Wifredo Lam (1902-1982)
Wifredo Lam (1902-1982)
Wifredo Lam (1902-1982)
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WIFREDO LAM (1902-1982)

Pomme Zombie

WIFREDO LAM (1902-1982)
Pomme Zombie
signed and dated 'Wifredo Lam 1945' (lower right)
oil on canvas
16 x 20 in. (40.6 x 50.8 cm.)
Painted in 1945.
Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York.
Acquavella Galleries, New York.
Galerie Lelong, Paris.
Gary Nader, Miami.
Anon sale; Christie’s New York, 17 May 1993, lot 40.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
L. Laurin-Lam, Wifredo Lam: Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work, Volume I, 1923-1960, Acatos, Lausanne, 1996, p. 373, no. 45.23 (illustrated).
New York, Pierre Matisse Gallery, Wifredo Lam: Early Works, 1942 - 1951, Paintings, Gouaches, Watercolors and Drawings, 1 June - 26 June 1982, no. 7 (illustrated).
Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Wifredo Lam, 1992-1993 (illustrated in color, p. 102). This exhibition later traveled to Barcelona, Fundació Joan Miró (illustrated in color, p. 86).
Coral Gables, Gary Nader Fine Art, Wifredo Lam, April 1993, (illustrated color).
Further details
1 Alejo Carpentier, El reino de este mundo (Mexico City: Compañía General de Ediciones, 1967), 4.
2 Wifredo Lam, quoted in Lowery Stokes Sims, Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 1923-1982 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 35.
3 André Breton, “At night in Haiti…,” in Surrealism and Painting, trans. Simon Watson Taylor (Boston: MFA Publications, 2002), 172.
4 Edward Alden Jewell, “Cosy Surrealism: Modernism Elsewhere,” New York Times, November 25, 1945.
5 Margaret Breuning, “Lam’s Magical Incantations and Rituals,” Art Digest 20 (December 1, 1945): 16.

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Lot Essay

This work is sold with a Certificate of Authenticity signed by Lou Laurin-Lam and dated 23 September, 1991.

“And it was left to a painter from America,” concluded Alejo Carpentier in the prologue to El reino de este mundo, “the Cuban Wifredo Lam, to show us the magic of tropical vegetation, the unbridled Creation of Forms of our nature—with all its metamorphoses and symbioses—in monumental canvases of an expressiveness unique in contemporary painting.”[1] Published in 1949, Carpentier’s classic novel of the Haitian Revolution developed the concept of lo real maravilloso—magical realism—through a stylized narrative rich in the transgressive power of hybrid identities and transculturation. Lam and Carpentier had earlier renewed their friendship in Paris, following Lam’s arrival from Barcelona in 1938, and they reunited again in Havana, both of them fleeing Europe at the time of the Second World War. Their mutual interests in Cuba’s African and colonial pasts meaningfully rerouted Lam’s incursion into Surrealism, begun in Europe, through a distinctively New World imaginary. His seminal paintings from this period, in particular the paradigmatic Jungle (1942-43; Museum of Modern Art in New York) and its progeny, including Pomme Zombie, teem with fantastical figures, beings that issue from the rich Antillean cosmos to which he was exposed.
“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 August 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-immersion into the island’s way of life, after nearly eighteen years in Europe, and informed the cubanidad of his work over the decade that followed.[2] Lam’s arrival dovetailed with rising interest in Caribbean vernacular culture, spanning the diasporic 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 African diasporic cosmology and 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 traveled to Haiti in October 1945 at the invitation of the French cultural attaché and Surrealist Pierre Mabille, and he spent the next six months deepening his understanding of Antillean religion and mysticism. Together with Mabille and André Breton, who arrived in December, Lam witnessed eight Vodou ceremonies (formally outlawed as superstitious practice) and explored connections between the interiority of Surrealism and the syncretic cosmology of Vodou. “At night in Haiti, the black fairies follow each other,” began Breton in his preface to Lam’s exhibition at the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince that opened in January 1946. He described “dreams of Eden frolicking shamelessly in the dust settling down from atomic disintegration”—just months after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and saw in Lam’s painting “a unique testimony, still trembling as though it had been weighed in the scales of the leaves, a flight of egrets skimming over the surface of the pool in which today’s myth is brewing.”[3] Lam found tremendous stimulation in Haitian spirituality and magic, and the title of the present work suggestively locates it around the time of his stay. A word of West African origin, “zombie” refers to a spirit of the dead, and “pomme zombie” is a Haitian term for a toxic tropical fruit (Solanum mammosum); here, the title may also allude to the forbidden fruit of Breton’s Edenic dream.
Pomme Zombie was one of sixteen works included in Lam’s solo exhibition at Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in November-December 1945. “His present canvases betoken a very considerable departure from the approach evidenced by that large ‘Jungle’ owned by the Museum of Modern Art,” wrote the critic Edward Alden Jewell, remarking on Lam’s pictorial development. “His method now is in comparison parsimonious. The thinly painted forms are sketched with stenographic airiness, leaving ample portions of canvas untouched. Backgrounds are sometimes stippled in a manner very remotely reminiscent of Seurat....Many of them seem feathered by some queer species of bird.”[4] Ornithological attributes figure prominently in Pomme Zombie, wings and appendages outlined in black alongside a cluster of leaves and specks of vivid color. A solitary egg rests in the lower left corner; its presence, later seen in Nativité (1947; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía), evokes creation myths as well as the philosopher’s stone, inviting associations of enlightenment, rebirth, and immortality.
Lam’s invocation of this ritual world functioned expansively as part of a cosmic vision that, while conditioned by his responses to Vodou and Santería, conveyed more broadly universal values and phenomena. “A world of fantasy appears, reflecting something of the character of Chinese painting, of Primitive African art,” wrote Margaret Breuning in a glowing review of the exhibition at Pierre Matisse. “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. There are recognizable forms in some of the paintings—fruits, leaves, insects, birds—but they appear not so much realities as the symbols of an inner mystic existence.” Certain canvases, including La Parade Antillaise, Miel Noir, and Pomme Zombie, “possess a play of brilliant colors for background—almost pointilliste in their setting of one clear, bright hue against another, rather than blended tones,” she continued. “It would be difficult to over-emphasize the intensity conveyed by these paintings, in which magical incantations, primitive rituals, the sinister power of supernatural forces are set down in symbolic language of great esthetic appeal.”[5]
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park

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