We are grateful to Eskil Lam for his assistance cataloguing this work.
De la même racine (From the same root) is an imaginary portrait of one of Wifredo Lam’s canonical hybrid beings, the femme-cheval (woman-horse). Proudly posed at the center of the canvas, the figure assumes the confidence of a royal sitter in her triumphant, three-quarter length stance. While her body reads as a largely legible whole, the head of the figure is composed of multiple features, disjointed parts, and unexpected appendages, including a phallic, bulb-like chin. Such visual puns are characteristic of Lam’s creatures, who revel in their grotesque beauty.
Lam first began developing the mythical femme-cheval around 1940, while waiting for evacuation prior to WWII. Whiling away the days at the Villa Air Bell in Marseilles, Lam and a core group of Surrealist artists played games such as the cadavres exquis (exquisite corpse), a collaborative exercise in which each participant contributed part of a drawing without knowing what his colleagues had created; when revealed, the resulting forms yielded surprising, and at times monstrous, combinations. In Marseilles, Lam also illustrated Surrealist leader André Breton’s poem, Fata Morgana. Combining animal and human characteristics, these drawings represent early prototypes of the femme-cheval, whose form Lam continued to refine in the ensuing decades. Indeed, the art historian and Lam expert Lowery Stokes Sims has deemed the femme-cheval the “cornerstone motif” in the artist’s oeuvre.
References to African sculpture, Santeria, Egyptian art, and other sources abound in Lam’s pantheon of figures. De la même racine contains such allusions, her swaddled skirt, frontal positioning, and extended arms particularly reminiscent of Egyptian forms. This positioning lends the figure a coquettish air, as she seems to glance over her shoulder like a Hollywood starlet, the wispy strands of her beard just visible in the crevice beneath her arm.
While many of Lam’s depictions of the femme-cheval are untitled, the name De la même racine suggests a maternal connection between the main figure and a smaller being who she bears in her right arm. Mother and child images are found throughout Lam’s oeuvre, and are often interpreted as a poignant reference to the loss of Lam’s first wife and son to tuberculosis in 1931. Secondary, child-like figures appear in a number of Lam’s paintings of the femme-cheval, who at times cradle their offspring in their arms. However, despite a palpable mother and child connection in De la même racine, the gesture of the figures remains somewhat ambiguous.
In anthropomorphizing the gestures of the femme-cheval, the title De la même racine also invokes a relationship between Lam’s mystical figure and the viewers of his painting. Yet, the ethereal, numinous background of this painting destroys the connection between the universe of the femme-cheval and the real world. Art historian John Yau has recognized that it is around 1960 that Lam first began portraying his beings in shallow, abstract spaces rather in the physical world of the jungle. Belonging to a universe apart, the femme-cheval in De la même racine thus asserts her power over us, her viewers, her multiple eyes holding our gaze.
Susanna Temkin, PhD, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University
1 Lowery Stokes Sims, Wifredo Lam and the Internatinoal Avant-garde, 1923-1982 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 115.
2 John Yau, “From Hollowed Place to Pure Sign,” in Wifredo Lam: Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work,, vol. II (Lausanne: Paris, 1996), 63.