Wilfredo Lam : Nouveau nouveau monde, Galerie Gmurzynska
Dominique de Villepin a été invité à partager sa vision du dialogue entre peinture et poésie à l’occasion du vernissage de la rétrospective de l’oeuvre de Wilfredo Lam à la galerie Gmurzynska à Zurich. Il s’est exprimé en anglais au coeur de l’exposition du maître des deux rives.
The fraternity of sorcerers: Wifredo Lam and the poets
Nowhere are there as many ghosts as in paintings. A question has always nagged at me when looking at Lam’s works: what is a ghost? I believe, it is the shape of a memory, a spirit distilled through the mechanics of time. It is the part in us that doesn’t decay, but remains, endures and even fortifies. It is what art has been forged to bring back to life and to recreate. And, indeed, Lam’s paintings are lively ghosts of our new global culture. They emerge from the past, from the accumulation of images and inventions of the 20th century as something that speaks to us, that tells us how to confront this world of diversity, of uprooting and of exile, how to invent new magic where old beliefs have gone astray. They offer ceremonies for a new communion in modernity.
In a time of broken and bloody identities, in a time of cultural hegemony of mass-consumption, Wifredo Lam provides us a place of resistance, a refuge, a roof and even a womb for a new birth. As years go by, Wilfredo Lam keeps growing, at par with the giants of the century, to the size of the world, he, the son of a Chinese man from Guangdong and of a Cuban woman with both criollo and slave ancestors with origins in Africa, raised in Cuba and revealed in France, famous in America, shown throughout the world in beautiful exhibitions like this one, curated by the Galerie Gmurzynska of Zurich. Before the word globalization even entered our vocabulary, he embodied and exemplified the global man.
Not only was he global in his grasp of the world, but he was also universal in his understanding of art. He believed in an art of essence, a poetry of forms and colours that would allow cultures, languages and beliefs to interconnect and transcend their differences.
Our world is getting out of touch with itself. It is derailing and losing touch with its inner magic. To me, this mission of poetry that has accompanied man on his beautiful and violent journey through history, this function of language beyond concepts and realities, through evocations and invocations, is the true nature and the real force of Lam’s paintings and the reason why his relationship to poets and poetry is the key to his work. Among the many poets who accompanied him on the way of creation throughout his life, I would like to mention three of these masters of witchcraft of words who illustrate each a part of Lam’s deep and complex relationship to poetry, André Breton, Aimé Césaire and René Char. But they are only three of the trees of Wifredo Lam’s forest of inspiration, among Gherasim Luca, Benjamin Péret, Alain Jouffroy, Christian Zervos, Pierre Mabille or Yvan Goll.
Lam’s art was born out of the realm of poetry. Some friends-poets and before all André Breton have been the midwives of his forms and colours. Meeting and living with the poets in Paris, Marseille and the French Antilles between 1938 and 1941 has been decisive in the push towards his very personal singularity, that he achieved between 1935 and 1940 or 1942. As such, he was indebted to the masters of words, among which first of all to the Surrealists. In many regards fatefully, his first major collaboration on a book of poetry was for André Breton’s Fata Morgana in 1940, a piece censored by the Vichy Government and that had its part in the common exile of the two artists. Already, the text hinted at the « disquieting register of masks » (« le répertoire inquiétant des masques »). He was on common ground when discussing with André Breton, Michel Leiris or André Masson. He found in them the freedom of mind that he himself longed for and had seen in his Cuban poet friends like Nicolas Guillen or in Federico Garcia Lorca, met in his years in Madrid. But the movement around André Breton played a decisive role for Lam because it offered him the perspective of the reconciliation of the arts, between poetry, painting and sculpture. It endeavoured to break up the walls dividing the fields of different techniques and to gain access to a realm of imagination in which art and creation were unique and original. They rooted art in the creative mind – in the genius – putting aside the object of art, the œuvre d’art, as a mere concrete expression of the subject’s intention. They tried at the same time to bridge the trenches that separated reason and imagination, civilization and savagery. Science, art and politics were wrought together in an outcry for the unity of the spirit of mankind, regardless of time and place. This declaration of independence of art, this spirit of boundless freedom was the revelation Wifredo Lam needed to overcome the diversity of teachings, influences and impressions. It allowed him to connect again to his inner self and find, in the field of poetry, his own identity.
In the creative tempo of Wifredo Lam, there have always been times of respiration that allowed him to grow further and stronger. There were times of intense and massive creation, and other times dedicated to readings and reflection, to the acquisition of his comprehension of the world, and in particular readings of poetry and of ethnology. These words were the matter he painted with, he transformed into colours and into forms, dancing shapes of ritual dances of beastly figures with horns and sharp mouths, at some moment howling through touches of colours reminding of Miro’s windows to otherworldly colours, at another moment captured in solemn gestures on the dark backgrounds of a half-open inferno. Sensitive to words, he published himself poetical writings, in Spanish as well as in French, or favoured the publication and translation of his friends poems. But before all Wifredo Lam’s paintings are poetry beyond language itself.
The meeting with Aimé Césaire, master of the awakening of the « snake-charming Martinique» described by Breton, is another key to his work and to his relationship with poetry, with poems and with poets all at once. He did not conceive creation as an abstraction but as flesh and bone, as immediate friendship of two souls, one speaking, one listening, and as the intimate bond of a whole community, knit together by the commonwealth of words. His connection to Aimé Césaire’s négritude, to the solemn and inventive poetry of Haiti, of Rene Depestre or Jacques Stephen Alexis to the luxurious historical epics of the Caribbean spirit of Edouard Glissant had the same intimacy, because it opened up to him the horizon of his native land. It is not by chance that Aimé Césaire asked him in 1943 to translate in Spanish his Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. This « way home » was Lam’s own itinerary. He had left Cuba for Spain and France with not much more than dreams of what he would find, leaving a scorched and unspeakable land and he travelled back, in the turmoil of history, on the Capitaine-Paul-Lemerle, the « Flying Dutchman » of European intelligence, that was to transport in 1941 three hundred artists and intellectuals to their exile in the Americas, among which André Breton with his wife and daughter, Victor Serge, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anna Seghers. The Carribean was at this time under the spell of intolerance and political oppression, specifically in the French Antilles with Admiral Robert as governor.
