Wifredo Lam - Latin America New York Tuesday, May 26, 2015 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    Private Collection, Italy
    Private Collection, Paris
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Havana, Galería Sociedad Nuestro Tiempo, Lam y nuestro tiempo Paris, 1938 - 1951, 1951
    Turin, Galleria Civica di Arte Moderna, Le Muse inquietanti, maestri del Surrealismo, 1967 - 1968
    Turin, Galleria Gissi, Lam,1978
    Rome, Villa Medici, Wifredo Lam ou l'Eloge du Mètissage, 1992 - 1993, then travelled to Milan (Palazzo de la Permanente, 1992 - 1993)

  • Literature

    M. Leiris, Lam, Milano, 1970, No.77 (illustrated)
    M.P. Fouchet, Wifredo Lam, 1st ed., Barcelona / Paris: Polígrafa / Cercle d'Art, 1976, p. 76, No. 82 (illustrated)
    "Dialogue entre les peuples de monde", Cultures - UNESCO, No. 33, 1983, frontispiece (illustrated)
    W. Rubin and J. L. Paudrat, Le Primitivisme dans l'art du XX siecle, Paris, 1987, p.80, No.82, (illustrated)
    Wifredo Lan ou l'Eloge du Métissage, exh.cat., Villa Medici, Rome, 1992-1993, p.103 (illustrated)
    L. Lam, Wifredo Lam - Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work, Vol. 1 1923 - 1960, 2006, p.400, No. 47.37 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Wifredo Lam contributed to modernism in very significant ways during his long, prolific career as a painter, printmaker, sculptor, and ceramist. He explored the possibilities of cubism and expanded the inventive parameters of surrealism while negotiating figuration and abstraction with a particularly recognizable iconography and an extraordinary imagination. Throughout the 1940s, working with a vocabulary of images based on Afro-Cuban worldviews, Lam redefined the visual language of single figures, multifigured compositions, landscapes, and still-lifes. His subjects addressed rituals, elements in folktales, and religious beliefs held by many descendants of Yoruba as well as non-Yoruba Cubans. Lam’s artistic and thematic outreach was broad, beginning in his Spanish period and continuing through the years he was repatriated to Havana (1941-1952), living in Paris (1952-1982), and then in Albissola, Italy (1959-1982). He rethought line, color, form, and space on varied supports to communicate the extraordinary “powers” (otherwise known as “life forces”) of the inner worlds —individual and communal, sacred and profane—and their intersections.

    Lam’s work was introduced to a slowly emerging World War II New York art scene in 1942 by André Breton, the Surrealist leader who, like the Cuban artist, had fled France after the Nazi occupation. As a result of Breton’s introductions, Lam’s career began on this side of the Atlantic in the group exhibition First Papers of Surrealism, organized by Breton, installed by Marcel Duchamp, and held at the Coordinating Council of French Relief Societies, Inc. (October 14 to November 7, 1942). Immediately following that large-scale exhibition, Lam had his first solo show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, less than a year and a half after he had returned from France to be repatriated to Cuba. Lam exhibited in New York at the Matisse Gallery throughout the 1940s to the early 1950s during which time he and his work became known to diverse artistic circles in Cuba, the United States, and many countries of the Americas and Europe.

    In Havana, Lam’s first solo show was organized by Lydia Cabrera at the Lyceum (the Havana Yacht Club) in 1946, some four years after Lam had had several exhibitions at the Pierre Matisse Gallery. The artist enjoyed critical attention from a small group of literary figures such as Alejo Carpentier, the Cuban writer, Aimé Césaire, the Martiniquen poet, Benjamin Peret, the surrealist writer exiled in Mexico, Pierre Mabille, the art critic and art-cultural organizer living in Haiti, and Pierre Loeb, Lam’s art dealer exiled in Cuba.

    By 1947 Lam had painted some of his early iconic masterpieces such as The Jungle (1942-1943), The Eternal Presence (1945), and For the Spanish Refugees / Pour les réfugiés espangnols (1946). His distinctive vocabulary, often drawn from Afro-Cuban symbolism, consisted of little round heads, sometimes with horns, horseshoes, knives, axes, machetes, staring eyes, papaya fruit breasts, horses’ heads, muzzles, hooves, tails, candles, wings, rhomboid-shaped leaves, and other metamorphosed forms originating in human, animal, and plant species. The resulting personages and objects as well as nature’s forms were inventively created by mixing or conjoining one element with another in a continual flow from figure to figure. Lam’s idiosyncratic blendings of cubist-derived overlapping, repositioning, and deconstruction of traditional forms, together with a surrealist subversion of conventional visual expectations, seem unending throughout the multifaceted developments of the artist’s practice.

