Wilfredo Lam 1902 - 1982

Wilfredo Lam was a Cuban modernist painter. His works introduce the symbolism of his Cuban roots and defined a new way of portraying his heritage is a post-colonial world. As his career progressed, he travelled widely in Europe and the Americas. During this time, he witnessed great political unrest that he explored through his works.

'Lam is one of the most fascinating figures in the history of modern painting.'

Alastair Sooke, Art critic 


Lam was born in a small town in Cuba, Sagua la Grande in 1902, to a Chinese immigrant father and a mother who had both Spanish and African roots. His unique identity inspired him to discover and examine Afro-Cuban imagery rendering his art impactful on the modern art world. 


In 1916, the family moved to Havana where Lam initially hoped to study for a career in law. However, he eventually ended up enrolling at the Havana School of Fine Arts. Here he found his talent for a traditional realist style, mostly painting landscapes and still-lifes. His first venture to Europe came when he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando in Madrid. At the time, he was keen to become a portraitist. He began training to do so, still maintaining traditional skills and ideas. A key motivation for Lam were trips to the Prado Museum where he admired the works of Diego Velázquez, Hieronymus Bosch and Francisco de Goya. The influence of Goya can be seen largely in Lam's later paintings that condemn the horrors of war. 

'Lam has an Oriental facility for design. He composes as naturally as he breathes.'

Gerri Trotta, Art critic, 1950 


By 1931, Lam lost his first wife and son to tuberculoisis. A time of great grief followed, reflected in some of his early works. Then, in 1936 he was sent to fight in the Spanish Civil War as a Republican troop. The trauma of this experience became a motif in his works as he frequently depicted large, dynamic groups of people. 


Eventually Lam went to refresh his life in Paris. Whilst there, he befriended Pablo Picasso, who introduced him to a wider circle of leading artists and writers, including André Breton and Joan Miró. Naturally, his work was influenced by a modernist style and he began to experiment with Cubist techniques. He was also interested in the Surrealists attitudes towards automatism and the subconscious. Despite Lam being a member of the Surrealist movement, he did not define himself as a Surrealist painter, stating that, ‘Surrealism gave me an opening, but I haven’t painted in a Surrealist manner’. Therefore, Lam as an artist has been difficult to define within a movement. It was his combining of movements, techniques and ideas that made his work important and were, arguably, a reflection of his own mixed heritage and unique life experience.