Wifredo Lam may be one of the most relevant artists to the cultural concerns and interests of today. A Modern master who combined his experience with titanic European figures—Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Joan Miró—with his own personal identity as a Cuban descendant of African slaves and a Chinese father, Lam stood at the crossroads of 20th Century cultural events, the rise of Surrealism, the effects of the global battle against Fascism during the Spanish Civil War and then the German invasion of France. He returned to Cuba in 1941 a fully formed artist acutely aware of the importance of African art on both European modernism and in Cuban culture.
His most valued works come from this period in the 1940s after his return to Cuba, including a gouache on paper, The Jungle, which is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Christie’s announced that it will offer in its November 11 sale of Modern art, La Réunion (1942) estimated at between $3,000,000 and $4,000,000.
La Réunion comes to market after a steady run of high value sales as Lam’s work migrate from the Latin American subcategory to the marquee auctions. According to the LiveArt.ai database, Lam’s work first broke through the seven-figure barrier in 1998 with the sale of another work from 1943, Mañana Verde, which made $1.2m at Sotheby’s. Adjusted for inflation, that would be just above $2m today. In 2006, a work from 1944 sold for $2.15m again at Sotheby’s. In 2012, Ídolo, also from 1944, hit $4.5m at auction.
At a Sotheby’s Paris sale in held in 2017, a later work by the artist made $5.2m which stood as the artist’s record until last year when Sotheby’s sold Omi Obini from 1943 for a stunning $9.6m. The next month, Christie’s sold a Femme Cheval, a key image in Lam’s work, from 1950 for $2.4 million.
Christie’s is understandably relating La Réunion to The Jungle but also to the confluence of high culture and global identity:
La Réunion is a wonderful example of Lam’s work, featuring his signature horse-headed woman, or femme cheval. First appearing in Lam’s work in 1940, the femme cheval was initially used to illustrate the Surrealist poetry of his contemporary André Breton. Drawing from post-Cubist and Surrealist sources, including Picasso’s Minotauromachy suite and Weeping Woman series of the mid- to late 1930s, the femme cheval is an amalgamation of European modernism and Afro-Cuban divinity. It simultaneously references the Surrealist penchant for subversion and hybridity with Santería practices in which devotees become transfigured into horses and mounted or possessed by orishas, or supernatural spirits. In La Réunion, the liminal condition with which the femme cheval is rendered successfully captures the equally transformative character of Lam’s work throughout 1942. Bridging European modernity with cubanidad, this massive composition stands among the most successful of Lam’s artworks created during this all critical period, establishing conventions that would come to inform the future of his artistic production.