But the movement of the négritude was not about restoring an old identity. It was about retrieving a dignity and inventing a destiny and a future. It was about transforming the most savage of experiences – slavery – in a reconciliation of the broken world. This poetry is a constant struggle, it is the banner of the humiliated and the language of rebellion. His figures are figures of danger and devouring, dark encounters in a time when the tragic of history reaped its fruits day after day in wars and massacres. With time, one could be tempted to assuage the images of Wifredo Lam, to keep them so to say in the closet of good manners. This would be high treason. All the poets he befriended throughout his life had in common this essential rebellion in the name of life. They were all sons of Arthur Rimbaud.
Lam aspired to a truly universal poetry. His mythology is the constellation of a global archipelago. His art announces the concepts of Edouard Glissant. He forged and wielded his very own language, a language of signs, of rites and of myths. A language of savagery and civilization, a natural language, a language borrowing from the enigmas of Chinese calligraphy, from the oral transmissions of Caribbean lore and from the conflagrations of surrealist poetry. Languages can sometimes be separations between men, the symbol of their incapacity to understand each other. He invented a mythology without words, open to all. This is also what he admired in Picasso’s painting, this access to naked universality. In this sense, Lam’s paintings are poems crowned by forms and colours. He found access to the senses. As the French philosopher Louis Althusser put it, he « speaks in silence our language this stranger, and we understand it » (“Cet homme étranger qui se tait, parle en silence notre langue cette inconnue, et nous l’entendons”.) Lam aspired to share visions. His art was an art where lightning strikes in every painting. It’s the result of a fantastic force hurled through the canvas. It’s a trace of the metaphysical. As André Breton described it, his aim was « from the primitive marvellous he bears in himself to reach the highest point of consciousness » (“Atteindre à partir du merveilleux primitif qu’il porte en lui le point de conscience le plus haut”).
There is a third poetic encounter in Lam’s life that bears witness to another fragment of what I believe to be his conception of poetry. It was the friendship with René Char, the sorcerer of L’Isle sur Sorgue, where he was born in the South of France. Wifredo Lam believed in charms, in the ability of searching through the earth for the sources of truth with the simple tool of words. He invites us to the ceremony of creation.
Wifredo Lam grew up in the mysteries of the Santeria of Cuba, under the guidance of his godmother Mantonica Wilson. In her ability to evoke and suggest, to tell and to chant, she was for him the real tutor in matters of creation of forms and of figures. And her teaching showed him that there is no essential difference between the word and the thing, between telling and showing, between saying and doing.
His magic is a magic of being. It’s the place where nature and culture become inseparable. No tree in his paintings can be compared to a real tree. They emerge out of the forests of the mind, of the memory of exiles and trans-shipments, they are trees as well as boats in which slaves are huddled. It’s the place where mankind, the animal realm and the sphere of vegetation get confused in one archaic reality. Are they portraits? Are they landscape paintings? No one can tell. There are only exchanges of substance and degrees of existence as in the painting Canaima, named after the forest region in Venezuela, and in which he wishes to capture the « forest spirit ».
In Le Rempart de Brindilles, poems of René Char illustrated with five etchings of Wifredo Lam, the bird figures, black, white or multicoloured, are assembled in triangles of golden light and red flames. They don’t merely illustrate the verses. They are their keepers and guardians, watching us while we let the text flow out of the pages of the book. The painter found in the illustration of poems a way to transform his technique, to adapt it to the formats and necessities of etchings and lithographs, taking pleasure in the collaboration with gifted printers and publishers like Giorgio Upiglio.
What he shows us is an infinite saraband of masks, of devils and of beasts that is imprisoned in these canvases, a “danse macabre” in the honour of life where we see creatures, as René Char described them, “made thinner by the nervosism of art” (“amaigries par le nervosisme de l’art”). The masks of fear are held up against the day of truth. They act as intermediaries, as veils, as window-blinds to make reality acceptable and understandable. His paintings as Edouard Glissant rightly put it, are « genre paintings of mystery ». Aimé Césaire wrote that his friend Lam was « the spirit of creation » (“l’esprit de la creation”)
Few painters have developed such a natural and intense fusion with poets and their poems. In a way, Lam worked and lived in a time of experiments and visual discoveries, a time in which poetry had been blown up by the audacity of visionaries like Arthur Rimbaud, Georg Trakl or TS Eliot and the paintings were radically reinvented through abstraction since the intuitions of Kandinsky, Braque or Picasso. He arrived in Europe at the moment of reinvention of the arts when nothing could be said self-evident anymore. He was to carry further this legacy of Modernity, to open a path in the inner jungles of consciousness for a reconciled art, without words and without figures to take form.
In this sense, not only was Lam a poet, not only did he charm poets into singing in tune to his paintings, but he makes each and every one of his spectators a poet. The person who watches his paintings is drawn into the act of creation in the same way no one who attends a ceremony of the Santeria can remain out of reach of the magic. By entering his world, we belong to a new community of perpetually new creation, a community of desire and longing. As Aimé Césaire said, « Wifredo Lam doesn’t look. He feels » (“Il ne regarde pas. Il sent”.) And he teaches us how to feel through the universal body of mankind. He opens, with force and even violence, the gates of a reunited world.