Pierre Mabille, the famed Surrealist writer, declared in his May 1949 article exclusively devoted to Wifredo Lam for Magazine of Art
, that the unarguable achievement of Lam’s paintings is that of “a magical power and a sure artistry…. Lam succeeds in recovering and surpassing what the sorcerers of the jungle accomplished by virtue of their faith and their most secret dreams,” furthermore “his break with tradition and his technical procedures of investigation are thoroughly warranted” (Lowery Stokes Sims in Wifredo Lam and His Contemporaries 1938-1952
(exhibition catalogue), New York, Studio Museum in Harlem, 1992, p. 80). By the onset of 1950, Wifredo Lam’s artistic might had advanced throughout Europe and the Americas; he was at this point an artistic tour-de-force within the art establishment: two of Lam’s works had been purchased by New York’s Museum of Modern Art for its permanent collection (including his 1942 masterwork painting The Jungle
); he was preparing his fifth solo-exhibition at Pierre Matisse Gallery in addition to his works making regular appearances in group and solo exhibitions organized by Galerie Maeght, Paris, the Institute of Contemporary Art London; and Sidney Janis Gallery.
A progression of imagery, and overall character, decisively mark Lam’s works of the 1950s. The color palette becomes reduced, darker with a predominance of misty blacks, purples and lavenders, blues and olive browns. The presence of paint on the canvas itself becomes decidedly less; the canvas “began to assume an unprecedented prominence in his work [and as a result] the painting becomes the Materia pria
—the arena, the terrain—on which symbols appeared and disappeared” (ibid,
p. 15). More importantly, Wifredo Lam begins a more ambitious pursuit of the femme-cheval—“
the mythical virgin-beast” explored by the Surrealists and more literally a representative symbol of the revered horse of the deity worshiped by followers of the Orisha (a spirit of the Yaruba religion) (Lowery Stokes Sims, Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 1923-1982
, Austin, 2002, p. 119). The variations of form and design become seemingly endless throughout Lam’s investigation of this character, with no less than 30 representations of the hybrid female-horse character dominating the paintings of this particular year of 1950.
In the present work, Sans titre
, Lam presents us with a solitary and unfamiliar being in a portrait-like format—here the femme-cheval
appears to pose, awaiting, or possibly at the height of, an other-worldly transformation. The femme-cheval
figure is both a sensually robust and strikingly ferocious interlocking of forms—horse-hoofs, breasts, horns, multiple-heads, isolated leaves, and lush vegetation intertwine to form a hybrid being of both the natural and spiritual worlds. Lam’s usage of tonal grays, blacks and hints of lavender—along with the isolation of the figure itself, void of a recognizable background—allows for a successful creation of transitions between foreground and background and a suggestion of multiple planes; the figure appears to be dissolving and evaporating into the background while also fully materializing into a looming apparition.