    In hindsight, 1947, the midpoint in Lam’s Havana years, was extremely productive from the perspective of the artist’s production, museum acquisitions, critical attention, and gallery exhibitions. Numerous single-figure subjects and multifigured compositions from that year are today considered iconic. The Canaima series, for example, stands out among the single figure paintings for, among other features, its resonance with totemic sculptures from New Guinea; Un Coq pour Chango, for reference to the ritual practice of sacrifice to the Afro-Cuban deity of thunder, war, and drumming; Le Reve II, and The Casting of the Spell, for references to dreams and magic; Nativité, for references to the Christian scene of the birth of Jesus; and Présages, for references to then current world events.

    For almost forty years Présages has been in a private collection where it must have been appreciated for its subtle colors and tonal contrasts, delicate painterly brushstrokes, refined drawing, and amalgamation of metamorphosed forms. In this image, we observe the complexity of the hybrid figures composed of long arms and necks, spikey hands, large wings, little round heads with well-formed eyes, mouths, and horns, all evoking an ominous presence. Several composite figures are depicted with triangular-shaped horses’ heads, reminiscent of African masks with pointed ears or horns, eyes, phalluses and testicles adjoined at the mouths, as well as a familiarly displaced horsetail. Ogún, deity of iron and war, is symbolized by the horseshoe motif, which in turn is attached to two breasts. The composite element is illuminated in a burning red color that extends upward highlighting the hooves, mouth, and neck of one of the multiple-headed beings, all of whom are featured in flight, seemingly at the moment of take-off. The painting imparts a sense of tension and urgency resulting from the spatial juxtapositions of the graphically drawn figures, their reformulated configurations, and the eyes in the little rounds staring directly at the viewer.

    Lam seldom depicted empirical narrative scenes or subjects; instead he employed a lexicon of symbols and motifs to express the forces or numens inherent in all forms of life. Nevertheless the artist, who always worked in multiple thematic directions, often addressed specific global events, sometimes evidenced through titles, for example, Pour les réfugiés espangnols and Libération (1947). Présages may be similarly interpreted. The title, meaning premonitions or omens, may have been chosen as a response to the world-shaking events in 1947, such as India’s independence from the British Empire, and the subsequent formation of the independent state of Pakistan, or the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine. The latter adopted a resolution that recommended the creation of independent Arab and Jewish states. Millions of people’s lives would be changed through political power shifts.

    In our own acts of reading, we will interpret the imagery in Présages in light of the circumstances or events of our individual experiences and knowledge; but my intuition is that Lam was inspired by major world conflicts when he communicated the psychic states of the charged figurations, who occupy a world within the space of a canvas.

    In 1947 Lam participated in several important exhibitions: his Le Présent éternal (1944) was part of Bloodflames 1947 organized by Nicolas Calas at the Hugo Gallery in New York; Damballah (1947) and the installation La Chevelure de Falmer were in Le Surréalisme en 1947 at the Galerie Maeght in Paris. The artist also participated in Exposition de peinture et de sculpture comtemporaines organized by Yvonne Zervos at the Palais des Papes in Avignon and in Arte Cubano at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.

    Some of the 1947 paintings were also in important exhibitions organized during Lam’s lifetime. To note a few: The Casting of the Spell was exhibited in the Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1948 and was donated by a collector to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 1956. Two paintings titled Tête from the Canaima series were in Lam’s first solo exhibition at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Caracas in 1955. Figures zoomorphes, II was exhibited at the Galería de la Habana in 1962. Un Coq pour Chango was exhibited in L’Écart absolu, XI Internationale du Surréalisme at the Galerie l’Oeil, in Paris in 1965 and at the Kunsthalle in Basel the following year. The painting entered the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1993-1994. Les Noces was acquired by the National Galerie, Staatliche Museen in Berlin in 1966, after which time it enjoyed a long exhibition history.

    In 1966-1967 Libération was shown in the Kunsthalle Basel in Basel, the Kestner-Gesellschaft in Hannover, the Stedlijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Bruxelles. Le Reve, II, a painting with a similar iconography to Présages, has been in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., since 1981. Lam was involved in the planning of his retrospective, Wifredo Lam 1982-1983, before his death in 1982.

