as units in the interest in design.

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