Lot 8
  • 8

Wifredo Lam (1902-1982)

2,000,000 - 3,000,000 USD
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  • Ídolo (Oya/Divinité de l'air et de la mort)
  • signed and dated 1944 lower left
  • oil and charcoal on canvas
  • 62 by 50 1/4 in.
  • 157.3 by 127.6 cm


Galerie Pierre, Paris (Pierre Loeb)
Private Collection, Caracas


Avignon, Palais des Papes, Exposition de peintures et sculptures contemporaines, June 27-September 30, 1947
Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Lam, Matta, Penalba, April 25-June 10, 1968
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, July 18-August 20, 1972; Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, October 20-November 19, 1972, Surrealism: Latin America
Caracas, Museo de Bellas Artes, Wifredo Lam, pintura y obra gráfica 1938-1976, November 30, 1986-January 18, 1987
London, The Hayward Gallery, May 18-August 6, 1989; Stockholm, Moderna Museet, September 16-November 19, 1989; Madrid, Palacio de Velázquez, December 19, 1989-March 31, 1990, Art in Latin America, The Modern Era 1820-1980, p. 232, illustrated in color
Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Crosscurrents of Modernism, Four Latin American Pioneers: Diego Rivera, Joaquín Torres-García, Wifredo Lam, Matta, June 11-September 7, 1992, no. 61, p. 201, illustrated in color
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century, June 6-September 7, 1993, no. 103, p. 259, illustrated in color


Cahiers d'art, XX-XXI, Paris, 1945-1946, p. 362, illustrated
Pierre Loeb, Voyage à travers la peinture, Paris, 1946, pl. XVII, illustrated
"Wifredo Lam et les idoles crépusculaires," Quadrum, no 3, 1957, p. 38, illustrated
Patrick Waldberg, Metafisica, Dada, Surrealismo: le immagini e gli eventi dell'inconscio, Milan, 1967, no. 98, illustrated
Michel Leiris, Wifredo Lam, New York, 1970, p. 50, illustrated
Max Pol Fouchet, Wifredo Lam, Barcelona/Paris, 1976, no. 374, p. 232, illustrated
Lou Laurin-Lam and Eskil Lam, Wifredo Lam: Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work, Volume I, 1923-1960, Paris, 1996, no. 44.88, p. 366, illustrated, p. 130, discussed
Lowery Stokes Sims, Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 1923-1982, Austin, 2002,  fig. 2.19, pp. 53 and 87, illustrated, p. 52, discussed


This important painting is in very good condition. Lam's technique has involved some vertical dripping, which is visible throughout the center of the work and in the upper left. The canvas is unlined and well stretched. The painting is unvarnished, as it should be, and seems to be undamaged. There are no restorations and the work should be hung in its current condition. This condition report has been provided courtesy of Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Oya: the Yoruba goddess (orisha) who holds dominion over winds, storms and lightning. Agent of change, she is also guardian of entrances to cemeteries and ferries the souls of the dead from this world to the next. Warrior, she is as strong as a man while flaunting her multiple children in the multiple colors she wears. She demands offerings as varied as eggplants, red wine, tobacco, plumes and purple grapes and legumes; and her familiars include birds (especially sparrows and purple martins), insects (especially fireflies and dragon flies), bats, deer and water buffalo.

How can this information inform our reading of this 1944 image by Wifredo Lam entitled, Oya [Divinité de l'air et de la mort/Idolos]? The focus is a figure in the foreground that is bent backwards in a dramatic arc. The pose is striking. It recalls those seen in several of Lam's compositions from 1942—such as L'homme à la vague—where they function compositionally as either a devotee in the throes of spiritual or physical ecstasy/ trance or a woman's body transmuting from a European one into an Africanized one.

The other three other figures in the composition seem to be watching over the back-bended figure, tending to her as she experiences her trance taking on the persona of the orisha. The one at the left has a bulbous facial appendage and extended plant element and horse-shoed headdress. The other two figures have diamond and triangular head shapes. These shapes—along with the elongated chins with ball-like endings, the wings, the sections of flowing manes/tails and  the round-faced, horned imps-represent elements of the visual vocabulary that Lam had adapted as a means to visualize the metaphysical at this period.

The question lingers: who or where is Oya? Is she subsumed in supine figure in full trance that bends at the lower right? She sports wings and a large, superannuated hand reaches the ground to support her. She also wears high heels reminding us of the figure identified as the "mulatto" in Lam's compositions The Eternal Presence of the same year. This female figure like so many in Lam's work of this period embodies the profane as much as the sacred, the whore as much as the virgin.

Or is Oya in fact the caped figure at the left whose bulbous visage may represent the eggplant that the orisha demands as an offering or the ubiquitous papaya plants that have also become a recurring motif in Lam's paintings of the 1940s. This figure wears a full-length cape that lends a more ceremonial air and she may very well be presiding over the possession of the bending figure all the while pointing to the heavens with her left hand.

This painting shows Lam in a more spontaneous and process-oriented mode. The loose, freely dripping technique with washes of brown and black tones is combined with an indeterminate, open drawing in pigment that in other paintings would be done in pencil or charcoal. The paint is concentrated in areas of intensity while the rest of the images hover at the edge of perception. The visual interplay between positive (painted) and negative (unpainted) elements serve as much to alert us to the narrative sequencing as it does to define form and suggest spatial relationships. Several paintings with this limited palette—such as Sur les Traces—were shown in New York in the mid-1940s. This painting, while not seen at that time or in that context, nevertheless demonstrates a striking correspondence with developments in the work of Arshile Gorky at this same moment and leads us to provocative conclusions about Lam's relationship to Abstract Expressionism.

One cannot leave this discussion without taking note of the bird at the lower right hand section of the composition. Sporting tiny horns, and displaying another head situated at its tail section, it seems to be flapping its wings in a profusion of feather-like forms and multiple colors—unexpected in this sepia-hued painting. Is this the bird familiar of Oya who sports the colors representing her persona and her children? Or is it an allusion to the bird flapping against the bedroom window which, as Lam revealed in the 1970s to his chronicler Max Pol-Fouchet, both frightened the youthful artist and at the same time precipitated his spiritual awakening?

Lowery Stokes Sims

March 27, 2012