BY FABIOLA SANTIAGO | Miami Herald
It is an art event of exceptional significance to South Florida—the first large-scale U.S. exhibition of works by the most celebrated Cuban artist of the 20th century, surrealist Wifredo Lam.
The show, which opens Thursday at Miami Art Museum, is a milestone. An attempt by the artist’s family a decade ago to bring an exhibit to a Miami museum failed because of perceptions that Lam had supported the Cuban Revolution. But now half the works displayed at MAM are on loan from Miami collectors, some of them Cuban Americans.
Lam, a Chinese-AfroCuban who settled in Paris, where he became Picasso’s friend and contemporary, had a life of almost cinematic drama: a long, productive interlude in Spain, Italy and France; visa denials from the United States when he tried to leave war-torn Europe; acclaim as an icon who elevated African and Cuban culture to the world stage.
‘‘He was all that and more,’’ says Eskil Lam, 44, the painter’s oldest son, who is in Miami for the show’s opening.
By any measure, Wifredo Lam in North America, organized by the Haggerty Museum at Marquette University and open to the public on Friday, will be one of the year’s most important exhibits for MAM.
‘‘This is Cuba’s greatest artist—and an artist embraced by the community,’’ says René Morales, the curator who staged the show.
``People are looking beyond the politics to his work, as it should be,`` Eskil Lam says. ``If it were for his politics, Picasso would have never been exhibited.’‘
Morales has been working with Eskil Lam for months, assembling dozens of family photos, letters, invitations and sketch books to complement the exhibit’s more than 60 drawings and paintings. At 21, Lam left the island for Spain, where he lived for 16 years, then fled to France during Spain’s Civil War. In 1939, he had his first solo exhibit in Paris; a year later he showed with Picasso at Perls Galleries in New York.
Architect Nicolás Quintana, a professor at Florida International University, shared his recollections of Lam at a museum breakfast with collectors.
Quoting the late Cuban ethnologist Fernando Ortiz, Quintana said Lam ‘‘knew how to paint things that you can’t see . . . ,’’ things that ``come through the nervous system, not your eyes.’‘
Quintana said he had six Lam works but ``lost them all. It’s what happens to you when you are in exile, but I don’t care because I could participate with him.’‘
Lam’s family, however, cares about what has happened to the works in Cuba. ‘‘It’s an issue,’’ says Eskil, a former commercial pilot whose mother is Lou Laurin, a Swedish-born artist who lives in Paris and manages the Lam estate.
‘‘There are a lot of works in the national museums,’’ Eskil says. ‘‘There needs to be some clarification . . . as to the status of the paintings.’’ The Cuban government has not responded to the family’s request for an accounting.
Laurin and Eskil also have waged a campaign against forgery, compiling a master catalog of Lam works. Like Picasso, Lam is one of the most forged painters, and some Miami collectors unknowingly have purchased fakes.
‘‘It plagues the work of my father, and we’re doing as much as we can to stop it,’’ Eskil says. ‘‘As soon as work fetches high prices, it generates forgeries.’’ At Cernuda Arte, the certified Seated Woman from 1944 is priced at $750,000.
Although the MAM exhibit centers around Lam’s transcendence in the United States, Haggerty Museum curator Curtis L. Carter also did research at Havana’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, which has some 200 Lam works, including the artist’s second-most important piece, The Chair, and at Centro Wifredo Lam and Museo de la Cerámica.
The most important Lam work is The Jungle, a pillar of the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The gouche on paper mounted on canvas is so fragile it cannot travel, says Luis Pérez-Oramas, MoMA’s curator of Latin American art. It is not currently on display.
Lam could not get a visa when he sought refuge from the Germans in Marseilles and tried to leave France. He ended up in Cuba, reconnecting with the culture and creating The Jungle and other great works.
Lam also could not attend the meeting celebrating MoMA’s 1945 acquisition of The Jungle because he could not obtain a visa.
‘‘In the photo we have, there’s a slew of Cuban dignitaries but not him,’’ Eskil says.
Eventually Lam did get a U.S. visa, returning to France in 1946 via New York, where he met artists Marcel Duchamp and Arshile Gorky and composer John Cage. He married Laurin at New York’s City Hall in 1960. Although he never returned permanently to Cuba, he visited from time to time.
‘‘The Cuban situation was so polarized in the ‘60s that he said he would never turn on Cuba,’’ Eskil says. ``He fought against Batista and thought Fidel brought something new. He didn’t participate, but he hoped the ideal [of social justice] would be possible.’‘
As Cuba’s totalitarian state assumed a greater profile, Lam ‘‘had resentments. but he was not going to turn his back on the Cuban Revolution,’’ Eskil says. ``He was not a rabid activist, but he did feel that more social justice for Cuba was the right path.’‘
In 1978, after Lam suffered a stroke, he became ‘‘more nostalgic’’ and returned to the island for a couple of months every year, until he died on Sept. 11, 1982. His ashes are buried in Cuba.
‘‘The French government offered him French citizenship,’’ Eskil says, ``but he wanted to die a Cuban.’’