|Africa has been (wholly or partially) the focus of a number of cultural events over the last six months. The first of these was the Leiris & Co exhibition, which took place at the Centre Pompidou in Metz from 3 March to 14 September 2015. This exhibition had first been turned down by the big institutions (Louvre, Beaubourg, Quai Branly) for reasons which remain obscure: “Too melancholic”.|
Africa has been (wholly or partially) the focus of a number of cultural events over the last six months. The first of these was the Leiris & Co exhibition, which took place at the Centre Pompidou in Metz from 3 March to 14 September 2015. This exhibition had first been turned down by the big institutions (Louvre, Beaubourg, Quai Branly) for reasons which remain obscure: “Too melancholic”. Since when has melancholy been the enemy of art? “Too specialised”. If ever there was an author who crossed the century, on first name terms with it, navigating between arts and disciplines, it was Michel Leiris. Very early, at the age of twelve, at his parents’ home, he met the wordsmith Raymond Roussel; then was initiated into poetry and art alongside Max Jacob and André Masson. The latter introduced him to Breton. He became a surrealist (for a while), but really blossomed working for the art magazine Documents in the company of Georges Bataille and Marcel Griaule, who hired him as secretary for the Dakar-Djibouti exhibition in 1932. He was now in Africa, from where he would return with an ethnographic bomb: L’Afrique fantôme, published by Gallimard under the aegis of André Malraux. A book which was to cost Leiris the friendship of Marcel Griaule, so shocking was the revelation of the conditions surrounding the collection of objets d’art in Africa. In a letter (quoted by Philippe Dagen in Le Monde of 6 April 2015) to his wife, Zette, he writes: “These obects (…), when you see them, will be in Paris, in a box or a museum display case. They will have lost all their freshness and will have been degraded to the rank of abject collectors’ items”. Words which echo the famous decline of the aura described by Walter Benjamin, or the beautiful film by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker “Les statues meurent aussi” (Statues also die). And Leiris knew what he was talking about: he was the son-in-law of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, one of the most famous gallery owners of the century; he was also friends with Picasso, Giacometti, Miró, Bacon and Lam. I have always had a very special affection for him: he brought to the countries of the south a warm and lucid gaze. The continent of Senghor owes him l’Afrique fantôme and a beautiful book on African art written together with the anthropologist Jeanine Delange; Michel Leiris was, moreover, very close to Césaire. He was the first to describe the society of his friend’s island in the light of the contact between civilisations.
On the subject of the Caribbean, I am reminded of the meeting between Breton and Césaire in Fort-de-France, Martinique. Let us recall the facts. Marseilles 1941. Many surrealists have taken refuge in Provence and particularly Marseilles. Urged by the American journalist Varian Fry, the American Emergency Rescue Committee smuggles out part of the French intelligentsia, including André Breton. On 25 March, the ship Capitaine Paul-Lemerle leaves Marseilles for New York. On 24 April, it calls at Fort-de-France. On his arrival, André Breton is interned in the Lazaret concentration camp. After his release, he discovers, in a haberdasher’s shop where he has come to buy a ribbon for his daughter, an issue of Tropiques (a magazine jointly edited by the philosopher René Ménil and the poet Aimé Césaire) and reads extracts from Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land). A rich intellectual friendship between the poets is born. For Césaire, the patronage of the surrealist high priest Breton brings international recognition. Breton, on the other hand, owes to his contact with Césaire an excursion into poetry which positions the poet as subject (rather than object) of the discourse – notably in his Ode à Charles Fourier – something he previously condemned. But the fecundity of this meeting would spread far beyond the two poets. It was an indirect source of La Jungle by Cuban painter Wifredo Lam (who was also on board the Capitaine Paul-Lemerle), to whom the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris is currently paying homage in a fine retrospective exhibition from 30 September to 15 February under the curatorship of Catherine David.
Wifredo Óscar de la Concepción Lam y Castilla was born in Sagua la Grande, Cuba, in 1902 to a Chinese father Lam Yam and a mother of African origin. From 1918 to 1923, Lam attended the Havana School of Fine Arts. In the autumn of 1923, he emigrated to Spain, where he studied under Sotamayor at the School of Fine Arts in Madrid, discovered the Spanish Golden Age and married Eva Piriz in 1929, who gave him a son the following year. But in 1931, mother and son died of tuberculosis. From 1936 he became involved in the defence of the Spanish Republic and Madrid. In 1938, carrying a letter of recommendation from the Catalan sculptor Manolo Hughé, Lam went to Paris to see Picasso, who immediately gave him his support. And so began a dazzling career under Picasso’s wing. Picasso asked Michel Leiris to introduce his friend to African art. That same year, Lam exhibited at the Loeb gallery and made the acquaintance of André Breton and Benjamin Perret. In 1940 the war forced him to leave Paris. He went to Marseilles, where he reconnected with a number of his surrealist friends: Pierre Mabille, René Char, Max Ernst, Victor Brauner, Oscar Dominguez, etc. In 1941, he embarked for America on the Paul de Merle with Breton, Lévi-Strauss and several other intellectuals. Calling at Fort-de-France, on a memorable walk in the forest with Breton, Masson and Césaire, Lam rediscovered the scenery of the tropics, the theme of his famous painting La Jungle, where fauna, flora and man live together. Exhibited for the first time at the Pierre Matisse gallery in New York in 1943, this work made a powerful impact. “This convulsive beauty, sprung from a convulsive island during the convulsions of war,” writes Alain Jouffroy, “was structured by the artist as a ceremony, imbuing the painting with the irresistible power of a declaration (not to say a ‘manifesto’).”•1
Lam’s masterpiece has elicited many interpretations. Some have compared it to the works of Douanier Rousseau. A dubious comparison, according to Lam, even though he recognises the great talent of Apollinaire’s friend: “Douanier Rousseau, as you know,” he says to Max-Pol Fouchet, “painted the primeval forest, the jungle, in Le Rêve, Le Lion ayant faim, Les Singes, etc., with giant flowers, snakes. He was a wonderful painter! But he does not fit into my natural chain. He does not condemn what happens in the jungle. I do. Yes. Look at my monsters, their gestures. The one on the right offers his backside, obscene as a prostitute. Also look at the scissors being brandished. My idea was to show the spirit of the Black people in the situation they found themselves in. I showed, through poetry, the reality of acceptance and protest.”•2 This critique of Douanier Rousseau by Lam is precious. Beyond Rousseau, it was also Lam’s annexation to surrealist painting that he was objecting to. Indeed, Lam admired Breton, who had been a generous go-between for him in Parisian intellectual circles, but his painting transcended the little surrealist clique. Such annexation was also very promptly rejected by the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier in 1948•3, when he countered surrealism with Latin-American magic realism.
