Usually hanging up at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is The Jungle, a famous piece by artist Wifredo Lam. This masterpiece usually hangs alongside Picasso’s Les Demoiselle d’Avignon. The placement of these two pieces seems fitting, as Picasso had a major influence on Lam’s work, and helped shape him into a modern day avant-garde painter.
Lam, an Afro-Cuban painter, opens up his worldview through surrealist pieces. The Jungle, which is a gouache on paper mounted on canvas, was produced in 1943. Gouache is meant to be used in an opaque method, and is similar to water colors, although the paint itself is not transparent (Wikihow). Due to his choice of paint and colors (as well as the sheer immensity of the painting itself), Lam’s art piece makes its presence known in the MoMA — which is made clear after the woman at the information desk spent ten minutes explaining to me how it is her favorite art piece. The clarity of the paint on the 8-foot square canvas jumps out at you as soon as you step in front of it. The complexity of the artwork itself, meanwhile, warrants a double take and a perplexed tilt of the head.
At first glance, the viewer’s eyes are drawn to the molding of different types of limbs close to the bottom of the piece. They seem to be struggling to support the top half of the painting, which features a mess of disc shaped faces and hands holding scissors, as well as some sort of plant. At first perplexed, the viewer might wonder what exactly was going on in this piece.
With no background on Lam, finding out the true meaning of this painting would prove to be difficult. After acquiring knowledge about Lam’s surrealist and avant-garde past, however, it becomes much easier to understand its meaning and his motivation in creating it.
Before looking at Lam’s background, it is important to understand exactly what a surrealist painter is, and what it means to be a member of the avant-garde–especially since Lam’s identification with these movements is a major contributor to his work. Surrealism is defined as “a 20th century avant-garde movement in art and literature that sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind” (Oxford Dictionary). These paintings hold great meaning, and are meant to expose the painter’s feelings about certain topics. The avant-garde is a group of people that create experimental or innovative pieces (Oxford Dictionary). It “pushes the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm.. and promotes social reforms” (Wikipedia). Due to his background, Lam’s work encompasses aspects of both artistic trends.
He was born on December 8, 1902, in Sagua la Grande, Cuba. His father was a Chinese immigrant, and his mother was of African and Spanish descent, leading him to develop an Afro-Cuban style (Wifredolam.net). Throughout Lam’s life, he traveled from place to place before eventually settling in Paris. However, his journey as a painter truly began when he left Havana, Cuba for Madrid, Spain. While there, Lam met Fernando Munoz, a bohemian who introduced him to the director of the Prado Museum. This introduction gave Lam the opportunity to study many artists, and it opened up his eyes to different types of art — especially surrealistic paintings.
During this period, there was great unrest between the Cuban and Spanish governments; Lam left Cuba for Spain a mere 20 years after Spain had lost it as a colony (Wifredolam.net). As a result, both countries were in the midst of governmental changes. In Cuba, Gerado Machado rose to power. Spain, meanwhile, was on the verge of civil war.
Machado’s rise to power had an important influence on Lam’s work. He received word that the dictatorship used techniques such as “assassination, torture, prison, and labor camps” to solidify the regime, sparking his interest in painting as a means of expressing discontent with and somehow combatting events back home (Wifredolam.net). The Spanish Civil War reinforced this attitude and, as Lam states, “changed my writing and my painting” (Wifredolam.net). A budding surrealist, Lam grew to embrace avant-garde painting as an engine for social reform because of current events.
Lam later traveled to Paris, where he became acquainted with his idol: renowned painter Pablo Picasso. To Lam, Picasso represented artistic freedom, something that he was striving to achieve (Wifredolam.net). Picasso acted as a mentor toward Lam, bringing him along to cafes where other surrealist/avant-garde painters gathered. While with Picasso, Lam was exposed to a community of people who supported him as a painter, and also used artwork to express their unconscious feelings while promoting social reform.
In it important to note that life as an avant-garde painter in Paris was not easy–especially for Lam. He often clashed with authorities because of where he came from and what he was painting; being a Cuban outsider, especially one who was painting in a manner outside the norm, left him particularly vulnerable to criticism. However, Picasso’s influence and support kept the new surrealist artists going, and continued to push Lam down this path.
The creation of The Jungle in 1943 resulted from these years of social discontent and unfair government treatment, as well as Lam’s hostility towards the history of Cuba. Seen in this context, the once confusing imagery begins to make sense. The stalks of plants are most likely sugarcane, a crop that was once so prominent that slaves were needed to keep it under control. The hands, legs, arms belong to people who were forced to keep up with the growth of the plant. This depiction of slavery, while focusing on a specific historical event, soon comes to represent all of the injustice in Cuba’s history—especially Machado’s contemporary regime.
The entirety of Lam’s past had come to influence the painting of The Jungle; it simultaneously advocates for social justice and is a hallmark of the Afro-Cuban style. Due to this and many other pieces of great artwork, the artist can justly be referred to as Wifredo Lam: The Modern Day Avant-Garde.