Wifredo Lam (1902-1982)
- Le Sorcier de l'Océan (Alafi Incam/Ogun Ferraille), The Wizard of the Ocean
- signed and dated 1947 lower center
- oil on canvas
- 42 1/8 by 33 5/8 in.
- 107 by 85.5 cm
Collection of Jeanne Reynal, New York (1947)
David Herbert Gallery, New York (1961)
Collection of Dolores Smithies, Key Biscayne
By descent to the present owner
New York, David Herbert Gallery, Spanish and Latin American Artists, February 1-March 31, 1961
New York, The Studio Museum in Harlem, Wifredo Lam and His Contemporaries 1939-1952, 1992-1993, no. 43, p. 145, illustrated; p. 117, discussed
Paris, Musée Dapper, Lam métis, September 26, 2001-January 20, 2002, no. 56, p. 135, illustrated in color
Marcel Jean, The History of Surrealist Painting, New York, 1960, p. 303, illustrated
André Breton, Le Surréalisme et la Peinture, Paris, 1965, p. 169, illustrated
Patrick Waldberg, Les demeures d'Hypnos, Paris, 1976, p. 282, illustrated
Max-Pol Fouchet, Wifredo Lam, Paris, 1976, no. 420, p. 235, illustrated
"Wifredo Lam", XX Siècle, no. 52, July 1979, p. 34, illustrated
Max-Pol Fouchet, Wifredo Lam, Paris, 1989, no. 452, p. 255, illustrated
Lou Laurin-Lam, Wifredo Lam, Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Works, Volume I 1923-1960, Lausanne, 1996, no. 47.45, p. 402, illustrated
Charles E. Pierce, Jr., William M. Griswold, Jennifer Tonkovich, et. al., Pierre Matisse and His Artists, New York, 2002, p. 216, illustrated
Elizabeth T. Goizueta, et. al., Wifredo Lam, Imagining New Worlds, (exhibition catalogue), Boston, 2014, p. 16, illustrated
While the earlier painting does show Lam’s gradual retreat from the vivid coloration—that can be observe in his work of the early 1940s—into tones of black and white, and eventually earth tones of browns and blacks—at the same time it retains the inextricable figure/ back ground relationship seen, for example, in Lam’s signature painting The Jungle of 1943. As seen in The Wizard of the Ocean, on the other hand, the figure of the femme cheval has been extricated from the background/ jungle and isolated as a single entity against a stark black background.
Between 1946 and 1950 those entities begin to show an incredible range of expression and design. They assume the character of ¾ portraits that recall those of Spanish matrons that Lam executed in the 1920s and 30s in Spain to support himself. The shape of their heads vary: the version here is typical of the elongated “trumpet” type with several protruding “prongs” or “teeth” that sustain the air of ferocity that is key to our reading of these figures described by Holliday T. Day and Hollister Sturges (in the 1992 catalogue of the exhibition, Art of the Fantastic: Latin American Art, 1920-1978), as the “collective mythical virgin-beast, a timeless symbol of carnality."
Like the shamanistic entity the femme cheval is ultimately—often interpreted as the devotee of the orisha who is “ridden” by otherworldly forces— The Wizard of the Ocean is festooned with fetishistic amulets. The crown of her head—the site where the devotee receives ashé or power—is appointed with a horned headpiece. An animated horseshoe with fringe and protuberances hangs down from the headpiece and from that a horned avian form that may be the bat with whom Lam had an apocryphal encounter in his youth that he related to Max-Pol Fouchet, his first chronicler. As in the different versions of the femme cheval her tail extends down her back—here a more simplified version with spikes replacing strands of hair. Lam retains his “Egyptizing” custom of combining a profiled head with a torso in frontal view.
Whereas the breasts on Lam’s female figures are usually more curvilinear evoking fruits such as the papaya that could be found growing in his backyard in Havana, here they resemble a more schematic “zigzag” character seen at times on African sculptures. Indeed by 1947, the visual impact of African—as well as Oceanic art—had morphed from stylistic convention to direct influence as Lam began to assemble what would become an important collection of African and Oceanic art. A photograph from 1947 shows Lam’s second wife Helena Holzer in their Havana home with several pieces Lam brought back from Paris.
The Wizard of the Ocean was created as Lam had resumed travel from Havana to New York and Paris in 1946 and then 1947. He reestablished connections with the Surrealist group with whom he’d shared exile in Marseilles in 1940-41 and met artists of the burgeoning New York School. In addition to a visit to Haiti where he had an exhibition at the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince, he had a long-delayed one-person exhibition in Havana at the Lyceum. His efforts to reignite his career also led to his work being included in several important international group exhibitions such as Blood Flames organized by Nicolas Calas at the Hugo Gallery in New York City, and Le Surréalisme en 47 organized by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp at the Galerie Maeght in Paris.
Lowery Stokes-Sims, 2015.
I had known Dolores Smithies for many years. She was a close friend of mine and she lived in the same apartment building in New York. She was also a colleague as she worked out of our offices in Miami. Even though she technically reported to me, I always came away with the feeling that I, at the of the day, worked for her!
She was an expert on Latin American Art, and she was an avid collector. She taught me a great deal about that collecting category. Every time I visited her apartment on Key Biscayne there was always a new purchase somehow placed amongst her many works; one could barely see the paint on the walls. Like all great collectors she was always on the prowl for paintings and objects by young artists. I must say that sometime I just could not get my arms around the rationale for buying certain works. She on the other hand was full of confidence that these artists were great and that if I had trouble understanding that well “mala suerte!”
And so I am very touched that the family has asked us to help with the marketing and sale of this stunning Wifredo Lam. It shows indeed that Dolores had a great eye for the best. My old friend bought many great objects over the years, and this is certainly one of them.
James G. Niven
Sotheby’s Chairman, The Americas