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Wilfredo Lam painting shines at Latin American sale

28th May 2012

A painting by the 20th century Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam has sold for $4.56 million (approximately £2.9 million) at Sotheby's' record-breaking Latin American art sale in New York.
The sale of Lam's Idolo (Oya/Diviniti de l'Air et de la mort), which was created in 1944, stole the sunshine from the Mexican painter Diego Rivera, whose Nina en Azul y Blanco failed to find a buyer. It was expected to sell for up to $6 million (£.3.8 million).

Lam's mesmeric and surrealist-influenced painting, composed in oil paint and charcoal, was made as a sort of celebration of Oya, an Afro-Cuban goddess of the Niger River. What can be observed in the painting are his spiritual influences, in particular santeria, which is a religion that borrows from Christianity and Yoruba.

"We were thrilled with the new record price achieved for Wifredo Lam, which was one of nine new artist records set during the Wednesday evening auction," commented Axel Stein, head of Sotheby's' Latin American art department. The price paid for Idolo was more than double what had previously been paid for any of his works.

The event was, as Mr Stein underlined, notable for being Sotheby's' most compelling and strongest Latin American evening sale to date, totalling a remarkable $21.8 million (£13.89 million), which beat the pre-sale expectation of $20.3 million (£12.9 million).

Given that this has been an outstanding sale all-around, Lam could find himself subject to greater attention and further analysis. A particular focus could be on his relationship with other surrealists like Andre Breton; while greater scrutiny of the Cuban's artist's distinct approach can only help but boost awareness of Latin American art.

What we do know of Lam is that the 18 years he spent in Europe (1923-1941) had a profound impact on his life. It was here that he became versed in the language of avant-garde art, which he took back with him to Cuba.

These can be best seen in The Jungle, which is housed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It is, like Idolo, composed of omnifarious creatures, and contrasted with African and Cuban persuasions (the former evident in masks and the latter in what can be conceived to be Cuban sugar canes). It is more Cubist than surrealist, typified by the coalescence of beings with landscape, body perspectives out of keep with rational depictions.

It was this subject matter – Afro-Cuban heritage – that really came to define Lam after his European jaunt. His work can therefore be seen to be pictorial transcriptions of pre-modern African mythology and the continent's rich leaning towards totemism.

"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," he once said.

"In this way I could act as a Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating figures with the power to surprise, to disturb the dreams of the exploiters."

Lam died in 1982 at the age of 79 in Paris.

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