Anne Egger – Wifredo Lam or the Exultations of the Unpredictable

Excerpt from the catalogue “Wifredo Lam – Fire Tongues: Ceramics”, published by Galerie Gmurzynska on the occasion of an exhibition at the gallery spaces in St. Moritz and Zug.

Excerpt from the catalogue “Wifredo Lam – Fire Tongues: Ceramics”, published by Galerie Gmurzynska on the occasion of an exhibition at the gallery spaces in St. Moritz and Zug.


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Wifredo Lam


galerie gmurzynska

Wifredo Lam or the Exultations of the Unpredictable by Anne Egger

Damp clay, enamels, kilns, yet you are neither

ground nor sky nor water nor fire but the

dust of atoms and of the same grain: that of


(Serge Sautreau)

Wifredo Lam (1902-1982),

internationally renowned for his

painted work and his prints, was a

man without frontiers, an unbounded

creator. Of Cuban origin, a great

defender of forgotten or oppressed

cultures, he put all his talent

into exercising the powers of his

imagination. He was a pioneer of

multiculturalism, both synthetic and

syncretic, a forerunner in conceiving

of an international modern art and

one of the first of his countrymen

to poetically revisit Caribbean

mythology. Rising up at the

crossroads, his art – through its many

different techniques – re-engages the

telluric forces of nature, impelling us

to contemplate what is universal and

authentic to our existence. When the

time was ripe for Lam to work with

ceramics, he experienced these forces

hands-on, producing metaphoric,

highly original creations.

During his whole life and throughout

his numerous travels and encounters,

Lam never ceased to renew, or

interchange, his different modes of

expression. In 1917, a student in

Havana, he followed a calling for

sculpture before opting for painting.

He began to take an interest in

ceramic work, periodically, beginning

in the 1950s. After a few trials with

the medium in Cuba and in Italy, he

was encouraged to pursue ceramics by

the Danish artist, Asger Jorn. There

are ceramics that were created jointly

by both artists, like the vase from 1959

exhibited here. While Lam decorated

a set of dishware and made his first

sculptures in the year 1970-1971, he

took his definitive leap into the art of

ceramics in 1975, “beating the barrier

of the air” [René Char] and making

it his true passion. It was no accident

of fate that he had just completed

several trips to India. In India, he had

seen how earth as a material enters

every aspect of life, from religion to

architecture and where numerous

potters, all of lower caste, work with a

wide variety of regional traditions.

From 1960, Lam divided his time

between Paris and Albissola, the

Italian capital of ceramics – the

equivalent of Vallauris his friend

Picasso brought out of oblivion.

Similarly this small village of

fishermen and potters on the Ligurian

coast had its place on the map ever

since the Renaissance but only truly

made its mark in the 20th century.

As early as 1934, many artists from

Aerofuturism (also known as the

Second Futurist movement) – Rosso,

Munari, Fillia, Farfa and Lucio

Fontana – frequented the Mazzotti

factory in Albissola. It was Tullio

Mazzotti who, in 1938, joined

Marinetti in signing the Manifesto

futuristo della ceramica e aeroceramica.

After the war, Albissola attracted

artists from all over the world. It was

this remarkable collaboration between

artists of the avant-garde and local

artisans that propelled this ancestral

tradition into the domain of the arts.

In August 1954, Asger Jorn and two

veterans of the Nuclear movement,

Enrico Baj and Sergio Dangelo,

the group that had founded the

International Movement for an

Imaginist Bauhaus only the year

before, organized an international

event in Albissola, the Incontri

Internazionali della ceramica. Among

the artists who gathered at the

Mazzotti factory were those affiliated

with the Spatialist movement such

as Lucio Fontana, Crippa, Dova;

the CoBrA artists, Corneille and

Karel Appel; but also Matta, ousted

from surrealism; Guy Debord; and

Édouard Jaguer who had created

Phases. United in their stand against

geometric abstraction, functionalism

and cultural conformism, they came

together for several days to embrace

and promote an experimental attitude


to art. Wifredo Lam found the

invitation from Jorn – his friend since

1946 – upon his return from Cuba.

Very much taken by the proposal,

he set off immediately, only to arrive

too late: the artists had already left

the Ligurian coast. Lam, whose work

and exhibitions kept him constantly

traveling between Paris, New York,

Caracas, Malmö and Stockholm

– including a voyage to the Mato

Grosso with a team of gold diggers

– did not return to Albissola until

the summer of 1957, the year Jorn

and Debord founded the Situationist

International. Increasingly drawn

to the place for its cosmopolitan,

free and friendly atmosphere, Lam

returned every year before making

it his permanent residence in 1962.

Jorn, who encouraged him to try his

hand at ceramics, introduced him

to the Ceramiche San Giorgio, a

studio founded by Eliseo Salino and

Giovanni Poggi in 1958. Over the

years, Salino and Poggi welcomed and

accompanied over 170 artists when

they came to experiment with and

create in ceramics: Fontana, Sassu,

Fabbri, the Chinese artist Hsiao Chin,

the Argentinean artist Carlos Carle….

