Wifredo Lam - 20th C. & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Wednesday, November 13, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York
    Studio Bellini, Milan
    Private Collection, Milan
    Christie's, New York, November 20, 2002, lot 22
    Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    New York, Pierre Matisse Gallery, Wifredo Lam, April 20 - May 8, 1948
    San Francisco Museum of Art, New Directions in Modern Painting, August 1 – September 17, 1950, no. 14
    Milan, Studio Bellini, Panorama 6, November - December 1969, n.p. (illustrated)
    New York, The Studio Museum in Harlem, Wifredo Lam and his Contemporaries 1938 - 1952, December 1992 - April 1993, p. 43 (installation view illustrated)

  • Literature

    Pierre Mabille, "The Ritual Painting of Wifredo Lam", Magazine of Art, vol. 42, no. 5, May 1949, p. 188 (illustrated)
    Michel Leiris, Wifredo Lam, Milan, 1970, no. 83, p. 35 (illustrated, n.p.; titled as Figura)
    Max-Pol Fouchet, Wifredo Lam, Barcelona, 1976, no. 83, p. 225 (illustrated, p. 76; titled as Character with Lizard)
    Max-Pol Fouchet, Wifredo Lam, Paris, 1989, no. 83, p. 274 (illustrated, p. 80)
    Lou Laurin-Lam, Wifredo Lam, Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work, Volume I, 1923 - 1960, Lausanne, 1996, no. 47.51, p. 404 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    A complex artist whose oeuvre spanned the defining art movements of the 20th century, Wifredo Lam’s paintings capture the essence of the 20th Century, harnessing the trauma of the Spanish Civil War, in which he was drafted to defend Madrid, World War II, and the Cuban Revolution, yet always maintaining a longing for beauty. Striving to convey a soulful message that spoke of freedom in a time of high political and social drama, Lam endowed his works with powerful psychological tension.

    Born in Cuba to parents of Chinese, Spanish, and African descent, Lam started his art studies in Havana in 1918. In 1923, he traveled to Madrid to train under the conservative academic painter Fernando Álvarez de Sotomayor, Director of the Museo del Prado. At the Prado, Lam had the first opportunity to study works by Diego Velázquez, El Greco, Francisco de Goya, Hieronymus Bosch and Peter Bruegel the Elder. Also in 1929, while still working in Madrid, he had the chance to see for the first time paintings by Juan Gris and Pablo Picasso.

    Lam left Spain as a refugee in 1938, near the end of the Spanish Civil War. He traveled to Paris where he had his first crucial encounter with Picasso. Lam met the artist in his Paris studio on the Rue des Grands-Augustins, and the two felt an instant connection. Picasso told Lam, who was 21 years his junior, “You remind me of someone that I knew many years ago...me.” Lam would say of the meeting, “Picasso may easily have been present in my spirit, for nothing in him was alien or strange to me” (Wifredo Lam, quoted in Elizabeth Goizueta, Wifredo Lam: Imagining New Worlds, Boston, 2014, p. 13). Some months later Lam would hesitantly unveil some of his works to Picasso and the Parisian gallerist Pierre Loeb, who instantly decided to support the young artist. He worked incessantly for the next two years, producing over 150 paintings, and had his first Paris exhibition at Galerie Pierre Loeb in the summer of 1939, followed by an exhibition at the Perls Gallery in New York from November 13 to December 3, 1939, where his gouaches were exhibited alongside Picasso’s drawings.

    As World War II escalated, Lam embarked on a long journey back to Cuba enriched with encounters and collaborations that would inform and enrich the work he produced upon his arrival in 1942. On his way to the Antilles, in Marseille, he worked closely with André Breton illustrating his famous poem Fata Morgana, and deepening his ties to the Surrealist movement. He was joined in his journey across the Atlantic by other artists including André Breton, Victor Serge, and Anna Seghers, as well as the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, a scholar of myth and comparative religion. “Throughout this interminable voyage,” recalled Lévi-Strauss, “we passed the time discussing the relationship between aesthetic beauty and absolute originality” (Claude Lévi-Strauss quoted in Elizabeth GoizuetaWifredo Lam: Imagining New Worlds, exh. cat., McMullen Museum of Art, Boston, 2014, p. 14). In Martinique, Lam met the poet Aimé Césaire, considered the founder of the anticolonial Négritude movement that stressed black pride and the beauty of African cultures. This encounter would have a deep impact not only on the painter but also on the poet, marking the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

    Upon his arrival in 1942, Lam approached the Cuban environment with a drastically different perspective. Lam decided to paint what he considered to be the authentic Cuban culture, rather than romanticizing the idea of idyllic life in the tropics. Executed in this seminal year, Deux personnages perfectly encapsulates this shift in his depiction of two women. Rendered in masterfully gestural charcoal and a subtle tempera wash of light cerulean, Lam situates the two figures within an ambiguous setting that is both domestic and wildly tropical. Reflective of the artist’s excavation of Cuba’s African roots, Deux personnages depicts figures that are simultaneously human, animal, and vegetal, evocative of gods and deities.

    “I decided that my painting would never be the equivalent of that pseudo-Cuban music for nightclubs. I refused to paint cha-cha-cha,” Lam explained. “I wanted with all my heart to paint the drama of my country, but by thoroughly expressing the Negro spirit, the beauty of the plastic art of the blacks. In this way I could act as a Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating figures with the power to surprise, to disturb the dreams of the exploiters” (Max-Pol Fouchet, Wifredo Lam, Barcelona, 1976, pp. 188-189).

    Guided by the knowledge that he had gained in Spain and France, and the invaluable experience shared on his trip back to Cuba, the works he created during his 8-year stay on the island constituted a significant body of work that launched a newly singular, mature, and enigmatic artist. The Warrior (Personnage avec lézard) belongs to the important body of work that the artist produced between 1942-1950, and which would come to define his oeuvre. In the painting, the artist utilizes distinctive Afro-Cuban symbolism, creating an atmosphere in which the human and the animal mix. Lam depicts a world of primitive myths, composed of figures with long arms and necks, spikey hands, well-formed eyes, mouths and horns, all evoking a haunting presence in the limited earthen palette of black and cream.

  • 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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The Warrior (Personnage avec lézard)

incised with the artist's signature and date "Wifredo Lam 1948" lower left
oil on burlap
28 3/8 x 32 1/2 in. (72.1 x 82.6 cm.)
Painted in 1947.

$300,000 - 500,000 

Sold for $312,500

Contact Specialist
John McCord
Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
New York
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20th C. & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 13 November 2019