Wilfredo Lam

Miami Art Museum

Wifredo Lam in North American Collections: A Look at the Eternal Presence, 1944

This exhibition points to the important presence of the art of Wifredo Lam in the United States. From private to museum collections, the amount of major paintings is impressive. There is The Jungle, 1943; Anamu, 1942; Le sombre Malembo, dieu du carrefour (Dark Malembo, God of the Crossroads), 1943; L'Annonciation (The Annunciation), 1944; La rumeur de Ia terre (Rumblings of the Earth), 1950; and the crown jewel of them all: The Eternal Presence, 1944. This monumentally sized painting, done in the middle of his golden decade, lends itself particularly well for a discussion of two essential aspects of the art of Lam: line and symbolism. In The Eternal Presence, Lam's calligraphic line and layered symbolism reached a high point.'

Painted in Havana in early 1944, it was titled by Andre Breton Le present eternel, which has been translated over time into The Eternal Presence or more literally The Eternal Present. I believe that the conceit of "presence" best applies to the style and iconography of the image: large abstract figures that emanate a sense of physical existence. The painting was exhibited for the first time at a solo exhibition in the Lyceum in Havana in 1946. The following year it traveled to New York for the exhibition Blood Flames at the Hugo Gallery, and remained in that city at the Pierre Matisse Gallery until 1966, when it was purchased by the Museum of Art of the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island.

The composition of The Eternal Presence consists of three hybrid figures, a larger and more abstract one in the center, flanked by two female ones. They emerge out of a palm grove seemingly at night in bright moonlight. The image is conceived in terms of fluid, energetic black outlines against white, with flickering touches of red and green, and grey-black shadows. It is large, voluptuous and belligerent. Through accidental exposure to inclement weather in the 1960s, the color has faded, making the dominant white and black contrast all the more dramatic. In this and other paintings of 1944-1945, such as L'Annonciation, 1944; Au defaut du jour (For Want of Day), 1945; and La chevelure (The Mane), 1945, Lam explored the expressiveness of white, after a period of intense coloration upon his arrival in Cuba, and before his so-called night paintings of the late 1940s and 1950s.

Lam's solo exhibitions at Pierre Matisse Gallery beginning in November of 1942 attracted the attention of a number of art critics who represented the first wave of critical attention to his work and its association with Picasso, Surrealism and Afro-Caribbean culture. Since then, these associations have received a good deal of scrutiny resulting in more complex and accurate discourse on the relationship between Lam, Picasso, Cubism, Surrealism and Afro-Cuban mythology and history. The consensus is that Lam by the mid-1940s developed a highly personal style, in which echoes of Picasso became more and more distant, Cubism was used to express a Surrealist imagination and symbolism (mostly based on Afro-Cuban culture) reigned. Of all Lam's paintings in public or private collections in the United States, The Eternal Presence offers the most fertile ground for revisiting his artistic sources and expanding on his iconography.


Probably more than any other painting of the 1940s, The Eternal Presence reveals that Lam was essentially a draftsman. Clean, precise and elegant lines swiftly interweave animal and plant forms to suggest a trinity of mythic beings or monsters. The essential elements of metamorphosis and symbolism are evoked by means of drawing with the help of chiaroscuro to give the figures substance and the background a sense of mystery.

Lam's draftsmanship is often compared to Picasso's and seen as derivative of the latter. However, by 1944 the differences are more telling than the similarities. Picasso liked to work from direct observation; Lam was a keen observer of his surroundings, but painted from his imagination. As observed by Edmundo Denoes: "Picasso's line is vital, sinuous and organic; Lam is more intellectual and geometric:'2 In The Eternal Presence Lam's line is more abstract, geometric and aggressive
than in previous work, more of his own, and it is well on its way to his unique cutting geometric line of the 1950s and 1960s work. Even at the moment when Lam was most taken by his mentor (early 1940s), he did something new with it. In a review of Lam's first solo show at Pierre Matisse Gallery in November of 1942, the art critic Henry McBride keenly observed: "Lam uses the stylisms garnered from Guernica in a frank and simple way as though they were the property of all artists and then
goes ahead to say something of his own."3

