Louis Althusser on Wifredo Lam

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In anticipation of visiting the Wifredo Lam exhibition at the Tate Modern, London, here is  a translation of a short text by Louis Althusser on the Cuban painter, included in vol. 2 of Écrits philosophiques et politiques (Paris: IMEC, 1995). The text in italics is from the volume’s editors.

Lam (1977)

This text, entitled “Lam” by Althusser, was commissioned from him by Wifredo Lam in a letter dated 18 August 1977. It was to feature in the catalogue of a retrospective on Lam’s work at the Nanterre Maison de la Culture in April 1978, which was ultimately cancelled. Going by Lam’s letter, the catalogue was to also include texts by Aimé Césaire, Gabriel García Márquez and Alejo Carpentier. Althusser sent this text to Wifredo Lam, along with a letter dated 13 October 1977.

            Althusser’s text was finally published shortly after the death of the painter in 1982, in the three catalogues of an exhibition which travelled from the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Madrid (20 October-12 December 1982), then to the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris (23 March-22 May 1983), and lastly to the Ixelles Museum of Bruxelles. The catalogue of the Paris exhibition is entitled Wifredo Lam: 1902-1982.

Lam, I could say: for me it means bodies stretched to their utmost line, lines extended until their final point, angles like stemposts run aground having split the space of their course all the way to their last beach; Lam, I could say: he paints at the limits, just as a few others have thought at the limits.

Yet I prefer to write: these words are those of a man, who, among thousands and thousands of others, one day, encountered Lam in his work.

But need we speak the risky language of the encounter? Better that of the entrance, the most natural possible, into the nearest of spaces and the most familiar of worlds.

Like everyone, I have been struck by some painters, shaken by others, sometimes intrigued and even torn – by some among the greatest. And each time a long labour was needed, in the most muted recesses of the body, to restore the peace of an agreement or to say to suffering: yes.

Now, with the first canvas by Lam I saw, it was as if I’d known it forever. Unbeknownst, it was already part of me. And each time I advanced into his work, by sections and chances – the teeth of life – toward the beginnings of bodies naked and mute like faces, or elsewhere, and later, each time he had always preceded me.

I really believe this is his miracle: this man, who comes to us from the end of the world, the other one, from the edge of an endless ocean, this painter who traces in such long or dense lines birds beasts flowers creepers jungles and humans never before seen, this foreign man who speaks in silence our unknown language, and we hear him.

The reason for this miracle? Without a doubt it is Lam’s humility, and his goodness: accepting to be what he is, of his land and his sky, and to gaze at its plants, animals and men, loving them simply. It is also that he paints at the limits: not so much of beings and their forms, but of the mute cry of a people crushed by centuries of history. In humility such a refusal of humiliation, in peace the tension of such a violence. That is why Lam’s world is at once our own: because he lays it bare.

Freud spoke of a strange familiarity, of the uncanny. Lam’s great birds, made of sun and night and more than birds, are strange perhaps, just as those enigmatic beings stretched in the infinity of an air too rarefied not to be the void. What is strange is that they are not strange to us, but familiar. A familiar strangeness. When we enter into their world, a silent being has already, long before us, said yes to them: our body and its torn memory of suffering and peace.

I discover him: I have known Lam forever. He was born before us, the oldest painter in the world: the youngest.

This translation is the manuscript version of an article that has been accepted for publication in the June 2017 issue of ARTMargins (http://www.mitpressjournals.org/loi/artm). For copyright information or permission to reprint, please contact journals-rights@mit.edu. 

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