'Oh you have to go too the Rauschenberg show at Tate Modern, what a visionary' - said probably all people ever judging by the number of people in the gallery when we visited last weekend. Without a doubt, Robert Rauschenberg is a pop art icon and the Tate's blockbuster exhibition highlights his epic career. But - is it good really? We weren't quite sure. Then we took a detour across the hall to pop into the Wifredo Lam exhibition - an artist working just slightly before Rauschenberg who we had never heard of. We were blown away. I'll take Lam over Rauschenberg any day, and you should too.
Where Rauschenberg diverges from people like Hockney and Warhol is that his work is actually very conceptual. For example, he collaborated across his whole career with dancers, even performing himself in an experimental dance company in the 1960s. From his early days as an art student at Black Mountain College, Rauschenberg was an artist who questioned what art was. The first room of the exhibition features a completely white canvas painted by the artist which was originally shown alongside an original score by a composer friend, which was just 4 minutes of silence.
So to some extent, it is really interesting that Rauschenberg was working a time where someone could do live performances which included sticking pieces of found radio equipment to canvases, or just decide to become an experimental choreographer. But for me (as a non-art person) the whole exhibition felt- off-putting, self-indulgent maybe. The idea you could just travel for work and call the experience the 'Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange' shows a hubris which is both fascinating and uncomfortable. By the time we finished, I felt a bit like - oh this is why people don't like modern art.
Then, on a whim, we decided to walk across the hallway to visit the Wifredo Lam exhibition, an artist who, to be completely honest, we had never heard of. Compared with the ram-packed Rauschenberg exhibition, the Lam was practically empty. And we have no idea why. The exhibition starts with the quote 'My painting is an act of decolonisation' - a statement as challenging as Lam's work. Wifredo Lam is a Cuban artist born to a Chinese father and an Afro-Cuban mother in 1902. He studied art in Havana and in Madris, fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. In the 1930s he lived in Paris and joined the surrealist circle of Joan Miro and was friend with Picasso. In the Second World War he ended up in a French internment camp, before returning to Cuba. Lam lived through a lot - and his art has a lot to say.
Lam's paintings are mystical, joyful, and visionary. Much of his work draws on Santeria beliefs- a religion native to Cuba which combines Yoruba beliefs with Spanish Catholicism. The huge abstract pieces which dominate the exhibition blend African influences with surrealism. Lam worked head-on to address racism and poverty as he experienced it throughout his career. However, as an artist Lam was in his life time well received and well respected, not the least by his surrealist colleagues in America, Spain and France.
Where Rauschenberg's works feel in places self-obsessed, Lam's paintings are over-flowing with emotion and energy. His retrospective is a map of his interactions with the dynamic surrealist circle and his own personal journey (including the death of his wife and child and political upheaval). And yet its Rauschenberg's exhibition which is packed, and barely a soul in Lam's? It seems suspicious that so many people would line up for a white American and no one has seemingly heard of this Afro-Cuban genius. The art of decolonization indeed. Still, it is wonderful to see such a groundbreaking Afro-Caribbean artist showcased at the Tate, and indeed the Lam exhibition covers at least as much floor space as Rauschenberg.