Similarly, in the 1940s, Lam appropriated Cubism, from Picasso and other sources, to symbolize his experience and vision. Cubism provided him with the means to concretize images of the African presence in the Caribbean. Unlike his Cubist predecessors, Lam did not use Cubism to analyze objects, represent movement or suggest the fragmentation of modern urban reality. He used it to evoke the metamorphosis of human, animal and plant life into one. In the words of Aime Cesaire: "Wifredo Lam captures in his canvases the ceremony in which all exist: the ceremony of the physical union of man and
of the world."4 Lam turns the fragmentation of Cubism into integration. Lam's interpretation of Cubism was in turn informed by Surrealist concepts and interests. Through close personal interaction with Breton, Lam came to know and practice "psychic automatism" and developed an interest in alchemy and non-Western religions. However, Lam followed
his own path. Unlike Breton and most other Surrealists, his dive into the subconscious and the mythic was also a return to his native land and to his own African and Chinese background. His surrealism was among other things an imagining of a Caribbean culture and history of which he was a descendant. Surrealism as well as Cubism had much to do with Lam's shift in the early 1940s from a more or less representational
approach to a symbolic one. Interestingly, the conceit of the artist as symbol maker in touch with his subconscious was also going strong among artists of the New York School, who like Lam were taking a cue from Surrealism. In the case of Lam the symbolic approach is intimately related to a poetic expression of personal identity.


As symbol maker, Wifredo Lam created signs with multiple, layered and open-ended meaning, closer to poetry than narrative. The rich iconography of The Eternal Presence offers a major case in point. Comments by Lam years after the painting was done, those of Helena Benftez, his wife at the time (also made long after the fact), and analyses by a few art historians/critics represent the discourse on the symbolism of
The Eternal Presence. An annotated review of their interpretations offers an entrance into the painting's rich and layered symbolism. In an interview with Max-Pol Fouchet in the early 1970s, Lam spoke at some length of the painting's iconography. He associated the lateral figures with mulatos and their plight in Cuba, and the central figure with religion and dreams:

“The character to the left is an imbecile prostitute. She feels
ridiculous with her two mouths. From her heart erupts the leg
of an animal. Her heterogeneous nature evokes the mixture
and degradation of the race. The character on the right holds a
knife; it is the instrument of integration, but he does not use
it, he does not fight. He suggests the indecision of the mulatto,
who does not know where to go, or what to do. The vase to
the right, which is full of rice and has a head coming out of it,
represents religion and the mysteries .. On the upper right
corner .. I have put the symbol of Chango, the god of thunder,
sustained by a hand” 5

Allowing for the fact that Lam's statement came almost thirty years after the painting and as such does not necessarily reflect his thinking in 1945, his interpretation of the lateral figures as mulatas is significant. It gives his work a historical social dimension rarely acknowledged. To the extent that these figures are representations of mulatas as prostitutes and rudderless, the image offers a rare critical view of the Cuban mulata's sexual exploitation and the mulato's lack of social identity. 35

Representation of mulatas relates a tradition in Cuban art that goes back to the late nineteenth century, when in the work of Victor Patricio Landaluze, for example, the mulata was presented as a symbol of Cuba, the marriage of Africa and Spain in the Caribbean, and also, closer to reality, as poor and sexually available to white males. From Landaluze on, the theme of the mulata as a symbol of sensuality and of Cuba itself continued well into the Republic. The figures in The Eternal Presence
show a new representation of the mulata, in which pretty and sensual have been replaced with grotesque and sexual. The sexuality of the left figure is apparent in the erotic cadence of the hip, prominent buttocks and exposed breasts, but that sexuality is not celebrated. It is exaggerated to the nth degree and a note of bestiality added by the animalleg erupting from her chest. Here Lam makes a strong critical statement about the mostly sexual role the mulata played in Cuban life and art.
It should also be noted that this is no passive female, her direct gaze and knife held in one foot/hand gives her an aggressive aura. In art, she is the descendance of Olympia and Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. The image in this painting has also been tied to Afro-Cuban warrior deities. As mentioned by Lam, the staff held by a hand on the upper right corner symbolizes Chango, one of the most powerful and aggressive of the orishas, or deities, in the pantheon of the Afro-Cuban religion
Regia de Ocha, most commonly known as Santeria. The palm grove background is another reference to Chango, who dwells there. He was a warrior and the deity of fire, lightning, thunder, dance, music and virility. Lam had a somewhat personal relation to Chango. As a child, his godmother, a Santeria priestess, brought Lam under the guidance of Chango;
upon returning to Cuba in 1942, Lydia Cabrera, the renowned
ethnographer of Afro-Cuban culture, told Lam soon after they met and she had performed a Santeria divination rite, that he was the "son" of Chango6 One thing that Lam's art at that time shares with the figure of Chango is a combative spirit with a sense of social justice.

