Rare books illustrated by renowned Cuban artist Wifredo Lam are on display in the Wren Library until 14 June 2018.
Lam is best known for large-scale paintings that fuse modernist and surrealist aesthetics with Afro-Cuban imagery to explore themes of power, spirituality and nature.
He also engaged in dialogues with poets, composing with them spectacular livres d’artistes such René Char’s Contre une maison sèche, Jean-Dominique Rey’s L’herbe sous les pavés and Ghérasim Luca’s Apostroph’ Apocalypse, considered as ‘one of the most beautiful books of the century’ by Le Monde’s art critic. The only copy available in the UK is in the Wren Library.
Lam published a large portfolio of prints in collaboration with Aimé Césaire. Original typescripts and manuscripts by Césaire and associated documents relating to this work will be on display in the exhibition, lent by the Wifredo Lam Estate in Paris
The books displayed in the new exhibition are part of the Kessler Collection of Artists’ Books, which were donated to the Wren Library by the late Nicholas Kessler, who studied Economics and Law at Trinity in the 1950s.
During his lifetime, Kessler gave many illustrated books to the Wren Library, which feature original works by the likes of Braque, Léger, Miró, Picasso, Matisse and Hockney. The Kessler Collection also contains a fine example of a very rare livre de dialogue between Stephane Mallarmé and Edouard Manet, Le Corbeau.
Born in Cuba in 1902 to a Cantonese father and mother of Spanish and African heritage, Lam was to experience the cultures of Europe, and North and South America during tumultuous times.
Showing early artistic talent, he studied at art school in Havana and then Madrid. He fought in the Spanish Civil War, moving to Paris in 1938 where he became friends with Picasso. In the avant-garde milieu of the time, Lam’s work moved towards modernism and he experimented with Cubism and Surrealism.
In 1941, after 18 years in Europe, Lam returned to Cuba and rediscovered local African traditions – which the recent Tate Modern exhibition credits with transforming his work:
‘Lam’s distinctive style and exploration of Afro-Cuban visual culture, alongside his knowledge of European modernism, made a huge impact on the art world. Through his work, Lam was able to challenge assumptions about non-European art and examine the effects of colonialism.’
The Kessler Collection includes Le Théâtre et les dieux, which has five aquatints by Lam – his response to the writings of the poet Antonin Artaud, who had been studying non-Western forms of spirituality in Mexico in the 1930s.
Trinity Fellow, and Senior Lecturer in French Studies, Dr Jean Khalfa, said:
‘Such a text had been significant for Lam, whose discovery of the complex cultural history of his native island was prompted by encounters with Picasso and the Surrealists in Paris before the Second World War, and who was now creating in his paintings a great metamorphic theatre of sensuous animal gods inspired by the Santeria religion.’
Dr Khalfa recently co-edited Alienation and Freedom¸ a collection of unpublished works by the Martinique psychiatrist, revolutionary thinker and writer, Frantz Fanon. Among the long lost items recovered by Dr Khalfa is Fanon’s theatre – some of which was inspired by one of Lam’s paintings.
At the exhibition launch, the audience was treated to readings of Aimé Césaire’s poetry and a talk by Dorota Dolega-Ritter and Eskil Lam, of the Fondation Wifredo Lam, in Paris, about Lam’s collaboration with poets in the books on display in the Wren Library, as well as with printmakers.
Wifredo Lam, Books and Poetry, will be on display in the Wren Library until 14 June 2018. The Wren Library is open to the public, 12-2pm, Monday to Friday (last admission 1.50) and 10.30-12.30 on Saturdays (last admission 12.20).
Wifredo Lam: Livres d’artiste