How can I learn from Wifredo Lam? A guide for art lovers who have a full time job

michael-zhang By Michael Zhang – Assurance, Audit, EY UK&I

Wifredo Lam is one of the most iconic artists to have emerged from Cuba in the twentieth century. I was lucky enough to have joined a tour of The EY Exhibition: Wifredo Lam, hosted by its Assistant Curator, Katy Wan, in October. As mentioned by Katy during the tour, this exhibition aims at improving public recognition of Lam as an influential artist in Western society.


Lam’s rich multi-cultural background has made me very interested to learn more about him, both as an artist and as a person. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he had initially trained towards a career in law before deciding to go to art school. As a trained accountant and art lover myself, it is interesting to see how Lam progressed in his career as a professional artist and I’d like to explore what led to his success. In this way, I hope that I may help you to think about new ways to pursue your own passion for art and artistry, while juggling a full time job.

1. Learn from the greatest
When Lam first arrived at Madrid, he became a student under Fernando Zaragoza, who was also known as the teacher of the renowned surrealist Salvador Dali. Now we can clearly see influences from Surrealism on his works, as the dreamlike and obscure feeling has been observed in his works throughout his career. Also, Lam’s work of still lifes, portraits and landscapes shows influence from Matisse. However, I think Cubism left the strongest mark on his paintings. After visiting Picasso’s exhibition, Lam said that it was “not only a revelation, but… a shock.”

Picasso and Lam
If you are keen artist who does not work full-time on your creative works, I think it can be incredibly helpful to look at the works of old masters as much as you can and learn from them. If you live in cities such as London and New York, visiting good museums or galleries on a regular basis can bring fresh ideas to your creativity. There are numerous examples of artists learning from each other. Jeff Koons ‘stole’ ideas from Duchamp, Zeng Fanzhi ‘borrowed’ concepts from Da Vinci, Murakami ‘copied’ from Francis Bacon, and, of course, Lam ‘learnt’ from Picasso. Referencing other works of art occurs on almost every creative work by an artist, so we shouldn’t miss additional learning opportunities from other artists’ works. We should think about how we can utilise the materials in different ways.

Personally speaking, when it comes to seeking inspiration, Tate galleries in London are always my first port of call; Tate Modern for modern art and Tate Britain for British art from 1500 to the present day. National Gallery is a perfect spot for art research in old masters and impressionism paintings. There are also a variety of contemporary art galleries in London such as Saatchi Gallery, which are normally free to enter. If you do not live in big cities, apps such as Arts & Culture give you access to famous art works around the world with extremely high definition.

2. Draw on your cultural background
Wifredo Lam was born and raised in Sagua La Grande, a village in the sugar farming province of Villa Clara, Cuba. His father was a Chinese immigrant and his mother, the former Ana Serafina Castilla, was born to a Congolese former slave mother and a Cuban mulatto father. From a young age, Lam was surrounded by people of African descent; his family practiced Catholicism alongside their African traditions. Through his godmother, a Santería priestess, Lam was exposed to rites of the African orishas.

His contact with African celebrations and spiritual practices proved to be his largest artistic influence. For example, one of the most celebrated paintings by Lam, The Jungle was inspired by Santería. In this painting, you can also see a number of major influences from various other sources. Apart from Santería, Lam was almost certainly influenced by both cubism and primitivism. Both movements were led by Pablo Picasso.

As artists, we can try to embrace our distinctive cultural and social backgrounds in our creative works. It is also often the way to create breakthroughs in artistic styles and concepts. The work of one of my favourite Asian artists, Takashi Murakami, went viral in the West because of his successful attempt in bridging Japanese pop culture and the Western way of referencing and marketing art works; Sir Anish Kapoor’s religious beliefs are present in his installations and architectural designs; and the artistic style of David Hockney has been tremendously influenced by his experience in Los Angeles.

3. Stay politically and socially aware and expand your personal network
It’s intriguing to see how Lam’s diverse social and professional experiences finally interacted and intertwined, leading him to produce the most celebrated art works of his career. They helped him to open up an extensive personal network that others could never have imagined as an artist. Lam had an acute political and social awareness, which he owes much of his artwork to. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he sided with the Republicans and used his talent to help create posters and propaganda. He was later incapacitated in 1937 and sent to Barcelona, where he met Helena Holzer and Manolo Hugué, who later introduced him to Picasso. Lam left for Marseille in 1940 at the outbreak of WWII and decided to re-connect with artistic groups such as the Surrealists. In Marseille, Lam collaborated with Breton on the publication of Breton’s poem Fata Morgana, which was illustrated by Lam. Lam was later imprisoned and then released and allowed to leave for Cuba in 1941. After his arrival, he continued to fight for Cuba’s cultural freedom as he believed that the Afro-Cuban culture was degraded and made picturesque for the sake of tourism. His time in Cuba marked a rapid evolution of his style. His style was also distinctive because of its fusion of Surrealist and Cubist approaches with imagery and symbols from Santería.

Social and political awareness has long been very important to the creativity of artists’ works since the origin of art in the Lascaux Caves. Similarly to Lam, Vincent van Gogh empathised with and sometimes depicted the ‘working class’, leading him to create some of the most celebrated works early in his career. Contemporary pop artists such as Andy Warhol, too, found inspiration for their works in observing society and the economy.

When Lam was in Europe, Picasso introduced him to the inner circle of the modern art world, including Georges Braque, Joan Miro, Henry Matisse and Fernand Leger. Lam developed not only his skills, but his thoughts by learning from ‘masters’. The art dealer Loeb gave Lam his first exhibition at the Galerie Pierre Loeb in 1939, which received an enthusiastic response from critics. Picasso and Lam also exhibited their work together in New York in the same year. Networks have long been of great importance to the success of artists. Artistry seems to breed artistry. Just look at Paris – it has created so many influential painters. (We do also see painters who don’t depend on networks and, more frequently, work alone, such as Paul Cézanne.)

To art lovers who also have a full time job…
Gauguin started as a professional services provider (a stockbroker), and later became one of the most influential artists ever lived. You might think I am advising you to quit your job at this point! Not at all. Sure, artists have historically been forced to choose between ‘the moon’ and ‘six pence’, but now it is the twenty first century. With well-designed applications such as Arts & Culture, art and artistry is accessible to anyone who has a smart phone and a sketch book. In my opinion, working in a profession outside of the creative industry could actually help you create more alternative and unique works because you are likely to apply such different references and experiences from those who pursue a full-time career as an artist. If you’re not in the creative industry but you are artistically inclined, I hope this helps you think about how you can continue to enjoy your passion for the arts, even if it’s not a part of your day job!

The EY Exhibition: Wifredo Lam is open until 8 January at Tate Modern. EY people receive free access as part of The EY Tate Arts Partnership.