Wifredo Lam standing before a version of Bélial, empereur des mouches, 1948, the painting he discusses in the video clip.
Courtesy peggybonnetvergara.com

With the retrospective Wifredo Lam: Imagining New Worlds opening this weekend at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College, we searched for footage of the artist on video. We came up with this short clip—less than two minutes long—of Lam discussing his 1948 painting Bélial, empereur des mouches (Belial, Lord of the Flies), using a photo in a book as his reference. (The work on the left-hand page is Study for «The Jungle» (1942), now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.)

The image quality of the footage, shot on video, is not superb, but Lam’s commentary is compelling (if at one point a little unflattering toward his countrymen), and it’s fascinating to see him on camera.

Wifredo Lam, Bélial, empereur des mouches, 1948
Courtesy jocelynvalton.blogspot.com

The work, as Lam explains it, relates to Hermetic philosophy and the black magic of medieval Europe. He speaks of the erotic elements in the composition—a snake, a knife, a sensuous figure that could be Venus—and a “monster,” depicted as an intensely strong spinal column, who represents Changó and Mars, the god of war. He ends by explaining that “this energy, this violence” is a force of creation, represented by a moon in the upper left corner of the work.

For more about Wifredo Lam: Imagining New Worlds, see our interview with curator Elizabeth T. Goizueta, posted earlier this week.

The clip is not subtitled, so for English speakers, here’s a more or less direct translation:

No, this is about European Hermetic philosophy…with the mouth of Mephisto, the work comprehends this philosophy of Hermetic black magic in medieval Europe. Then, here I made a transposition, as they say here: a natural element that could be a snake—a jugo, as they call it in Cuba—you understand, a sexual element, erotic, rare, and a combat knife in the hand. And a cacareo sín fin, a clucking without end—you understand that many times in our country, people speak of everything but know nothing… In a time of war they speak…so many things, pretending to have knowledge.

Then, this figure, which could be Venus. There’s an attention to life, an emotion, that is pleasant, that speaks of sensuality. But in front of her, I put this monster—this vertebral column that is so strong… It’s always said that a man has a spine so strong that he won’t be defeated. This spine, this vertebral column, has the strength of a horse. It is blowing, breathing life, into Creation.

But in reality, this guy is Changó, who sings and who carries a light behind him. But he’s the god of war, which is Mars … who endures all the aggression and also carries all the aggression, that’s well understood. In our favor, this energy, this violence, makes a Creation. So, for the Creation, I put a moon [points to the upper left corner of the image] The dream.