Impressionist & Modern Art

A Surrealist Wifredo Lam Painting Belonging to Gabriel García Márquez Comes to Auction

New York
Wifredo Lam’s Femme avec un oiseau (1949) is an important work from the Collection of Mercedes and Gabriel García Márquez. The work is a highlight of the upcoming Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale on 13 November in New York.

A Nobel laureate in literature, García Márquez is considered the master of magical realism: fiction in which fantastical events come to pass in otherwise realistic settings, in which the line between the real and the possible is erased. García Márquez’s celebrated novels transport us to complex universes tangled with miracles and nightmares, love and violence, death and resurrection.

Portrait of Nobel prize-winning Colombian author and journalist Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014) and his wife, Mercedes Barcha, Los Angeles, California, July 2007. (Photo by Steve Pyke/Getty Images)

García Márquez often stated that he wrote “about the reality of Latin America,” the only reality he truly knew. “I cannot escape my own ideology when I interpret reality in my books; it’s inseparable.” In a 1982 article in The New York Times, the author stated that, as a Latin American writer, it was his duty to be politically active. “The problems of our societies are mainly political, and the commitment of a writer is with the reality of all of society, not just with a small part of it,” he explained. “If not, he is as bad as the politicians who disregard a large part of our reality. That is why authors, painters, writers in Latin America get politically involved.” Such conviction and idealism—qualities shared with his contemporaries: Mario Vargas Llosa, Pablo Neruda, Carlos Fuentes, Victor Jara, Isabel Allende and many others—thrust the Colombian author into the politics of a volatile, unstable and increasingly violent corner of the world. Throughout his most famous works (among them, Autumn of the Patriarch, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Love in the Time of Cholera and The General in his Labyrinth), García Márquez uses the uncanny and supernatural as a lens through which to reflect the upheavals and absurdities of daily life in the second half of the twentieth century.

"We, the inventors of tales, who will believe anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to engage in the creation of...a new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.”
Gabriel García Márquez

Among García Márquez’s greatest literary achievements is Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude). Considered his magnum opus, it remains widely acclaimed as one of the most significant works in the global literary canon. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda called it “the greatest revelation in the Spanish language since ‘Don Quixote.’” The novelist William Kennedy hailed it as “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” Published in 1967, Cien años de soledad narrates a multi-generational saga of the trials and tribulations of the Buendía family in the mythical South American town of Macondo. As the web of their family tree unravels over the course of the novel, they navigate surreal adversities and absurdities that encapsulate the social, economic and political conditions of the continent.

Wifredo Lam, Femme avec un oiseau, 1949. Estimate $800,000–1,200,000.

Cien Años de Soledad would go on to sell tens of millions of copies, win the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger in France in 1969 and Italy’s Premio Chianciano the same year. Today, the novel has been published in 23 countries, and has sold over 47 million copies worldwide; printed in Spanish 21 times since Editorial Sudamericana in Buenos Aires first published it, it has been translated into more than 40 languages.

Throughout his life, García Márquez maintained close friendships with some of Latin America’s most revered visual artists, among them Wifredo Lam and fellow Colombians Fernando Botero and Alejandro Obregón. Perhaps it was with the surrealist painting of Wifredo Lam that he felt the closest affinity, as both surrealism and magical realism describe the realm between dreams and reality on the borderline of the possible. Lam also collaborated with the author, illustrating a portfolio of engravings for El Último Viaje del Buque Fantasma, a short story published in 1976.

García Márquez’s enduring influence in Latin American literary circles cannot be overstated. Three decades after the publication of Cien Años de Soledad, he was still the titan with whom every serious Latin American writer needed to reckon. Ultimately, he forged Latin America’s most contagious and original style. He wrote its most influential and popular books about the motives of tyrants and the endurance of love. And he explained what connects his perennial themes: “You know, old friend, the appetite for power is the result of an incapacity for love.”

Femme avec un oiseau: A Closer Look

Wifredo Lam, Femme avec un oiseau, 1949. Estimate $800,000–1,200,000.

Femme avec un oiseau (1949) portrays the seductive figure of a femme cheval, the avatar of female power largely considered the cornerstone motif in Lam's work. (Lowery Stokes Sims, "Lam's Femme Cheval: Avatar of Beauty," in Lam in North America (exhibition catalogue), Milwaukee, Patrick and Beatrice Haggerty Museum of Art, 2007, p. 28.) As a formal archetype, the Femme cheval embodies the Africanized forms, modernist hybridization and anatomical disjuncture first consolidated in The Jungle (1943), Lam's preeminent masterpiece in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Acquired by the Museum in 1945, The Jungle (Fig. 1) anticipates the gradual emergence of the physiognomic character evident in the femme cheval: "helmet heads with prominent noses and Egyptesque prosthetic beards and heads from which a fall of hair flows." (ibid., p. 29) A deeper study within this particular series that compares the individual representations of femme chevals reveals that the shape of their heads vary: the version here is typical of the elongated “trumpet” type with protruding sharp “knives” that sustains an air of semi-ferocity integral to our reading of these figures as the “collective mythical virgin-beast, a timeless symbol of carnality." (Holliday T. Day and Hollister Sturges, Art of the Fantastic: Latin American Art, 1920-1978 (exhibition catalogue), Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, 1987, n.p.) Above all, the femme cheval represents the devotees of the Afro-Cuban religion Lucumí, said to become the caballo/cheval/horse, “ridden” by the deity or orisha during ritual possession.

In the present work, Lam presents us with a maturely stylized femme-cheval, a solitary gentle being in a portrait-like format lovingly engaged with the figure of a young bird which she tenderly holds in her hand. Lam’s isolation of the figure itself, void of a recognizable background—allows for an unobtrusive and personal interaction with the viewer. A seemingly maternal subject, Lam renders the painting as both a seductive confrontation and a mysterious apparition. Set in an empty, hazy space he utilizes delicate, pastel tones of grays, blues, and tints of lavender that create a dream-like revelation and recession by this double-faced, hybrid figure.

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