Of all of the orishas, Lam seemed most interested in Elegua. In her book El monte, Cabrera refers to the essential characteristics of Elegua as the "guardian of the crossroads, jungles, and savannas ... the one who possesses the key to destiny ... and the deity who opens the roads and doors." 7 He is the messenger of the orishas and a mischievous trickster who wields great power. In this painting, Lam depicts him as the head coming out of the bowl of rice and "representing religion and the mysteries." Lam slightly changed the facial features of the figure, did away with the cowry eyes and added symmetrical horns rather than the central one found in traditional objects. Lam symbolized Elegua in countless paintings through the rest of his career. Three impressive early representations are Hermes, 1943; Altar for Elegu6, 1944; and The Eternal Presence. There is an edge to his image for Elegua that befits the
nature of the deity. What exactly attracted Lam to this orisha is undetermined, but the fact that he was a trickster and a messenger must have played a role. In Surrealism and in the New York School, in the 1940s, a belief in the role of the artist as a medium, a messenger of the subconscious, was widespread. Lam was in touch with both and Elegua may have provided him with a symbol for the artist as medium/messenger. A third Santeria god favored by Lam was Ogun, the orisha of iron
and war and patron of blacksmiths. In The Eternal Presence Ogun would be the figure on the right holding a knife, an attribute of this deity.

Lam represented Ogun in a number of paintings, most notably Ogun, God of Iron, 1945, and La rumeur de Ia terre, 1950. Lam usually symbolized Ogun with the traditional sign of a horseshoe or knife. Given that Ogun, along with Chango and Elegua, are the three most aggressive orishas, it makes sense that Lam would group them together to express his views that Afro-Cubans should forcefully assert their presence in Cuban society.

One of the scholars who first proposed the interpretation of
Afro-Cuban warrior deities in The Eternal Presence, Julia Herzberg, also sees the presence of Oshun and Ochosi in Lam's image. To Herzberg the left female figure suggests Oshun, the orisha of the river and fresh water, a "warrior who uses her sexuality to win conflicts." Notwithstanding Lam's comment, she believes that the hand with a "lance" on the upper right corner best represents Ochosi, the god of the hunt and of the
mysteries of the forest, who often accompanied Ogun and Elegua 8

It seems evident that the iconography of The Eternal Presence is replete with symbols for certain Afro-Cuban warrior deities. It is those symbols and the way they have been represented that give the painting its air of defiance, the counterpoint to its voluptuous quality. Afro-Cuban references, however, do not exhaust the iconography of this painting. Statements by Helena Benitez and an essay by Marta Garsd point in other spiritual directions. According to Benitez, about the time that Lam painted The Eternal Presence they had found in a bookstore in Old Havana: “... some books on Oriental philosophy and alchemy ... They were food for thought for us and greatly enriched our subsequent nightly conversations. We talked at length about the symbolism of the number three in different cultures. Three where the rhythm of life begins, where tensions arise, and three in Chinese philosophy the two opposing forces Yin and Yan, and Tao.

