Wifredo Lam (Cuban, 1902–1982)
Height x width: 24 x 31 in. (61 x 78.7 cm)
Medium or Technique
Oil on burlap
The 1940s and 1950s (Gallery 336)
Cuban artist Wifredo Lam returned to Havana in 1942 after several decades in Europe working with leading painters, including Pablo Picasso [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Pablo%20Picasso&objecttype=54] and many of the Surrealists. Already regarded as a leading surrealist painter, he found new imagery in the Afro-Cuban culture of the Caribbean, where aspects of African spiritualism survived and flourished. Untitled, painted in 1943, shortly after his return to the island, is a synthesis of Cubism, Surrealism, and Afro-Cuban religious beliefs. Lam’s first-person experience of the spiritual practices of Cuba resulted in some of his most original work, allowing him, as he said, to “paint the drama of my country … the beauty of the plastic art of the blacks” in a way that he believed conveyed the dignity of the Cuban people and the power of their living faith. 
Rendered on rough burlap, Untitled suggests imaginative aquatic organisms and Cuba’s indigenous tropical flora and fauna. The composition also incorporates whirling, surreal bodies whose forms have sources in Santería, a Caribbean religious tradition that is closely related to the spiritual practices of the Yoruba people of West Africa. For example, the double-headed creature in the upper left is a representation of Shango (sometimes spelled Schango or Changó), a popular orisha (deity) associated with thunder and lightning. In traditional Yoruban sculpture, Shango can be identified by a double-headed axe, a form that appears atop an early twentieth-century Shango staff [1991.1070] in the MFA’s collection. The horseshoe that appears behind Shango is linked to Ogún, an orisha associated with iron and fire. The two tail-like groups of lines, one in the center and the other a little higher and on the right edge, could reference horses, an important symbol of spiritual possession in Afro-Cuban ceremonies. (Horses were a favored subject of Picasso and other modernist painters, as well.) These “tails” also resemble Yoruban ceremonial fly whisks, objects with ritual use and meaning for the Yoruba. In Lam’s painting the eyes—rendered as circles around black dots, a few emphasized in red—and bold outlined forms are similar to the written characters of the Abakuá society, a secret men’s fraternity which originated in Nigeria and Cameroon and was transported to Cuba by slaves in the nineteenth century. Lam would have been familiar with these sources and associations; a pen and ink drawing Lam made in 1946 with similar forms and creatures is titled Schango Schango [66.1064].
Untitled was purchased directly from Wifredo Lam by American set designer Oliver Smith during a 1945 visit to Havana; that same year Smith was appointed co-director of New York’s American Ballet Theater. Smith retained the painting until his death in 1994. It eventually passed into the collection of George and Joyce Wein, the founders and leading lights behind the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island and other musical festivals and events. Along with Untitled, the MFA acquired seven other works from the Wein Collection [2007.1, 2007.2, 2007.3, 2007.5, 2007.6, 2007.250, 2007.649] in 2007, significantly expanding the Museum’s representation of artists active throughout the Americas.
1. Wifredo Lam, quoted in David Craven, Art and Revolution in Latin America 1910–1990 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 109.
Signed and dated lower left: "Wifredo Lam 1943 Havana"
1943, the artist; 1945, sold by the artist to Oliver Smith, New York, N.Y. ; 1994, by inheritance to Richard D'Arcy, N. Y. By 2007, Mr. and Mrs. George Wein, N. Y.; consigned by Mr. and Mrs. George Wein to the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, N. Y. ; 2007, sold by the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery to the MFA. (Accession Date: January 24, 2007)
 Oliver Smith aquired the painting directly from the artist during travels to Havana with Paul Bowles in 1945.
A. Shuman Collection—Abraham Shuman Fund
© 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.