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

Femme Cheval

Wifredo Lam (1902-1982)
Femme Cheval
faintly signed and dated 'Wifredo Lam, 1950' (lower right)
oil on canvas
51 x 37 ¼ in. (130 x 94.7 cm.)
Painted in 1950.
Acquired directly from the artist, Sotheby's, New York, 12 May 1983, lot 37.
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner.
L. Laurin-Lam and E. Lam, Wifredo Lam: Catalogue Raisonne of the Painted Work, Volume I, 1923-1960, Lausanne, Acatos, 1996, p. 422, no. 50.07 (illustrated).
Post lot text
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 Lam, quoted in Max-Pol Fouchet, Wifredo Lam (New York: Rizzoli, 1976), 188-89.
3 Alejo Carpentier, “Reflexiones acerca de la pintura de Wifredo Lam,” Gaceta del Caribe 5 (July 1944): 27.
4 Sims, Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 117.
5 Geri Trotta, “Wifredo Lam Paints a Picture,” ARTnews 49, no. 5 (September 1950): 42, 51-2.
6 Aimé Césaire, “Wifredo Lam…” (1983), trans. Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith, in Callaloo 24, no. 3 (Summer 2001): 712.

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Lot Essay

“My return to Cuba meant, above all, a great stimulation of my imagination, as well as the exteriorization of my world,” Lam recounted of his celebrated homecoming in 1941. “I responded always to the presence of factors which emanated from our history and our geography, tropical flowers, and black culture.” His embrace of what he termed “la cosa negra” came to define his re-acquaintance with the island, after eighteen years in Europe, and informed the syncretic cubanidad of his work over the decade that followed.1“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,” he later reflected. “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. . . . A true picture has the power to set the imagination to work, even if it takes time.”2 His seminal paintings from this period, among them the paradigmatic Jungle (1943), teem with transgressive figures of the kind Lam describes, beings that emanate from the rich Afro-Cuban imaginary to which he was exposed. Exemplary among them are his inimitable femmes cheval, or horse-headed women, whose hybrid morphology elegantly elides Surrealist subversion and Santería ceremonial practice.
Lam’s arrival in Cuba dovetailed with rising interest in Caribbean vernacular culture, spanning the Négritude movement led by his friend Aimé Césaire, the Martinican poet, and the pioneering ethnographic and anthropological studies of Lydia Cabrera and Fernando Ortiz. Their recuperation of Afro-Cuban culture, particularly its folklore and religious customs, paralleled Lam’s own engagement with the Lucumí, or Santería, religion, which he had studied as a child with his godmother Ma’Antonica Wilson, a Yoruba priestess. “Lam began to create his atmosphere,” the writer Alejo Carpentier observed, “using figures in which the human, the animal, and the vegetal mixed without boundaries, animating a world of primitive myths with something ecumenically Antillean, bound deeply not only to the soil of Cuba, but to the larger chain of islands.” In his commingling of “all that is magical, imponderable, mysterious in our midst,” Lam invoked the sacred, animistic universe of Santería, to which his metamorphosing bodies and landscapes partly belong.3
The femme cheval first appeared in Lam’s Fata Morgana drawings (1940-41), made to illustrate André Breton’s Surrealist poem, but her evolved expression in his paintings from 1947 to 1950 marks the apotheosis of her persona. She is distinguished by a variety of head shapes—round, trumpet, detached, hatted, doubled, spiked—and anatomical stylizations, whose references span Santería (the horned Eleggua head) and traditional Spanish dress (the mantilla). As a personification of ritual possession in Santería, the femme cheval evinces the lush carnality of the feminine body and its supernatural powers. “The endowing of the femme cheval with an animal head is most often interpreted literally as a representation of the devotee of the orishas as the ‘horse’ of the deity, who mounts the believer during ritual ceremonies,” noted Lam scholar Lowery Stokes Sims explains, describing the figure’s given role. Yet the femme cheval also stands as an “emblem of Surrealist hybridity—the minotaur,” she continues, simultaneously rendered through a transposition of gender in which the artist shifts “the power focus of Surrealism (and Picasso) from the male principle to the female.”4
The year 1950 saw Lam open solo exhibitions at Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York and at Havana’s Parque Central, earning international plaudits as he further cultivated his femmes cheval. ARTnews profiled him in the regular “Artist Paints a Picture” series and documented his work on Horse-Headed Woman (1950), a work similar in composition to the present Femme Cheval as well as to the handsome Zambezia, Zambezia (1950; Guggenheim Museum). “The face of the figure becomes a generalized mask or abstraction, spiked and aggressive in contrast to the vulnerable, soft breast and buttocks, flattened into a two-dimensional motif,” wrote Geri Trotta. “The tusk on the mane connotes to the artist the budding banana,” she reported; Lam referred to the “more Oriental arrangement of light and dark shapes,” here expressed as the brown, winged entity lurking in the background, as “diabolical birds.”5 These spectral presences variously materialized in his work of this decade, their shadowy apparitions suggestive of a menacing, multidimensional reality. “All art is tragedy,” Lam declared, eliding the torment of his chimerical femme cheval with the existential drama of painting itself. “For me,” he conceded, “painting is a torment.”
A classic incarnation, the present Femme Cheval bears a familiar trumpet-shaped head, elongated and seen in profile, that ends in four horizontal spikes that mirror the thorny or horned elements that splay out around and behind her. Sinuous and velvety grey, her body is drawn in a seductive state of transfiguration that extends from the lower torso, drawn in a slight three-quarter view, through the elegant curves of her back and neck. A single long limb angles downward to the left; its linearity is offset by a spiky, tasseled extension—a hybridized mane or tail—sketched with charcoal, which falls to her other side. Elegantly hieratic, she stands before the enveloping appendages of an immense “diabolical bird” who emerges out of a dimly luminously black ground, horned and crowned by an open, diamond-shaped element. These mystical and metaphysical attributes illuminate the shape-shifting magic embodied in Lam’s femme cheval, avatar of Afro-Cuba in the words of Césaire, in the closing stanza of a poem he addressed to his friend:
avatars however of a god keen on destruction
monsters taking flight
in the combats of justice I recognized
the rare laughter of your magical weapons
the vertigo of your blood
and the law of your name.6

Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park

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