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Surrealist Art from Latin America

and Latin American Art


7PM, Nov. 23, 1999 & 10:15AM, Nov. 24, 1999 (Lots 80-260)


"The Disasters of Mysticism" by Matta

Lot 8, "The Disasters of Mysticism," by Matta, oil on canvas,

38 3/8 by 51 3/8 inches, 1942

By Carter B. Horsley

This fall Sotheby's has split its major Latin American Art sale into two catalogues.

The first, Surrealist Art from Latin America," consists of 21 lots that start the evening auction and is highlighted by several major works, including two Mattas and one by Wilfredo Lam, and good examples by several important woman artists.

The cover illustration, shown above, of the "Surrealist" catalogue is Lot 8, "The Disasters of Mysticism," an impressive oil on canvas, 38 3/8 by 51 3/8 inches, by Matta (b. 1911) that was formerly in the collection of James Thrall Soby and the Wadsworth Atheneum.

At his best, Matta ranks with Kandinsky as a master of complex and dynamic abstract compositions of far deeper dimension that the more simplistic works of the Abstract Expressionists. Cubists opened the door and eventually one stubs one’s toes on the amazing vortices of Kandinsky and Matta.

In her essay in the catalogue on Matta, Martica Sawin notes that the artist’s "psychic automatism" sessions in his New York studio in 1942 attracted such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and William Baziotes, and she provides the following biographical information:

"The youngest member of the pre-war European Surrealist group, Roberto Sebastian Matta Echaurren, had arrived in New York from France with is American wife, Anne Clark, shortly after the outbreak of World War II. He was joined by other refugee Surrealists, including Max Ernest, André Masson, Yves Tanguy and the movement’s poet spokesman André Breton. Young, charismatic, fluent in English, French and Spanish as well as an artist of great facility and a wide-ranging intellect, he soon was exhibiting his unique paintings at the Julien Levy and Pierre Matisse galleries and attracting a following among young American artists; Matta, who studied drawing and interior design in his native Chile was working in Paris as a draftsman in the architectural office of Le Corbusier in the mid-1930s when he made a momentous trip to visit his aunt in Spain. Federico Garcia Lorca was a frequent visitor in the home of his aunt and uncle and Matta was deeply impressed by the famous poet. Lorca gave him a book and a note to deliver to Salvador Dalí in Paris, but it was not until the following year when he learned of Lorca’s murder by the Falangists that he went to call on Dali. On the latter’s recommendation Matta took some drawings to show the Surrealist leader, André Breton, who welcomed him into the group, along with his friend Gordon Onslow-Ford. It was a case of Surrealism adopting the two artists rather than their adopting Surrealism as they were already deeply involved in their own visionary pursuit which Matta named psychological morphology….This concept of space transformed by time rather than seen at a single instant has been the driving force in Matta’s work from the outset. Using mulitperspectival transparent structures in combination with opaque planes and translucent washes, Matta creates spaces that seem to break the time barrier, fulfilling his dictum that ‘reality can only be represented in a state of perpetual transformation.’…At the time he painted The Disasters of Mysticism Matta was immersed in the writings of the 19th century mystic Eliphas Levy and was also deeply interested in alchemy and the Tarot.…It is likely that there is a reference to alchemical transformation in the liquid flow of translucent white around the nucleus of flame on the left side of the painting while the pearl-like shape at the right center, which appears in other works of this time, may represent an astral egg and the red form above it may signify the birth of a planet. The juxtapositions of fire and ice, of flashing light and opaque darkness, of liquid flow and solid rock convey a sense of a universe in simultaneous formation and dissolution at the same time as they may allude to the catacyclismic events of a war that had some of its darkest hours at the time this work was painted. The Disasters of Mysticism was shown in the Feburary 1944 Matta exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery which elicited rave reviews. It was purchased by James Thrall Soby, at the time Director of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art and author of several articles on Matta. It was included in the 1957 Matta retrospective at the museum at which time curator William Rubin described it as ‘the most expressionistic of Matta’s early works, notable for the rich handling of the impasto and its mood of foreboding and anxious terror.’"

Several fine Mattas were offered at auction unsuccessfully last spring at Christie's (see The City Review article). This work has an "estimate on request." It sold for $2.4 million, not including the buyer's premium, easily breaking the auction record for the artist of $1,610,000.

The other major Matta painting is Lot 4, "Morphologie Psychologique," a 28 ½-by-36 1/8-inch oil on canvas, executed in 1929. This very colorful and fine example of the artist’s Surrealist automatism was originally in the collection of Max Ernst and has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. It sold for $900,000, not including the buyer's premium.

