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Surrealist Wifredo Lam's Afro-Cuban Mythology Meets Salvador Dalí's Personal Myths
Wifredo Lam, Untitled, ca. 1947. Oil on Canvas 49 x 59 ¼ in. (124.5 x 150.5 cm) W. Lam, cat. raisonné, vol. 1, no. 47.31

ST. PETERSBURG.- Two new exhibitions which opened at the Salvador Dalí Museum this fall highlight the diverse ways Western and non-Western mythology enlivened Surrealism. Wifredo Lam in North America is the first U.S. exhibit in over 30 years to feature works by Lam, the celebrated 20th century Cuban-born artist. This national traveling exhibition organized by the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University represents the major phases in Lam’s career, with examples spanning from 1927 through 1972. The exhibit focuses on Lam’s impact on the development of modern art in America, tracing the way in which he combined aspects of the European avant-garde with Afro-Cuban myths and art forms, leaving a legacy of intercultural dialogue that remains influential to this day. Over 50 paintings and drawings, together with photos and letters, are shown in the museum’s west galleries. In the east galleries, the Dalí exhibition, Myth in Dalí’s Art, features a selection of works from the museum’s permanent collection, which examine how Dalí used mythology to embody his fears and desires. Both exhibitions are on display through January 11, 2009.

About Wifredo Lam in North America
Wifredo Lam was born in Sagua la Grande, Cuba, in 1902. His parents were of Chinese, African, and Spanish ancestry. In 1923 Lam moved to Spain to study art at the Museo del Prado, Madrid (under a former teacher of Salvador Dalí) remaining in Spain another thirteen years. After being wounded fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, Lam moved to Paris in 1938, where he met Picasso. Picasso introduced him to artists and writers living in Paris, including André Breton, leader of the Surrealists. It was in Europe at this time that Lam first saw the African sculpture that so informed his painting.

In 1941 Lam left Europe and returned to Cuba. After nearly twenty years abroad, he was shocked by the poverty of the Afro-Cuban population and impressed by the vitality of the popular, religious culture of their tradition of Santería. The impact of his return prompted a radical shift in Lam's style, representing an engagement with African-derived religion.

Lam’s work gained international recognition in the 1940s, with a series of one-person shows in London, Paris and New York. Between 1947 and 1952, Lam lived and worked in Havana, New York and Paris, where he eventually settled, continuing his career until his death in 1982. His work can be found in major museums throughout the world, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern in London.

Lam contributed a non-European Afro-Cuban voice to Western art, synthesizing Cubism, Surrealism, “primitivism,” Négritude (Black Identity), Afro-Cuban history, and the African-derived Santería religion. “Over time competing interpretations of Lam's work have been offered. Initially he was presented as a Surrealist and Primitivist, his work seen as a fusion of non-Western and Western meanings into a kind of universal myth,” said William Jeffett, Dalí Museum Curator of Special Exhibitions. “More recently his mature work has been presented as challenging Western models of Modernism from the vantage point of post-colonialism and Afro-Cuban identity. It is now clear that Lam was intellectually engaged with contemporary anthropological analyses: whether those generated in Europe by figures such as his close friend Michel Leiris (Head of African Art at the Musée de l'Homme) or closer to home in Cuba, where Fernando Ortiz, Lydia Cabrera, Alejo Carpentier opened the critical discussion of Santería.”

The selected works were curated by Mr. Curtis Carter, Emeritus Director of the Haggerty in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Its presentation in St. Petersburg is curated by William Jeffett, Dalí Museum Curator of Special Exhibitions. Dr. Jeffett is an international authority on Salvador Dalí and modern Spanish art. Prior to coming to St. Petersburg the exhibition has been presented at the Haggerty Museum of Art, the Miami Art Museum and the Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach, California.

Salvador Dalí’s interest in mythology developed from his readings of Sigmund Freud, who looked to the myths of the past in order to understand fundamental principles of the human psyche. After reading Freud, Dalí wrote that he was “seized with the real vice of self-interpretation, not only of my dreams but of everything that happened to me, however accidental it might seem at first glance.” Seeing how Freud drew on his knowledge of classical mythology in his psychoanalytic theories, Dalí constructed his own artistic identity by employing his understanding of these myths and symbols in his art and writing. In his autobiography, The Secret Life (1942), Dalí borrows from myth and legend to create a fantastic persona, employing familiar myths in order to recast his life, obsessions and neuroses. For Dalí, these myths allowed him to make the personal appear universal, and they provided opportunities for powerful analogies. By alluding to mythic figures such as Oedipus and Narcissus, Dalí could exaggerate and recast his troubled

relationship with his father and his tendency towards megalomania, bringing his personal battles to a universal stage. Dalí also embraced the idea of exploring personal mythmaking, moving from classical myths to new myths based on such unusual sources as the legend of William Tell or the Angelus painting by Jean-François Millet. Dalí’s Memory of the Child-Woman (1931) brings together these two processes; it refers to the myth of Oedipus, which is an exemplar of a common rivalry between father and son. But the painting has a written reference to William Tell, the newer myth of the Swiss patriot and bowman who shot an apple off his son’s head. Dalí interpreted these legends as symbolic of paternal power and threat. In Archeological Reminiscence of Millet’s “Angelus” (1933-35), Dalí imagines a complex scenario of predatory female aggression. Both these myths transformed his own sexual anxieties and neuroses into universal themes. Myth in Dalí’s Art is curated by Joan Kropf, Dalí Museum Curator of the Collection.

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