Works such as A Trois centimètres de la Terre (1962) stand alongside others such as Tropique du Capricorne (The Tropics of Capricorn) (1961), L’indésirable (The Undesirable) (1962) or Les invités (The Guests) (1966) with which it shares its somber tones in burnt ochre and earthen colours. Gradually, over the 1950s, the artist radically reduced the scope of his palette. The nocturnal atmosphere of the painting introduces a world dominated by obscure forces that the Cuban Santeria attributes to the orichas, the sacred divinities of the Yorouba people otherwise named “the masters of the head”. They carry this name because they pull their followers into a trancelike dance.
As with L’indésirable at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris with which it forms a matching pair, A Trois centimètres de la Terre also uses an elongated format in order to accentuate the stretching of the body seized by a kind of levitational trance. These vague, white bodies, whose feet push against the limits of the frame, dance at the heart of the night.
The painting’s title A Trois centimètres de la Terre seems to describe a « levitational » position just above the ground. It could then refer to the myth surrounding Oshoumaré, the oricha originally from the old kingdom of Dahomey. Welcomed in the sky by the supreme God for having cured his blindness, Oshoumaré was forbidden to place his feet on the earth again, or only on rare occasions (See Pierre Fatumbi Verger, Orishas, Les dieux yorouba en Afrique et au nouveau monde, Paris A.-M. Métailié, 1982 p.205). Thus, in their dances, the followers point either to the sky or the earth. The large horizontal arrow could symbolize this intermediary state between up and down, between the world of man and that of the gods.
This tension between two polarities often marks the composition of Lam’s paintings. Thus, in this painting, the angular forms of the bodies and the sharp profile of the faces constitute a horizon emphasized by the arrow, whilst the suspended knife threatens the dancers like the sword of Damocles. However Lam’s paintings are never the simple illustration of Afro-Cuban beliefs. His paintings are above all an artistic composition and do not document any particular ritual. Lam draws from the images and themes of this African poetry exiled to the Caribbean, which so often sung the evocative power of revolt. His images taken from voodoo or Santeria iconography are assembled like a collage primarily in view of the coherence of the painting’s composition.
Lam met Breton and his friends from the Surrealist group in 1940. He became familiar with the poetics of collage which he practiced with the other exiled artists from the group, in particular Max Ernst who, like him, , was waiting in Marseille in 1941to leave occupied France. It was here that he produced the drawings that illustrate Breton’s poem Fata Morgana.
A man fed by several cultures – Chinese, African, Cuban and European – a traveler marked by the feeling of never being at his true place, Wilfredo Lam never hides the impact of the world’s aggression on him , revealing it always in its clarity. A Trois centimètres de la Terre (1962) illustrates both his revolt against evil and the hope that one day desirable peace will reign on earth.
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