Why is The Jungle by Wifredo Lam considered a Cubist masterpiece?
- Hybrid creatures – animal, human & plant
- A totem-tall woman with shears takes the blame
- Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism in the back seat
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Wifredo Lam taps into the core of The Jungle with this masterpiece. Jungles are messy mixtures of plant, animal, and man. Wifredo capitalizes on that essential chaotic trait. He blends subjects and even artistic movements here. We can see a Cubist and Surrealist influence in Lam’s work. But, much like the artist himself, his paintings are a distinct medley of elements.
Born in Cuba, Lam’s parents were Chinese and Cuban-African. He embodied a colorful quilt of cultural identity. That’s because Lam continued to absorb other cultural influences as well. For instance, he studied painting in Madrid and fought for the Spanish in their civil war. This selfless act for the Spanish people later ingratiated him to Picasso.
Lam also connected artistic movements with his avant-garde paintings. His artistry brought worlds together on the canvas as well as on a higher plane. Each Wifredo painting melds extremes. The Jungle shows us a sublime example of this. The implausible poses of unrecognizable beasts line up next to familiar bamboo stalks and palm leaves. This painting blends opposites at the art history level as well. It bridges differences between several art movements. These include Cubism, Surrealism, and the upcoming Abstract Expressionism.
The dictionary definition of “jungle” includes the words “overgrown”, “tangled”, and “dense”. Each of these terms presents a challenge. When we picture a trek through the jungle, there’s adversity. Lam connects that sense of danger with the beauty of the natural landscape in The Jungle. He brings together variant shapes, themes and even beings. These creatures aren’t quite human. But they’re also not recognizable animals. Lam grants them impossible limbs – like tree trunks with hands and feet. He props heads upon buttocks. On the base level, the scene evokes shock more than sense.
Body Parts Unnerve Us in The Jungle
Cubism gets a shout out thanks to Lam’s fragmented figures. There are four distinct creatures. That gives the painting a sense of balance even with all the breakage and chaos. After all, humans tend to cache elements into four groups – Earth, Air, Water, Fire. It’s a fundamental precept for how we see our world. These four figures share only a few traits in The Jungle. They bear stretched limbs and sharp, mask-like, faces. But otherwise, each has its own purpose and position. That’s where Surrealism rears and gallops through the piece.
Surrealism seeks to disconcert us. The discombobulated figures unnerve viewers. This fits into the Surrealist art movement. Lam’s painting skews our perspective. For instance, only one figure faces us. Yet we see several faces. The seated subject with a half moon head near the middle turns their body to us. The other three point rotund bottoms at viewers. Though it’s unclear how the rest of their bodies fit into each singular figure. They’re posed awry; into absurd configurations. Lam grips us with this body part puzzle. The Jungle intrigues us while also rattling our sense of reality.
The woman with scissors sets my favorite example. She’s a blend of soft and pointy forms. Breasts and buttocks round out the bottom of her figure. But Lam tops off her totem-tall body with a giant scissored spike. She holds them skyward at our right – proud. It’s as if Wifredo Lam hands her the honor of chopping his characters in The Jungle. This frees the artist from that responsibility. It empowers this woman and injects violence into her otherwise curvy, pliable figure.
This detail stands alone as a readable feature in Lam’s masterpiece. It’s otherwise a mass of confusion for many viewers. That’s because of all the gestural instances of disorder. Wifredo Lam didn’t only create The Jungle with these wild brushstrokes. He also forecast the Abstract Expressionist movement. His mark-making was way ahead of his time and its spontaneous impact feels just as powerful today. Lam’s painting hits us hard with a hybrid dichotomy of cultures and creatures.
The Jungle – FAQs
What did Wifredo Lam want his painting The Jungle to represent?
According to the Museum of Modern Art, Lam refers to how colonialism and slavery impacted his homeland of Cuba. The book Gardner’s Art Through the Ages speaks to Santeria as the inspiration for Lam’s The Jungle. It points out that this Cuban religion blends African practices with Anglo Catholicism.
Other art historians claim that Lam painted this masterpiece as a response to his friend, Picasso’s work Demoiselles d’Avignon. Given that there are thirty five years between the two paintings, if it was, this response has a remarkable, fresh spontaneity for such a long development time.
Where can I see The Jungle by Wifredo Lam in person?
This masterpiece lives at MOMA in New York City. Two things about The Jungle in person are surprising. The first, it’s overwhelming size. At about eight feet by about seven, the beastly figures seem larger than life. They’re also even more improbable in person. Up close, viewers can’t help but try to put together this unfathomable and impossible puzzle. Lam broke it apart on purpose.
Materials are the second shocker about The Jungle. I assumed this was oil on canvas when I saw it in books and online. But it’s actually gouache paint on paper. Gouache is like watercolor but a bit more opaque. Still, his stark contrasts in light, dark, and colors are remarkable given the fluidity of these materials.
Why is Wifredo Lam an important painter?
Lam created a distinctive style all his own. His personal history drove the painter to portray the Afro-Cuban spirit and culture. He thus blended this cultural style with renowned artists of his day. That included his buddy, Picasso as well as Matisse, Kahlo, and Rivera.
Wifredo Lam was known for blending figures into a magical metamorphosis. He broke down boundaries between animals, humans, plants, and objects. This resulted in beautiful, monstrous creatures. Nobody painted like Lam and these beasts remain one of a kind.
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Check out these other essays on Cubism
Kleiner, Fred, (2016), “Gardner’s Art Through the Ages”, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 16th, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. p 922
Alley, Rin. “Lam, Wifredo”. Grove Art Online. 1999-09-27. Oxford University Press.
Francisco-J. Hernández Adrián, “Paris, Cuba, New York: Wifredo Lam and the Lost Origins of The Jungle”. Cultural Dynamics.
“MoMA | Wifredo Lam. The Jungle. 1943”. www.moma.org.
Balderrama, Maria R., ed. Wifredo Lam and His Contemporaries 1938–1952. New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 1992.
Lucie-Smith, Edward. Latin American Art of the 20th Century. 2nd ed. London, England: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2004.