A dream come true. That’s what this exhibition is for Lehigh University Art Galleries Director/Chief Curator/Professor of Art Ricardo Viera. According to Viera, “This exhibition is the result of a decades-long collaboration with Wifredo Lam’s grandnephew Juan Castillo Vázquez. To bring these works, to the US is truly a dream come true for me. Since August 1974, I have dedicated myself to bringing not just a collection of ideas to LUAG Teaching Museum, but to harnessing a collection of ideas that transcend the ordinary for the Lehigh community and general public to enjoy. This exhibition is a culmination of these efforts. It is extremely gratifying to retire from Lehigh with this swansong of an exhibition.” He originally saw these drawings on his first trip back to his home country in thirty-five years as a consultant, part of a team working on the “Cuba Project,” an initiative of the Brandywine Workshop, Philadelphia. For Viera, there is nothing more telling, direct, and inspiring than the eloquence of a drawing and he immediately dreamed of bringing a selection of these works to the United States. Brandywine and Viera visited in 1997, 1998, and again in 2000 for the Havana Biennial. They planned to present an exhibition at the Brandywine Workshop, and later, on several occasions at LUAG, but permission was denied. Even after these initial rejections Viera never gave up hope. It was during that first trip to Cuba in 1997 that Viera and members from the Brandywine Workshop were introduced to Juan Castillo Vázquez, Lam’s descendant. A friendship formed between the pair, and Castillo invited Viera and the others back to his home to see a selection of Wifredo Lam drawings from the private family collection. This collection had been left to Castillo’s father and aunts after Wifredo’s death and came into his possession with their passing. Now the responsibility of caring for the family collection was on Castillo’s shoulders. With this responsibility came the desire to exhibit these unique treasures. Viera and Castillo would regularly correspond throughout the years with the intention of one day bringing a selection of these treasures to the United States. It would take 17 years.
On July 20, 2015 the United States and Cuba reopened their embassies and restored diplomatic relations, which had been severed during the Cold War in 1961. Commercial flights between the two countries have now resumed after a half-century. Although travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited, there are general licenses for categories of travel such as family visits, journalism, educational activities, and athletic competitions. The opportunity seemed ripe for Viera and Castillo to try again. Now, two years after the forging of a new diplomatic relationship, an exhibition is possible. A selection of 21 drawings by Wifredo Lam, never before seen in the United States, has traveled to Lehigh University Art Galleries (LUAG) Teaching Museum for the exhibition The Drawings of Wifredo Lam: 1940 – 1955, opened on August 30, 2017. After 20 years of patience and perseverance, Viera has finally see a selection of drawings that he first viewed in the home of Juan Castillo Vázquez, adorning the walls of the LUAG Main Gallery.
Accompanying the exhibition there are two lectures. Castillo traveled from Cuba to speak on September 21, 2017 at 4:10pm in Baker Hall, Zoellner Arts Center. The lecture was in Spanish with English transcription, including excerpts from Lam’s Poetry. This event allowed visitors the opportunity to learn about Lam on a personal level from a family member. On November 9, 2017 at 6pm in the Lower Gallery, Zoellner Arts Center, Lowery Stokes Sims will speak on Wifredo Lam. Sims is the foremost scholar on Wifredo Lam, having researched and published extensively on the artist. Throughout her career, Sims has held positions with the Museum of Arts and Design, The Studio Museum in Harlem and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has lectured nationally and internationally, served on the jury for the memorial for the World Trade Center, was a visiting professor at Queens College and Hunter College, and was a visiting scholar at the University of Minnesota.
So why Lam? What about this particular modernist artist drove Viera to work for almost 20 years to bring his work to the United States? Because of his depth. Wifredo Lam’s work was not only influenced by some of the largest historical events and the greatest artists of the 20th century, but also by his diverse heritage. Lam was born in Sagua la Grande, a municipality and city located in central Cuba, to a Chinese immigrant father and a mother of African and Spanish descent. Although his art education started in 1918 at Havana’s School of Fine Arts, it took Lam only a few years to secure a scholarship to study painting in Madrid, Spain. In 1923, Lam sailed to Madrid and began studying under Fernando Álvarez de Sotomayor y Zaragoza, the curator of the Museo del Prado and teacher of Salvador Dalí, at the Escuela de Bellas Artes. It was during this time that Lam’s technical skills improved dramatically and he began to merge a ‘primitive’ aesthetic and the traditions of Western composition. Wifredo Lam would spend 14 years of his life in Spain, even fighting on the side of the Republic by drawing anti-fascist posters and working in an ammunition factory, against various conservative nationalist groups led by Francisco Franco. Franco and the Nationalists would eventually triumph and the war inspired his large painting La Guerra Civil.
Lam fled Spain in 1938, carrying with him a letter of introduction to Pablo Picasso. Picasso was immediately taken by Lam’s work and introduced him to other Parisian Intellectuals such as, Braque, Matisse, Miró, Léger, Eluard, Leiris, Tzara, Kahnweiler, and Zervos. Working alongside these famous artists, Lam began to experiment with various Modernist styles such as Cubism and Surrealism. The Surrealist movement was crucial to the development of Lam’s work due to its focus on myth, the subconscious, automatism, and non-Western art. His work began to feature the hybrid figures which became his artistic signature. This formative and experimental time would be cut short, however, due to the outbreak of World War II. In 1940, Lam and 300 other intellectuals fled France due to the advancement of German Nationalist troops into the country. The Third Republic, the French government at the time, would fall, and be replaced with the Vichy regime who acted complacently with the Nazis.
Lam traveled throughout the Caribbean, visiting St. Thomas, Santo Domingo, Haiti, and Jamaica, before resettling in Havana in 1942. He quickly reintegrated himself with the culture of his homeland, attending Afro-Cuban rituals and exploring the world of his childhood. He produced over a hundred paintings during this time period, drawing heavily on his Afro-Cuban culture and his European experiences. His artwork blended these Afro-Cuban and Cuban Syncretism beliefs with the hybrid figures he had been previously been experimenting with in Paris. Lam continued to travel, visiting the United States, Cuba, Mexico, Zurich, Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, England, Italy, France, Moscow, Prague, and Sweden. Due to this extensive travel, Lam’s work evolved to show the influence of Oceanian art, and the presence of esoteric elements become more pronounced in his art. The result of his travels, belief system, and heritage created a body of work that contained elements linking the cultures of Europe, the Caribbean, Cuba, China, and Africa. Lam created the work in the exhibition The Drawings of Wifredo Lam: 1940-1955 during this time period. With the culmination of World War II, Lam would begin traveling back and forth to Paris, before permanently settling there in 1960. Lam passed away in 1982 in Paris.
Lam influenced many artists and inspired more than 20 monographic works, poems, dozens of essays and articles, as well as films, documentaries, and radio and television programs. The institution El Centro Wifredo Lam was founded posthumously in Havana, Cuba for the study, research, and promotion of contemporary visual arts from developing countries in Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Caribbean. Lam is a modernist artist whose work clearly demonstrates how closely connected we all are to one another. After serving as the Director/Chief Curator of LUAG for almost 50 years, bringing this exhibition to the United States serves as the icing on the cake of an already outstanding career for Viera. The exhibition The Drawings of Wifredo Lam: 1940-1955 is on display in the LUAG Main Gallery until December 10, 2017.