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Wifredo Lam's artwork on exhibit at Salvador Dali Museum

ST. PETERSBURG

Wifredo Lam is one of those fine and almost-famous artists you may never have heard of. Almost-famous is perhaps unfair since the Cuban-born Lam (1902-1982) was held in high regard beginning in the 1940s, shuttling between London, Paris and New York for one-person shows at museums and prestigious galleries. But for a variety of reasons, his star dimmed in the 1960s, so he is not as familiar a name as the abstract expressionists and pop artists who led parallel careers.

Art history is a constant search to reassess or rehabilitate. Those who go down can at some point rise again, though discerning collectors will argue that Lam always has been considered an important artist by those in the know.

A small but well-edited retrospective at the Salvador Dali Museum gives more of us a chance to be in the know. Lam has always been labeled a surrealist, hence the reason he's at the Dali. I'm all for labels that give us quick access to an artist's sensibilities. Yet here, especially, this one seems unfair and oversimplified. Like all really good artists, Lam was a sponge who absorbed the many voices around him and transformed them all into his own unique language.

He embodied the Cuban melting pot, having a Chinese father and a mother of African and Spanish ancestry. His father was in his 80s when Lam was born. Interestingly, Lam seems to have had no interest in that part of his heritage. The young man seemed to be most interested in getting out of Cuba, which had a social caste system that placed him near the bottom of the pyramid. He moved to Spain in 1923 to study art (with Dali's former teacher, though there is no evidence that Dali and Lam were ever well-acquainted).

Unfortunately, this show contains no examples of his documented experimentation in this phase, only a portrait of a woman, perhaps a commission to generate income. It's beautiful but unremarkable. Except for her hands. One is splayed delicately at her waist, the other clutches a flower. The long fingers suggest a latent power despite their gentility and benign pose. Those hands in later paintings will become exaggerated appendages with the grasp and strength of a mechanical claw.

He fought on the side of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War, was wounded and moved to Paris in 1938, bolstered by a letter of introduction to Pablo Picasso, who took him up and introduced him around. The work from those years shows an absorption in the currents of change swirling around him. He developed a deep and enduring friendship with Andre Breton, the surrealist leader, but the influence of Picasso and Henri Matisse seems far more pervasive than that of the surrealists. The women he paints have reductive forms with flat backgrounds, and their faces resemble primitive masks.

There is some question as to whether his exposure to African sculpture in Paris was as revelatory for Lam as it was for European artists. It certainly struck a deep chord for Lam and sparked a fascination with ethnology that profoundly informed his mature work. But we can also suspect that it was a visual link to the Afro-Cuban heritage of his childhood, which mingled Christianity with the African-based Santeria religion.

With the imprimatur of Picasso and his own exotic interpretation of modern art, he was beginning to achieve star status when World War II began.

Lam returned to Cuba in 1941, fleeing the Nazi invasion of Paris. Even though he was appalled at the continuing suppression of Afro-Cubans, the move freed him artistically. Distance from the Paris milieu and forays into his own cultural heritage put him on a new, personal path.

He continued to invoke cubism and incorporated its multiple perspectives into his work, also beginning to evolve his own version of its analytics with assemblages of human and fantastical body parts grafted onto each other. Sometimes stationary, sometimes suggesting violent motion, they are figurative, surrealist, modernist, primitive, Afro-Caribbean. Collectively they became, for the next 30 years, entirely Wifredo Lam.

When the war ended, Lam was on the road again, this time as an acclaimed artist. Havana was home base for several more years.

Women always figured prominently in his works, but they began taking on mythical status with his femme-chevals, in which the female figure is combined with those of a horse, an appropriation of Santerian beliefs involving spirits that take over, or "mount" individuals as one would a horse, releasing their energy. They also are part of Lam's European affiliations; Picasso's eloquent horse in Guernica had to be in his mind at this time.

Only a study for his greatest work, The Jungle (1943), is in this show. (It's in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art and considered too fragile to travel.) But the study, along with the painting Dark Malembo, God of the Crossroads (1943), shows the vast territory he traversed in a short time. In Malembo, two figures, horse and man, stand in a verdant jungle. They are surrounded, even invaded by, the presence of Elegua (also spelled Eleggua), a powerful orisha, one of the spirits who act as emissaries between God and mortals. Elegua is the primary messenger to God and guardian of the crossroad, known for his round face and horns. He can be frightening, passing judgment and testing human resolve, but here he is a waiting presence, ready to confer admission to or banishment from the shimmering green paradise beyond.

Lam probably didn't intend his paintings to be read literally, assuming that his European audience would have little knowledge of the specifics of their representations. Lam's references to Santeria and other Caribbean religions (especially Haitian Vodou, which he studied) is not documentary or pedagogic. His was a quest to create an iconic representation of a spiritual heritage that was misunderstood, suspect or — worse — trivialized.

Even though he was lionized in Cuba, he chose Paris as his permanent residence in 1952, remaining there even after Fidel Castro came to power. Perhaps he realized that despite Castro's official egalitarian socialist stance, prejudice still existed toward those with dark skin. Or perhaps he just enjoyed being in a more cosmopolitan setting, especially after he married (his third marriage) and had three children. (His first wife and their infant son died of tuberculosis; his second marriage ended in divorce.)

His paintings are increasingly refined and integrated, so much so that it's hard to say where the surrealist elements begin and the Latin American ones end. His hybrid creatures seem to come from the depth of surrealist unconsciousness and his own bred-in-the-bone cosmology. They are not the disturbing, haunting symbols found in most surrealist art. Insects never invade Lam's dreams as they do Dali's, for example.

Lam's imagery exists as part of the world order, transformative powers that can harm but also enlighten. Painting them is not an attempt at exorcism, as it is for many surrealists, but a means of releasing and transmitting them. There are ominous moments: the dark, shadowed suggestion of a bird of prey, appendages that look like knife blades, horse heads ever beastlier.

Lam honors them all. So should we.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

. REVIEW

Wifredo Lam in North America

The exhibition is at the Salvador Dali Museum of Art, 1000 Third St. S, St. Petersburg, through Jan. 11. Museum hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday with extended hours on Thursday to 8 p.m. and Friday to 6:30 p.m.; noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Admission is adults $15, seniors $13.50, students 10 and older $10, and children 5 to 9. $4. salvadordalimuseum.org; (727) 823-3767.

Wifredo Lam's artwork on exhibit at Salvador Dali Museum 10/11/08 [Last modified: Saturday, October 11, 2008 4:30am]

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