Wifredo Lam (1902-1982)
- Volière d'un ongle
- signed and dated 42 lower right
- gouache and watercolor on heavy paper laid down on canvas
Sale: Sotheby's, New York, Important Latin American Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, November 26, 1985, lot 25, illustrated
Private Collection, New York
Mexico City, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Pintura cubana moderna en México, 1946, illustrated
Lou Laurin-Lam, Wifredo Lam, Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work, Volume I, 1923-1960, Lausanne, 1996, no. 44.05, p. 342, illustrated
In the immediate year leading up to Lam’s arrival in Cuba, a visible intensity of energy and gradual transformation was already taking place in his works. Already settled and working in Paris since the spring of 1938, Lam was deeply integrated within the artistic circle of Pablo Picasso and championed by art dealer Pierre Loeb. But by the summer of 1940, the mounting aggression of the Nazi campaign had already blanketed a significant portion of Europe and would soon consume France. Fearful for their lives, the Parisian artistic network dismantled and fled. Lam along with André Breton, Oscar Domínguez, Max Ernst, and André Masson, among others, managed to take refuge in Marseille. Bored and anxious, the group of refugee artists found distractions in an endless string of collaborative artworks and projects. Marseille became a new, albeit temporary, hotbed of artistic production. One day Breton asked Lam to collaborate on his poem “Fata Morgana”— the text would be translated from French to Spanish and Lam would then draw images based upon the most evocative passages. Lam illustrated three dozen images in total; eight were selected for use in the book . The Marseilles Notebook, as it is often referred to, is the crucial visual “record” and precursor of the dramatic transformation of Lam’s visual language. Prior to this, Lam’s artistic style was referential to the Cubist currents of the time while also taking on “Picasso-esque” (See Lot 90) and “Matisse-like” elements (See Fig. 1)—fractured figures set against decorative motifs and bold, flat color planes . The Marseilles Notebook reveals an emancipation from his “Paris-period” style. In it we find the first appearances of Lam’s femme-cheval—the hybrid woman-horse figure, horned and masked, in the suspenseful moment of transformation as she is traced with intertwining vines and flowers (See Fig. 2). The lines become looser, more visceral and more fluid.
Lam’s artistic evolution was ferocious upon the return to his native country. By 1942, his approach to painting, composition and imagery was one tasked with a renewed spirit and distinct direction. In reencountering Cuba’s lush, natural landscape and reviving his interest in Santería practices, an unprecedented, inventive aesthetic style emerged. The present work, Volière d'un ongle, executed during 1942, is a prime example of Lam’s new visual vocabulary—a masterful expression where “reality and the dream world become confused […] there is atmosphere of myths and color, thoroughly original.”  In this work, we encounter a more maturely stylized and complex femme-cheval—the recurring image that would be one of the dominant themes in Lam’s oeuvre. An isolated and singular subject, Lam renders the painting almost like a portrait; it is both a seductive confrontation and a mysterious apparition. Set in an empty, hazy space he utilizes delicate, pastel tones that create a dream-like revelation and recession by this double-faced, hybrid figure. Moreover, we see indications of vegetation melding and converging with the femme-cheval suggesting a union of the natural earth, the human and the spiritual.
 Lowry Stokes Sims, “Wifredo Lam: From Spain Back to Cuba,” Wifredo Lam and His Contemporaries 1938-1952 (exhibition catalogue), 1992, New York, p. 27
 Martica Sawin, Surrealism In Exile and the Beginning of the New York School, Cambridge, 1995, p. 125
 Lowry Stokes Sims, “Lam’s Encounter with the School of Paris”, Wifredo Lam and His Contemporaries 1938-1952 (exhibition catalogue), New York, 1992, p. 30
 Elizabeth T. Goizueta, “Wifredo Lam’s Poetic Imagination and the Spanish Baroque”, Wifredo Lam: Imagining New Worlds (exhibition catalogue), Chicago, 2014,p. 16