    Today Lam’s critical position is viewed by many as having “opened the path” for artists who express their cultural or ethnic identity or spiritual in their work. In the last two decades, artists, critics, and art historians have equally acknowledged his historical position in Modernism and celebrated his enormous contributions to the global conversations on cross-cultural subjects.

    Julia P. Herzberg, Ph.D.

    i For discussion of Lam’s connections to and awareness of Yoruba practices and beliefs as well as Catholic ones and their cross-pollinations as imaged in his art, see Julia P. Herzberg, “Wifredo Lam: The Development of a Style and Worldview, The Havana Years, 1941-1952,” in Wifredo Lam and His Contemporaries 1938 – 1952 (New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 1992), pp. 31-49, here and there.

    ii For very interesting views of Surrealism’s multiple artistic interpreters, as well as the reproductions of the works included in the only Surrealist exhibition held in New York while the Surrealists were in exile, see Marcel Duchamp and André Breton, First Papers of Surrealism (New York: Whitelaw Reid Mansion, 1942).

    iii For a discussion of Lam’s participation in literary and art magazines in New York and Havana as well as the Surrealists’ interest in the Antilles as written about in New York publications, see Herzberg, “Wifredo Lam,” pp. 38-41.

    iv For a compelling interpretation of Lam’s engagement with both Afro-Cuban and Christian iconographies and their significations, see Roberto S. Goizueta, “Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans: The Pre-Theistic Art of Wifredo Lam,” in Wifredo Lam Imagining New Worlds, ed. by Elizabeth T. Goizueta (Chestnut Hill, Mass.: McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 2014), pp. 79-86. Professor Goizueta argues that the subversive character of works with Christian titles lies in the tension between the Christian title and the Afro-Cuban (Elegguá) and syncretic iconography.

    v In Lam’s paintings, especially those from the early to late 1940s wherein the Afro-Cuban motifs were often intended to impart specific significations to the overall interpretation of the work, the Elegguá figure was signified by a little round head generally depicted with eyes, a nose, and a mouth. The deity is believed to be the guardian of one's paths, and among his many powers, he predicts, prevents, and allows for the vicissitudes of life. In Présages, as in other works from that period, the inclusion of horns on the little heads is a syncretic element originating from the Christian identification of Eleguá with evil or the devil. See Julia P. Herzberg, “Re-Reading Lam,” in “Santería Aesthetics in Contemporary Latin American Art (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996), p. 156, n. 17; pp. 159, 160.

    vi Frederic Kiesler, the Austrian architect, designed the space and hung the paintings in very innovative ways with Lam’s painting, for example, suspended from the ceiling and surrounded by transparent curtains. Alexander Iolas was also part of the team. The artists included David Hare, Arshile Gorky, Gerald Kamrowski, Nicolas Calas, Isamu Noguchi, Helen Phillips, and Jeanne Raynal. This was the last collective exhibition of the Surrealist exiles group in New York.

    vii For an interesting discussion of Lam’s first graphic work, a color lithograph for the catalogue of that exhibition, see Lowery Stokes Sims, “The Graphic Work of Wifredo Lam: Drawing into Painting,” in Wifredo Lam Imagining New Worlds, p. 21.

    viii A recent example of rethinking Lam is the McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College (August to December 2014) exhibition, presently at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. The forthcoming exhibitions of Lam’s work beginning in September 2015 and ending in January 2017 will be at the Musée national d’Art Moderne Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, and the Tate Modern in London.

  • Artist Biography

    Wifredo Lam

    Cuban • 1902 - 1982

    Wifredo Lam was born in Sagua la Grande, Cuba and was of mixed Chinese, European, Indian and African descent. He studied under Fernando Álvarez de Sotomayor, curator for the Museo del Prado and teacher of Salvador Dalí.

    While studying in Spain, he met Pablo Picasso, who would become his mentor and friend as well as one of his great supporters, introducing him to the intelligentsia of the time. Lam significantly contributed to modernism during his prolific career as painter, printmaker, sculptor and ceramist. His works explored Cubism and expanded the inventive parameters of Surrealism while negotiating figuration and abstraction with a unique blend of Afro-Cuban and Surrealist iconography. His iconic visual language incorporated syncretic and fantastical objects and combined human-animal figures fused with lush vegetation.

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oil on canvas
39 1/4 x 39 1/4 in. (99.8 x 99.8 cm)
Signed and dated "Wilfredo Lam 1.9.47" lower left. This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by Eskil Lam.

$2,000,000 - 3,000,000 

Sold for $2,629,000

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Latin America

New York 26 May 2015 4pm