Following the large-scale emigration from Asia during the 19th and 20th centuries, the trails of Asian art today are no longer contained within the boundaries of the continent. Instead, they are spread across the globe, having mingled with other footsteps and emerged in a brilliant variety of styles and new forms. Within this immense network, the most well known are the Asian émigrés to France, the artists represented by the School of Paris and the three Chinese members of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Following Sotheby’s sale of Yun Gee’s Wheels: Industrial New York for over HKD 100 million last year, the prominence of North American Asian artists has been on the rise. At this Autumn, Sotheby’s is honoured to be presenting, for the first time in Asia, a piece by the Chinese-Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam, Sans titre (Lot 1014). That this Asian master, who has long been considered an important artist in the West and within the canon of contemporary art, is finally being introduced to collectors in Asia marks a grand occasion, indeed.
“Whenever I think of my father, this Chinese man, I remember him as being a very wise, very serious person…In his eyes, the sun was always rising, shining upon a swaying island, always in battle over its own existence and freedom.”
Wifredo Lam is often referred to as “Lam,” a name that highlights his Chinese ethnicity. The artist’s father, Yam Lam, departed from the Chinese province of Guangdong in the late 19th century, in search of a place where he could make a living. He passed through San Francisco before arriving in Cuba, where he established himself as a businessman. Fluent in the local language and culture, he was highly esteemed among the other Chinese immigrants. There, in Cuba, Yam Lam married and started a family. Wifredo Lam was the youngest of eight children, and running through his veins was not only Chinese blood, but his mother’s Spanish, Congolese, and Cuban identities. Through his godmother, a priestess and witchdoctor, Lam became acquainted with the Santería religion. This rich and diverse cultural background would culminate in Lam’s singular and radiant creations in the years to come. Lam’s deep interest in art began from an early age. In 1920, he enrolled in Cuba’s most prestigious fine arts school, the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes “San Alejandro” in Havana. In 1924, he began studying at Madrid’s Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, where he was instructed by surrealist master Salvador Dalí and Fernando Álvarez de Sotomayor y Zaragoza, then director of the Museo del Prado. It was during this time that the artist trained to become highly proficient in the standards and techniques of the academy. Yet, it was Lam’s family background and the environment of his childhood that provided him with the mysterious energy that erupted forth in Lam’s paintings. The deities from Africa and the Caribbean, the supernatural strength that came from a deeply moral view of the world, the ancient and profound religious rites – all of these were deeply imbued in Lam’s works over his lifetime, guiding him along his artistic path, and establishing him as an important artist and multi-cultural representative of the 20th century. In 1938, Lam arrived in Paris, and received a grand reception from the prodigious Picasso. The two artists were simpatico, and Picasso went so far as to say, “I think there’s some of my blood in your veins, you must be a relative, a cousin.” Picasso went on to introduce him to Matisse, Braque, and Léger, André Breton even encouraged Lam’s entrance into the surrealist movement, an experience that led to a surge in Lam’s artistic development during his time in Paris. Although Lam returned to Cuba during WWII, by 1952, Lam had come back to Paris and established the city as his base. There he stayed, with intermittent travels in South America and Europe, until his death in 1982.
“When I first encountered Wifredo Lam’s art, considering our differing cultural backgrounds, the foreignness of his artistic language, it was inevitable that there would be some stumbling and confusion. But…after a careful reading, and a reconsidering, I finally learned to appreciative the flavour of The Investiture of the Gods or Journey to the West.”
Xing Xiaosheng, excerpt from Lin de shenguai jingmei
As the lone brilliant star of Asian art hanging in the skies of Latin America, Lam was not completely isolated from the East Asian art world. For example, Lam worked with long-term managers Pierre Loeb and Pierre Matisse, who also managed Zao Wou-Ki. And, in the 1950s, due to Cuba and China’s shared status as socialist countries, Lam was invited to hold an exhibition in China. Chinese academic Xing Xiaosheng, a specialist in Western religious art and contemporary art, had also dedicated himself to introducing Lam’s art to China. In 1991, with the enthusiastic support of Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen and French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas, Xing Xiaosheng organized four exhibitions of Lam’s art, taking place in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Guangzhou. Lam’s works have long since been included in the permanent collections of many world-class museums, including Paris’ Centre Pompidou, London’s Tate Modern, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Many of the artist’s masterpieces were featured in important auctions in Europe and North America. The arrival of Sans titre at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Evening Sale, then, is a tremendous milestone in Wifredo Lam’s entrance into the canon of Asian art, as well as a significant event in the on-going globalization of the East Asian auction market and its establishment of a unique and important cultural voice. Sans titre exhibits the characteristics of Lam’s style in the 1960s, the era of his artistic peak and the same decade during which À trois centimètres de la Terre was completed, a painting that holds the artist’s current auction record, and with which Sans titre shares compositional similarities. Tempered out of the environments of Cubism and Surrealism, the mysterious and transcendent Caribbean gods emerge in a concise form. The two flying dragons intersecting in the foreground are Damballah and Ayida. According to Caribbean legend, Damballah is considered the father of all spirits. He is the immortal creator of the universe, controlling the skies and nourishing all the waters of the world. Although he never speaks a single word, he possesses extraordinary powers of blessing. Ayida is Damballah’s wife, and is regarded as the “Rainbow Dragon.” She controls the rains and is responsible for restoring vitality to the earth. The two gods are often portrayed as intertwined dragons, an image which conjures the characters of Fuxi and Nüwa from ancient Chinese folklore. In describing the government’s flags and banners in the Rites of Zhou, an ancient Chinese text, it is written: “The Sun and Moon are the convention [for the king], the intersecting dragons the flag.” Despite the ways in which Chinese and Latin American cultures appear exceedingly different, their interpretation of the dragon is astonishingly similar. And now, emerging through the artist Wifredo Lam, who had the blood of both cultures running in his veins, this painting represents a precious manifestation of the deep cultural intersection between these distant places.
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