The year 1955 found Wifredo Lam in transition: it was a year of landmark exhibitions for the artist, both in Europe (including a retrospective in Malmö, Sweden) and in Latin America (including retrospectives in Havana, Cuba and Caracas, Venezuela). During this time he began to forge a new path in painting that the European Surrealists embraced, believing Lam to be physical embodiment of the primitivist ideals of their movement, at once “the modern and the primitive, the man of science and the man of magic.” (1) At the same time, Lam's work garnered growing acclaim in Latin America as he began to draw more heavily on the Cuban physical and psychological landscape. His mystical compositions of this period, muted in tone and cryptic in iconography, intentionally resist categorization.
The present painting, Here on Earth (Ici sur la terre), is an outstanding example of Lam’s subtle, complex mature style. During this period Lam often worked directly on his prepared canvases in charcoal, later reinforcing his compositions in oil but rarely revising them; Max-Pol Fouchet describes this extraordinary draftsmanship as “heightened plastic decisiveness, a handwriting endowed with clarity and dynamism.” (2) Lam’s crisp, sweeping lines contribute to an overall quality of understated elegance in this mysterious composition, rendered in soft earth tones and rich blacks. This flattening of the picture plane and clarity of the image underscores its emotive power, a technique Lam drew partially from the art of Oceanic cultures, which he began to collect eagerly in the 1940s. (3) Lam harnesses the full power of his complex pictorial vocabulary and deceptively simple execution combine to create a picture with powerful psychic presence.
The central figure, a horned bird, hangs suspended in mid-flight, meeting the gaze of the viewer with a blank yet penetrating stare. In a 1950 interview, Lam distinctly relates these “diabolical birds,” to a childhood experience watching a bat trapped in his bedroom, which darted about as “Rays of light from the exterior… penetrated every crack, creating shadows, changing the space into a magic lantern and reversing all the images,” (4) For Lam, this formative incident marked the moment of his understanding of human consciousness and the passage of time; its inclusion here heralds a critical moment of transition in his painting as he began to integrate his intricate mystical iconography with symbols of deep personal significance. Moreover, this otherworldly bird evokes layered associations, symbolizing both in Santería and Christian traditions a messenger between spiritual and earthly realms. The second, reclining central figure evokes similarly complex associations. It presents neither head nor tail, but rather a single leg with two cloven hooves, and four black wings darting outward in opposite directions. It is adorned and intertwined with iconic recurring motifs of this period: symmetrical diamonds (associated with Abakuá, a secret Afro-Cuban men’s society) and graphic parallel lines evoking sugar cane: a plant emblematic of the Caribbean, heavy with both sweet and sinister associations. These shifting figures remain mysterious, at once occult and organic, belonging neither to the human nor the divine world.
By restricting his palette and distilling his compositions, Lam invites the viewer to private contemplation, freely inspiring the subconscious personal associations and reflections that were Surrealism’s original project. On the occasion of his exhibition at the Galerie Etoile Scellée in Paris, 1955, Benjamin Péret eloquently summarized the psychic power of these masterworks: “These beings… speak to our desires and our terror…These states are and have been known by all men. The difference is that the images they engender today are different from those of the past, by virtue of their integral quality… Lam is committed to capturing them… to show their primal state and the fact that despite their ferocious seductiveness we can recognize these qualities in ourselves.” (5)
1: Lowery Stokes Sims, Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 1923-1982, Austin, 2002, p. 106
2: Ibid, p. 122
3: Ibid, p. 93
4: Ibid, p. 98
5: Ibid, p. 106
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