Lot 377
  • 377

WIFREDO LAM | Femme avec un oiseau

800,000 - 1,200,000 USD
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  • Wifredo Lam
  • Femme avec un oiseau
  • Signed Wifredo Lam and dated 1949 (lower right) 
  • Oil on canvas
  • 49 by 43 in.
  • 127 by 111 cm
  • Painted in 1949.


Private Collection, Havana
Acquired from the above circa 1980


Max Pol Fouchet, Wifredo Lam, Barcelona & Paris, 1976, no. 408, illustrated p. 238
Max Pol Fouchet, Wifredo Lam, Barcelona & Paris, 1989, no. 440, illustrated p. 254
Lou Laurin-Lam, Wifredo Lam: Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work, Volume I 1923-1960, Lausanne, 1996, illustrated pl. 49.06 


This work looks well and should be hung in its current state. The work has been lined with a non-wax adhesive. The paint layer is stable. There is a slightly raised line of cracking running horizontally through the head of the bird into the central figure, which is visible but not unstable. The surface is quite dry, which is appropriate. Under ultraviolet light, one can see that there are some retouches in the white shape beneath he elbow in the lower left addressing some losses. There are quite a few retouches along the bottom edge in the lower center. There are some other retouches at the bottom of the back of the chair. There are a few other retouches around the graphic details in the head of the seated figure. The grey background may have been slightly more broadly restored, but this does not show strongly under ultraviolet light. This background may have been revisited by the artist himself. (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

"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." Sotheby’s is honored to present an important work from the Collection of Mercedes and Gabriel García Márquez. A Nobel laureate in literature, Garcia 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.

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.

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.  

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.”

As opposed to Picasso and the surrealists, his European contemporaries who often appropriated elements of African art into the formal innovations of modern art, "Lam's enduring contribution to world art history was the reclamation of an African identity within mainstream art history." --Lowery Stokes Sims  

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. 

Lam’s artistic evolution was ferocious upon his return to Cuba. "I decided that my painting would never be the equivalent of that pseudo-Cuban music for nightclubs. I refused to paint cha-cha-cha. I wanted with all my heart to paint the drama of my country, but by thoroughly expressing the Negro spirit, the beauty of the plastic art of the blacks." (Wifredo Lam, quoted in Max-Pol Fouchet, Wifredo Lam, Barcelona & Paris, 1989, pp. 188-189.) By 1942, his approach to painting, composition and imagery was one tasked with a renewed spirit and distinct direction. In re-encountering his native country's lush, natural landscape and reviving his interest in Santería practices, an unprecedented, inventive aesthetic style emerged. Executed in 1949, Femme avec un oiseau is a prime example of Lam’s new visual vocabulary—a masterful expression where “reality and the dream world become confused.” (Elizabeth T. Goizueta, “Wifredo Lam’s Poetic Imagination and the Spanish Baroque,” in Wifredo Lam: Imagining New Worlds (exhibition catalogue), Boston, McMullen Museum of Art, 2014, p. 16)

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.  

In the late 1940s, Lam had shifted from the colorful palette of his 1942-45 paintings to a more limited range of blacks, browns and beiges, and as his palette changed so did his way of dealing with the spatial organization of his figures. His compositions of 1942-45 are characterized by complex interactions between the figural elements and their environments; they intrude into each other’s forms and space. By contrast, the post-1946 works show a flattening of the shapes into silhouettes set against a neutral background. 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 from 1950.

By the end of 1949, 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: he was preparing his fifth solo exhibition at Pierre Matisse Gallery, and his works were regularly featured in group and solo exhibitions organized by Galerie Maeght, Paris, the Institute of Contemporary Art London, and Sidney Janis Gallery. Almost a decade before, in 1938, Wifredo Lam arrived in Paris. During his tenure there, he studied with Picasso and met leading Surrealist poets and writers like André Bréton. Early exposure to these creatives resulted in outstanding collaborations to the twentieth-century poetic and artistic canon.  In 1976, Lam conceived a series of twelve lithographs to accompany the short story El ultimo viaje del buque fantasma (The Last Journey of the Ghost Ship) by Gabriel García Márquez. Lam deeply admired his poet contemporaries and commented “I have never created pictures in terms of a symbolic tradition, but always on the basis of a poetic excitation. I believe in Poetry. For me it is the great conquest of mankind.”(ibid., p. 17).