If there is one influence which, though less debated, nevertheless pervades La Jungle, it is that of Aimé Césaire. It is well-known how important his reading of Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, translated for the first time into Spanish by the anthropologist Lydia Cabrera with the magnificent preface by Benjamin Perret and illustrations by Lam, was for the painter. The dedication on the off-print of the volume, presented by Aimé Césaire to his friend before his departure for Cuba, which can currently be seen and read at Beaubourg, aptly conveys their deep mutual affection•4.
La Jungle is a Cahier d’un retour au pays natal seen from behind. La Jungle enshrines, woven within it, a hymn to the forest which, in the Caribbean, is a place of memory, once a precious refuge from violence for the Maroons, in the days of slavery; La Jungle is a manifesto, because it is a cry, like The Cry (or The Scream) by Munch.
Like Césaire’s poetry, throwing together animals, plants and humans, Lam’s painting is baroque (humans that are half plant, half animal, with masks for faces). Hence the disturbing reception of their work. Regarding Césaire, Jean Guéhenno speaks of “bogeyman poetry” (“une poésie de croque-mitaines”). Referring to Lam’s La Jungle, Max-Pol Fouchet draws a parallel with Grünewald’s Altarpiece. This “barbaric poem” was once identified with the work of the devil. Let us recall that La Jungle had caused a furore when it was exhibited in New York in 1943. When Lam visited that city three years later, some critics, we are told by Max-Pol Fouchet, were amazed to see that the painter drank whisky, like they did. They expected him to drink warm blood. His compatriots were no better. These are Lam’s words: “When I was painting it, the doors and windows of my studio were open. The passers-by could see it. They would exclaim: Let’s not look, it’s the devil! They were right. One of my friends saw in it a spirit reminiscent of certain mediaeval representations of Hell.”•5 This ubiquitous violence in both Césaire’s and Lam’s work is cathartic: it is a healthy response to an intolerable existential situation. To that extent, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal and La Jungle are admirable historic legacies. It is regrettable that the intended collaboration between the two artists could not materialise.
In 1981, Lam, weakened by illness, expressed to his friend his wish to bring together poems and engravings in a joint work. He then produced Annonciation, a series of etchings, for which he invited Aimé Césaire to compose a poem. Césaire wrote nine texts sharing titles with as many of Lam’s etchings, then added a tenth in homage to Mantonica Wilson, a Black priestess of Santería (a syncretic religion, a sort of Cuban version of Voodoo). Wilson was Lam’s godmother, at whose home the painter first saw African masks. But Lam died a year later. The ten poems were published by Seuil in Moi, laminaire by the Orpheus of the Caribbean. By way of farewell, Aimé Césaire wrote this beautiful poem which he dedicated (posthumously) to his friend:
in those times time was the umbrella of a beautiful woman maize was her body her hair a flood
in those times the earth was unsworn
in those times the heart of the sun did not explode (the sun was smooth with neither scales nor frills)
in those times the rivers were perfumed incandescence in those times friendship was a pledge
a pebble from a sun that you snapped up
in those times the chimera was not clandestine nor was it a saw ladder against a wall
against the Wall
then came a man who hobbled words
then came a man who munched mountains
then came a man who spread his hands like alpine pastures so that a cloud might graze
then came a man with a desperate claim
then came a man who had for a long time stood between the hyena and the vulture
at the foot of a baobab a man came
a man-wind a man-door
time was not a gringo weakling I mean a man-drum
a man came a man•6.
•1 Alain Jouffroy, Lam, Paris, Editions Georges Fall, 1972, p. 54
•2 Max-Pol Fouchet, Wifredo Lam, Paris, Albin Michel, 1984, p. 33
•3 Alejo Carpentier, Chroniques, translated from Spanish by L. F. Durand, Paris, Galli- mard, 1984, p. 344
•4 “To Wifredo Lam, as a token of my friendship and admiration, this poem about our revolts, our hopes and our passion.”
•5 Max-Pol Fouchet, op. cit ; p. 33
•6 Aimé Césaire, Moi, laminaire, Paris, Seuil, 182, pp. 90-91
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