This artistic laboratory is where Jorn

executed, in 1959, his monumental

artwork for the Aarhus high school

– a true feat, considering this is the

largest ceramic work (100m2) ever


Wifredo Lam’s first ceramics from this

period – incised tondi or panels in

relief – set the tone for his later works.

But he appeared to lack confidence,

admitting at this stage: “I didn’t feel

very comfortable with this medium I

couldn’t dominate.” He did assimilate

the difficult technique, however, but

without great enthusiasm. Perhaps he

didn’t feel ready to let the medium

guide him or maybe the firing process

proved too challenging, for it led

to more accidents than successes.

Even though Lam did not take up

ceramics again for ten years, the

experience had given him a taste of

the alchemical processes involved

and alchemy had always fascinated

him – ever since the 1940s. The

metamorphosis of his figures and the

environment, the state of perpetual

transformation echoing Afro-Cuban

myth are the expression in his

paintings of the alchemical notion of

uniting spirit and matter.

Two years after the death of his

friend Jorn, in the summer of 1975,

Wifredo Lam once again took to

the road of San Giorgio. This time

ceramics became his passion. He

threw himself into the new plastic

medium with unbridled energy and

motivation, Giovanni Poggi always at

his side to assist him and administer

to his needs. Lam evokes this period

as a “new emotional experience,” for

“working earth and fire is a passionate

act.” He set aside the tools of the

painter and plunged into the material.

The metamorphosis carried out by

the hand that models or structures is

humanity’s oldest creative act. And

likewise, since time immemorial,

setting a pattern on a plate has

ritual and symbolic meaning.

Ceramic work is an operation that is

experimental by definition; it is also

an act of magic where chance and

the unknown rule supreme. Not only

are the colors applied with a blind

palette, but the fire transforms the

human act. “What has interested me

from the start is to follow the almost

alchemical mutations which allow

the pictorial sign to enter the state of

being a volume within space,” said

Lam, before adding: “I do this for

the creative freedom of art.” Indeed,

he once compared this exulted and

spontaneous freedom to his discovery

of surrealist automatic writing in

1938. Lam worked for months at a

time, inventing something new every

day. Serge Sautreau evokes this in a

poem: “The game, this time, makes

him feverish. He grows so passionate

he can no longer sleep as these

sudden irruptions – accidental –

parade forth during the firing process.

For the surprises tied to the different

intensities of the incandescence,


the precipitation of colors and their

transfiguration in the ardent cave. For

the metamorphoses the flames inflict

on the drawing, the enamel, for its

dream matter”.

Lam’s ceramic work, in which “evils,

enamels, animals” interplay and

ignite, consists of original, curious

objects, objects diverted from their

utility: plates as masks or spiked

reliefs, sculpted cups which cannot

hold anything. In an iconoclastic

gesture, entirely given over to the

pleasure of transgression, Lam incises

or adds more clay. He chisels, digs,

notches or rolls back whole sheaths

of clay to give a fish its flight. And

hence the artist attained a threedimensionality

that is both ancestral

and tribal in its method of bringing

life to forms. A truly “Lamian”

mythology invades these plates and

tondi – fantastic figures, emerging

from his mind’s fertile world, “an

outside-memory bestiary”: ancestor

made divine, zoomorphic ghost,

totemic sign, traced lines of voodoo

initiations, and more: mask, fish, bird,

horse-woman. They have all come

out of the forest of Lam’s Jungle to

anchor themselves in the clay.

admired by fellow artists and

exhibited the world over. The fruit of

the artist’s dialogue with the earth and

with color, they are peopled by his

dreams. Talking about great painters

becoming ceramicists, Gaston

Bachelard wrote: “They’re the ones

who cook their colors. With fire, they

make light.”

Anne Egger

One of the painter’s greatest

pleasures was to invent new tints

or combinations of colors glazed

by fire, delighting in a form of

experimentation that has no end.

This magician of color knew how to

alternate matt or gloss effects, bright

or muted tones. Unless he chose

to use the aerograph technique, he

superimposed enamels, sprinkled

on oxides or added pieces of glass,

producing multiple and various

combinations. These coatings –

glazes, drops, lumps, cracks, blisters –

which are in fact carefully sought-out

effects, are original creations in and of


Wifredo Lam is a protean, multifaceted

artist. His over 400 ceramics,

metamorphosed in the singing kilns

of Albissola, are unique pieces,



Fire Tongues

Ceramics by Wifredo Lam

20 February – 20 March 2012

Galerie Gmurzynska St. Moritz

25 April – 30 June 2012

Galerie Gmurzynska Zug

© Galerie Gmurzynska, 2012

Concept: Krystyna Gmurzynska, Mathias Rastorfer

Texts by: Anne Egger, Lou Laurin-Lam, Eskil Lam, Jeannette Weiss

Translations: Unity Woodman, Zena Li, Francesco Trabaldo Togna, Donatella Zazzi, ManRey Übersetzungen GmbH

Design and realization: Edoardo Pepino

Coordination: Jeannette Weiss, Maria Florut

Printed by: Grafiche Step, Parma

Images rights:

© Wifredo Lam Estate

© Paolo Zappaterra

© Christophe Laurentin

All rights reserved




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