Wifredo Lam (1902-1982)
Wifredo Lam (1902-1982)

Figuras en el balcón

Wifredo Lam (1902-1982)
Figuras en el balcón
Gouache and pastel on paper mounted on canvas
42 7/8 x 29 1/2 in. (109 x 75 cm.)
Painted in 1938.
Private collection, Barcelona.
Anon sale, Christie’s, New York, 18 May 1988, lot 33 (illustrated in color).
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
L. Lam, Lam, Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work, Volume I, 1923-1960, Lausanne, 1996, no. 38.14, p. 250 (illustrated).
Miami, Gary Nader Fine Art, Wifredo Lam: One Man Show, 28 February - May 2008.

Lot Essay

This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by Lou Laurin-Lam and dated Paris, 26 October 1987.
We are grateful to Eskil Lam for his assistance cataloguing this work.

An architectural profusion of colorful patterned tiles, curling iron grills, and a crisscrossing screen dominates Wifredo Lam’s Figuras en el balcón (Figures on a balcony). Functioning as more than just a mere backdrop for Lam’s two female protagonists, this domestic space melds and mingles with the figures’ geometrically rendered bodies, compressing the artwork’s perspectival space. The resulting interplay between arm and curtain, torso and balcony rail, results in a playful demonstration of Lam’s exploration of a Cubist idiom.

Figuras en el balcón belongs to a transitional moment in Lam’s career. After fifteen years living in Spain, during which time he had studied masterworks at the Prado, taken part in the Spanish avant-garde, and volunteered on behalf of the Republic cause during the Spanish Civil War, Lam departed for the art world of Paris. Likely executed in 1938, it is not known in which of these two countries Figuras en el balcón was created, however the work recalls assorted memories from his time in Spain. As Catalan art historian Maria Lluïsa Borràs reveals, the curling ironwork present in the work’s lower left recalls the balcony on Lam’s attic window studio on Ayala Street in Madrid, while the tile work references the sanatorium in Caldes where Lam recuperated after his wartime efforts.[1] Though referencing his specific experiences in Spain, Lam’s interest in domestic architecture was a theme explored by many other modern Cuban artists at this time, perhaps most notably in the canonical paintings of Amelia Peláez.

Images of women in the liminal public-private space of a balcony are a conventional genre subject, particularly within the Spanish tradition. Artists from Murillo to Goya painted such scenes, the latter executing several canvases in which his seductive majas are accompanied by male or female protectors. Though these attending figures ostensibly serve a defensive role, the men in the shadows of Goya’s Majas en el balcón and the grotesque maid in Maja y Celestina en el balcón convey a sinister air. Though Goya’s paintings served as a source for Lam’s Figuras en el balcón, the Cuban artist liberated his female subjects from such ominous surveillance by portraying them on the balcony independent and alone.

Notably, the two women in Figuras en el balcón appear to represent an artist and her model. Though Lam had previously depicted this subject in earlier work, the fact that both women are female is unusual, although not unique in his oeuvre. Perhaps the figure grasping the paintbrush-like tool references Lam’s intimate friend Balbina Barrera de Garcia de Castro, an amateur artist from whom Lam was separated following his departure from France. Incipient forms suggesting an African mask are faintly visible in the dark grey visage of this figure, foreshadowing the artist’s increasing engagement with African art as well as his familiarity with Picasso. Indeed, although Lam would not meet the Spaniard until his arrival in Paris, he was already aware of Picasso’s oeuvre through books and exhibitions. Similarly, the bold outlines and decorative patterns in Figuras en el balcón reveal Lam’s familiarity with the art of Matisse.

In contrast to the Africanized face of the figure holding the paintbrush, the woman representing the model lacks all facial features, her head merely a white void. This figure appears to bear a canvas in her arms, its frame fusing with parts of her body. Functioning as a picture within a picture, the image depicted in this dark canvas remains vague, providing an enigmatic pause amidst the visual cacophony in the remainder of the work.

Susanna Temkin, PhD, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

1 Maria Lluïsa Borràs, “Lam in Spain” in Wifredo Lam: Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work, vol. I (Lausanne: Paris, 1996) 63.

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