... Three in the I Ching is the symbol Chun. It represents birth
pangs, symbolizing a new venture creating order out of chaos.
Three in the Trinity is the predominance of ideas and willpower”9 Benitez also attests that after such conversations Lam began a series of drawings and paintings representing three figures. One of the first drawings is La belle Helene, 1944, representing a three-figure composition on a background, which is practically a sketch for The Eternal Presence.
About the latter, Benitez sees it as "a trinity representing the bird of love and the weapon of destruction (the opposites Yin and Yang) flanking the supreme Tao in the center." 10 Her first-hand account, although written much later, gives weight to the circumstantial evidence connecting Lam to an interest and knowledge of Chinese philosophy and alchemy. He interpretation of The Eternal Presence adds a dimension little
explored thus far.

The concept of life as the tension and reconciliation of opposites through transformation, expressed in the I Ching (Yin/Yang/Tao), is similar to notions found in alchemy, which also seems to have informed the iconography of The Eternal Presence. Breton and other Surrealists, like Max Ernst, were highly interested in alchemy and its notions of the transmutation of base metals through a complex process into gold as metaphor for the psychic and spiritual transformation of the self /man. The Surrealists were particularly interested in applying to the making of literature and art the alchemical process of the transformation of materials and the union of opposites. Breton spoke of the "alchemy of the word" and Ernst of the "alchemy of the image" to refer to their transformation
of the real into the surreal through the methods of "psychic automatism" and "juxtaposition." Lam's interest in alchemy most likely began through his association with Breton and other Surrealists and later through his own readings, such as the aforementioned books he and Helena Benitez found in Old Havana.

In a different take on Lam, Marta Garsd discusses specific elements in his paintings of the 1940s inspired by notions of alchemy. She points to Lam's hybrid figures-at once human, animal and plant-as being in a state of mutation from one state to another, which well represent the concept of "the alchemy of the image." She also directs our attention to certain symbols used by Lam in the 1940s, which speak to transformation
and change: “Such is the case with the wheel, symbol of transmutation or continuous change and of the alchemist process itself (Laboda, 1947); the half-moon rising ruling over mutant things and therefore proper to alchemy (La jungla, 1943); and the serpent which devours its own tale, symbol of renovation (La anunciaci6n, 1947). 11

In regard to The Eternal Presence and other three -figure compositions of that time, Garsd believes that they symbolize a significant process in alchemy known as "confrontation" and a related one known as "conjunction"; the clashing and subsequent union of opposites. Illustrated images of the process of "conjunction" often represented two figures confronting each other with swords and in the center, shown as synthesis
of their opposition, the figure of Mercury, considered a unifying symbol. "In another illustration the third [central] figure is represented as an illogical and fantastic figure named rebis . ... the result is clearly a trinity." 12 These alchemical illustrations have strong affinities with the composition of The Eternal Presence, where the knives held by the two lateral figures replace the traditional use of swords and the central
figure is the most fantastic and unreal of the group. The commanding central figure of The Eternal Presence is the most enigmatic. It is more abstract than the others, its arms and legs being flat, leaf-like, and its head made up of horns, pointed leafs, corn husks, and hard to identify shapes. Is it Chun, Rebis, Mercury or Elegua 7 To the extent that Mercury is the central figure of many alchemical illustrations with which this painting has affinities, and that the central figure of The Eternal Presence holds a statue of Elegua in one hand, it should be noted that both are messenger gods. More than likely
this was not lost on Lam. In any case, Lam had a working knowledge of Santeria, the I Ching and some of the literature on alchemy, all of which seems to have been present in his mind at that time, thus the central figure may symbolize any and all of the above.

The symbolism of The Eternal Presence, as that of many of Lam's paintings, is informed by his wide intellectual curiosity prompted in part by his cultural background. In Lam's life and art, Africa, China and Europe met and merged to different degrees. No wonder that he and his art became an important paradigm of multiculturalism in the 1980s and 1990s. Multiculturalism helped to refocus attention on Lam in academia, museums and the art market, and Lam provided multiculturalism with an important pioneer and still relevant model of cultural fusion. An important part of this mix is the presence of major paintings by Lam in museums and private collections in this country, not least The Jungle at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Although not as easily accessible as the paintings of Lam in museums in New York and
Chicago, and prevented from traveling due to conservation issues, The Eternal Presence in the Rhode Island School of Design Museum is one of Lam's most notable and least studied paintings in an American collection.