A testament to Lam’s technical mastery, this work executed on burlap exhibits the rich darkness and rhythmic composition characteristic of his mature period. During this period Lam often worked directly on his prepared canvases in charcoal, later reinforcing his compositions in oil but rarely revising them; Max-Pol Fouchet describes this extraordinary draftsmanship as “heightened plastic decisiveness, a handwriting endowed with clarity and dynamism” (ibid., p. 122) Lam’s crisp, sweeping lines contribute to an overall quality of understated elegance in this mysterious composition, rendered in rich blacks. This flattening of the picture plane and clarity of the image underscores its emotive power, a technique Lam drew partially from the art of Oceanic cultures, which he began to collect eagerly in the 1940s. Here, Lam harnesses the full power of his complex pictorial vocabulary to create an image with powerful psychic presence.
In Lam's Au Commencement de la Nuit (Bonjour Monsieur Lam), the artist depicts himself within the mythical and fantastic world of his imagery, stalking across the composition on horseback. He seems arrested in motion and, like Courbet, turns bearded head towards the spectator, breaking the wall of the picture plane and inviting the viewer into a world beyond our own. Nestled amongst the snarl of limbs is another figure; the iconic image of a Femme-cheval, a woman-horse, emerges. Further to the right, Lam rises above her as a geometric second head with two prominent horns, eyes wide open and staring up towards his two arms and hands that close the composition on the right side with a protective gesture. A mysterious long shape with ribs or spines crosses the painting in parallel of the creature's body: its presence echoes and accentuates the angular and fleshless qualities of these limber, linear beings.
This image of Lam riding the Femme-cheval relates closely to his study of Santería. In devotional practices, participants become vessels for and are “ridden" by the Orisha (god or goddess) summoned, bridging the barrier between the divine and the mortal. Here, Lam embodies the Orisha Eleguá, the god of the crossroads, who holds the keys to the past, present, and future. Where Courbet presents us a moment in time, Lam presents an encounter with eternity.
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