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A major retrospective of one of Cuba's most notable 20th century artists.

Wifredo Lam’s was a life of unsettling turmoil. While still in his twenties, he lost his wife and only child to tuberculosis, after which he joined the Republicans to fight in the Spanish Civil War. He then moved to Paris, only to flee the German occupation, returning to his native Cuba. Over the following decade he witnessed his country’s revolution from Paris, to which he had returned.

Born in Sagua La Grande in 1902, the eighth child of a mother of African, Indian and European descent and a Chinese father, Wifredo Óscar de la Concepción Lam y Castilla moved to Madrid at 21, where he studied with the painter Fernando Alvarez de Sotomayor y Zaragoza, who was also director of the Prado and had taught Salvador Dalí.

By the late 1930s Lam was living and exhibiting in Paris, where he fell in with Picasso, whose eye had been caught by his use of African imagery and whose influence on his work is pronounced. The Surrealist André Breton was another friend, as were André Masson and Claude Lévi-Strauss, with all of whom he fled to Martinique in 1941, before resettling in Cuba again. He continued to travel, not least to Haiti, where he was fascinated by voodoo, and New York in 1946, where he met Arshile Gorky and Marcel Duchamp. He eventually returned to Paris, where he died in 1982.

‘All art is tragedy,’ he told the American magazine ARTnews in 1950. ‘For me painting is a torment.’ No surprise, then, that the 200 or so works in Tate’s major retrospective – the first museum exhibition of Lam’s work in the UK since 1952 – have a disquieting emotional intensity in their treatment of injustice and death.

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