Sold with a photo-certificate from Lou Laurin-Lam for each recto and verso
A pantheistic synthesis of animal, human and vegetable form, Wifredo Lam's Untitled is infused with an overwhelming sense of the supernatural. This double-sided artwork is produced with Lam's characteristically sensitive use of gouache on paper. In the highly finished composition on the front we encounter all of the basic iconographic elements of Lam's work: the horned figure with enlarged feet, the small, round head of a diablito, exotic birds, broad tropical leaves and mystic symbolic forms. Each interlocking part is rendered in a sure, flowing line, then highlighted with bold pointillist brush-marks and thin veils of colour that subtly stain the ground. On the reverse side, we are presented with the femme-cheval, a horse-headed figure that alludes to Santería religious rites in which a devotée is "ridden" by spirits much like one would ride a horse. An orisha (deity) possesses the body of the believer, transforming them into a creature that is part human, part horse, as they communicate with the natural world.
The monumental and complex pyramidal structure on Untitled's recto was painted in 1942, at the apotheosis of Lam's artistic development. In 1941, Lam had arrived back in his Cuban homeland after eighteen years living and working in Madrid, Barcelona, and Paris. His return had been both unexpected and enforced, but it would prompt an extraordinary breakthrough in his art by reconnecting him to his cultural roots in a profound and powerful way. Lam had initially travelled to Madrid in 1923 on a scholarship to further his fine art training. He studied under Fernando Álvarez de Sotomayor, curator of the Prado, who was also the teacher of Salvador Dalí, before being swept up in the defence of the Spanish Republic during the Civil War. With the Republic's demise, Lam became a refugee. He moved to Paris in 1938, armed with a letter of introduction from the sculptor Manolo Huguée to meet Pablo Picasso. The next four years were transformative, both for Lam's art and for his international profile. Not only did Picasso introduce Lam to his circle of friends, including Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, Paul Éluard, André Breton, Tristan Tzara, Michel Leiris, Pierre Loeb, and Joan Miró, he also encouraged the younger artist to pursue his interest in African arts and culture. The meeting was an important one for Picasso too, as he saw Lam as innately closer to the African culture that he so admired because of his Afro-Cuban ancestry. Reading Lam as a kind of insider, he admired what he perceived as Lam's authenticity, creating a closer understanding of African forms and their aesthetic possibilities. Encountering these objects for the first time through Picasso's collection, Lam was sensitive to both the abstract and the figurative possibilities presented by their reduced, yet figurative forms. During these years his painting style shifted significantly from the decorative flatness of Matisse to a more forceful manner with overtly Cubist attributes.
After the outbreak of World War II, the capitulation of France in 1940 and the establishment of the Vichy government, Lam left Europe in the company of fellow surrealists on the ship Capitaine Paul-Merle. He reached Havana in the summer of 1941. After such a long absence, he was greatly moved not only by the light and landscape of his country, but also by the plight of the black population, many of whom lived in poverty and were degraded and made picturesque for the sake of tourism. Throughout the years 1942 to 1945, Lam was hugely productive, defining his style as a unique synthesis of Cubism, African sculptural references and a fantastical vision of the world, where human forms and animal parts are fused together to inhabit the lush, pulsating landscapes of the Caribbean. In an interview with Max-Pol Fouchet, he said: "I wanted with all my heart to paint the drama of my country, but by thoroughly expressing the black 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. I knew I was running the risk of not being understood by either the man in the street or by the others. But a true picture has the power to set the imagination to work even if it takes time" (W. Lam quoted in M. Fouchet, Wifredo Lam, Barcelona, 1976, pp. 188-89).
The year Untitled was created, Lam would also paint his greatest masterpiece, The Jungle which was purchased shortly afterwards by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Like the present work, The Jungle is a distinctive fusion of Surrealist and Cubist approaches with imagery and symbols inspired by Santería, African and Pacific Island masks and dense tropical vegetation. Untitled is therefore exemplary of the artist's mature style. Lam's intention was to communicate a kind of psychic state in his art, and this sense of spiritualism, as well as his interest in the post-colonial condition, presented a unique challenge to Western models of Modernism. In this work, Lam has successfully managed to assimilate the formal lessons of the Cubists while reclaiming and projecting the energy and vibrancy of Afro-Cuban culture within mainstream art history. Untitled was recently exhibited in the touring exhibition Wifredo Lam in North America which provided a major contribution to the understanding of Lam's oeuvre, its impact on his peers, and the broader context of his Caribbean heritage.