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Christie’s Latin American Sale in New York will offer an outstanding work by Wifredo Lam
Wifredo Lam (Cuban) L’eau solide, 1945 (lot 55) oil on canvas Estimate: $400,000 – 600,000. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2013.

NEW YORK, NY.- On May 29 and 30, Christie’s Latin American Sale will offer an outstanding selection of over 300 lots from some of the region’s most prominent modern and contemporary masters. The two-day auction includes esteemed private collections and an exceptional offering of paintings and sculpture from important Latin American artists such as Fernando Botero, Leonora Carrington, Matta, Wifredo Lam, Alfredo Ramos Martínez, and Alfredo Volpi, among others.

Wifredo Lam’s L’eau solide (estimate: $400,000 – 600,000) (lot 55) arises from a period when the artist embarked on a body of work stimulated by his re-counter with what he termed la cosa negra, filtered through post-Cubist and Surrealist forms. Spectral and richly suggestive, the two figures present in L’eau solide mirror each other across horizontal axis, their bodies adjoined through elemental geometries that conjure a mystical image of spirits levitating in space. The figures render the iconography of the Afro-Cuban religion Santería, which Lam studied as a child with his godmother, through the universal language of abstraction, merging the artist’s singular visual and intercultural histories.

"My return to Cuba meant, above all, a great stimulation of my imagination, as well as the exteriorization of my world," Lam later recounted of his homecoming in 1941. "I responded always to the presence of factors which emanated from our history and our geography, tropical flowers, and black culture."[1] Lam had self-consciously distanced himself from Cuba during the almost two decades that he spent abroad, and his return to the island triggered new feelings of cubanidad that dovetailed with the rising Afro-Cubanist movement. "Fifty-percent Cartesian and fifty-percent savage" by his own account, Lam embarked on a body of work stimulated by his re-encounter with what he termed "la cosa negra," filtered through post-Cubist and Surrealist forms. "In this way his artistic vocabulary began to parallel the synthesis and syncretization of African, European, and Amerindian cultures that occurred through out the Americas," noted Lam scholar Lowery Stokes Sims has observed, and the paintings of this period strongly evoke the hybrid, vernacular culture of the New World.[2]

Lam's return to Cuba coincided with surging interest in Antillean culture and identity. The diasporic Négritude movement led by Aimé Césaire, whom Lam met in Martinique while en route to Havana, signaled new racial consciousness; Afro-Cuban cosmology was the subject of pioneering ethnographic and anthropological work by Lydia Cabrera and Fernando Ortiz. At this moment of intense fascination with African culture, in Cuba and worldwide, Lam began to reconstitute the iconography of the syncretic Afro-Cuban religion Santeria, which he had studied as a child with his godmother, in works such as The Jungle, Green Morning, and Annunciation. Indeed, scholars have linked many of the figurative elements that appear in his paintings--for instance, the small head with horns in L'eau solide, which may suggest the deity Elegguá--to specific orishas within the Santeria belief system. "In times like our own," André Breton remarked in 1946, "we should not be surprised to see that the Loa Carrefour--Eleggu in Cuba--is everywhere in evidence, armed with horns here and breathing upon the doors' wings." [3]

Yet Lam's invocation of this ritual iconography also functions in a more expansive sense as part of a cosmic vision that, while conditioned by Afro-Cubanizing impulses, sought to convey universal values and phenomena. "The world that Lam creates is an end in itself, an occult, mysterious universe governed not by the laws that regulate our cosmos, but by some undercurrent of magic [that] makes itself felt in every canvas," Margaret Breuning observed in her review of Lam's show at Pierre Matisse Gallery. "There are recognizable forms but they appear not so much [as] realities [but] as the symbols of an inner mystic existence."[4] The two figures present in L'eau solide mirror each other across a horizontal axis, their bodies adjoined through elemental geometries that conjure a numinous image of spirits levitating in space. Intimations of magic course through shadowy deposits of black and pale-green pigment that echo rounded and angular shapes, blurring the boundary between bodies and ground. Spectral and richly suggestive, the figures render the iconography of Santeria through the universal language of abstraction, eliding Lam's singular visual and intercultural histories.

Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1 Wifredo Lam, quoted in Lowery Stokes Sims, Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 1923-1982 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 35.
2 Sims, Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 34.
3 André Breton, "Wifredo Lam" in Breton, Surrealism and Painting, trans. Simon Watson Taylor (Boston: MFA Publications, 2002), 172.
4 Margaret Breuning, "Lam's Magical Incantations and Rituals," Art Digest 43 (December 1, 1945): 16.

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