Another interesting Matta is Lot 209, "Le Bruit de Songes," a 59-by-92-inch pastel on paper that was executed in 1983 and has a very conservative high estimate of $40,000. It sold for $27,600 including the buyer's premium. Lot 66 is another good Matta entitled "Les Champs de La Memoire," a 45 3/4-by-59-inch oil, that has a conservative high estimate of $150,000. It sold for $75,000 not including the buyer's premium.

"Triangle" by Wilfredo Lam

Lot 17, "Triangle," by Wilfredo Lam, oil on canvas,

61 1/2 by 58 1/4 inches, 1947

Wilfredo Lam (1902-1982) is represented in the auction by Lot 17, a 61 ½-by-58 ¼-inch oil on canvas entitled "Triangle." Executed in 1947, the painting, according to the catalogue, "amalgamates key forms in the Cuban landscape that Lam animated in accordance with an Afro-Cuban worldview."

"From the time of Lam’s return to Havana in late 1941, the artist worked in a Cubist- and Surrealist-derived language, characterized by reconfiguring human, animal and plant imagery, wherein one element metamorphoses into another, creating a sense of endless visual possibilities and surprise….The spikey forms of the plantain tress (that grew in the artist’s garden), the animated spirits, and the triangular motifs, signifying Abakuá retentions in religious practices in Cuba, are painted in deep, lush tones suggested a crepuscular time of day. Lam both participated in and contributed to the international contemporary modernist art dialogue of his time. He successfully recast it from that of his fellow Cuban, European and North and South American colleagues. Lam looked inward and outward at once, affirming his complex ethno-cultural identities within the boundaries of style and subjects that were unmistakably his," it added.

It sold for $900,000, not including the buyer's premium, within the pre-sale estimate.

Another Lam is less ominous and more beautiful, Lot 148, "Quatre Personnages," a 80 3/8-by-55 1/4-inch gouache and watercolor on paper, painted in 1958. This work is better than most Picassos and has a conservative high estimate of $175,000. It sold for $277,500 including the buyer's premium. Another very lovely Picassoeasque work by Lam is Lot 120 "Mere et Enfant," a 40 1/2 by 29 inch watercolor and charcoal on paper, executed in 1939. It has a conservative high estimate of $40,000. It faild to sell.

Lots 124, 125, 130 and 131 each contain numerous fine drawings by Lam, all of which are very handsomely framed. Lot 130 has an estimate of $10,500 and the others each have an estimate of $12,000 to $18,000, and all contain very fine works. These lots should all greatly exceed their high estimates. Including the buyer's premiums, Lot 124 sold for $37,375, Lot 125 sold for $57,500 and Lot 130 sold for $48,875.

Leonora Carrington, (b. 1917), one of the leading female Surrealists, is represented by two works, Lots 7 and 18. The former is a 35 ¾-by-22 inch oil on canvas, entitled, "The Lodging House," that was executed in 1949 and has an estimate of $125,000 to $175,000. It sold for $140,000 not including the buyer's premium. It is a work of great charm and fantasy that is somber, yet delicate. The latter, a very fine work of great humor, is entitled "The Analyst," and is a 17 ¾-by-23 ¾-inch casein and graphite on panel that was executed in 1964. It has a conservative estimate of $70,000 to $90,000. It sold for $120,000 not including the buyer's premium.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), who is perhaps the most famous female Latin American artist, is represented by Lot 1, a very nice seated self-portrait drawing, 11 ¾ by 8 ¼ inches, that has an estimate of $70,000 to $80,000. It sold for $55,000 including the buyer's premium.

One of the other leading women artists was María Izquierdo (1902-1955), who became the companion, model and colleague of Rufino Tamayo and a respected artist in her right.

One of her last major works, "Sueño y presentimento," Lot 13, a 17 7/8-by-23-inch oil on canvas, executed in 1947, has an estimate of $450,000 to $550,000. It sold for $450,000, not including the buyer's premium.

She held her first show in Mexico in 1929 and two years later her work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A few years later she was commissioned to do a mural for a government building in Mexico City but the contract was cancelled after "envy and intrigues on the part of certain (male) painters," according to the catalogue. The incident greatly depressed her and her work became more brooding.

In a catalogue essay on the artist, Luis-Martin Lozano recounts that:

"The artist recounts that she suffered a from a great malaise and she began to experience nightmares that left her sleepless. One fine day, she arose and drew what she remembered….Then there appeared a clear vision of her self-portrait, in a window of metaphysical dimension, holding her own decapitated head as her body, still walking, became lost in the distance of steps leading to the void. A few weeks, Later María Izquierdo suffered a stroke that left part of her body paralyzed. Hence Sueño y presentimiento was a premonitory painting, produced by the power of the subconscious, that heralded great pain for her in the future. Beginning with that moment, Maria Izquierdo’s creative processes would be interrupted abruptly, and thus this canvas constitutes the last of her great works."

Catedral Vegetal" by Remedios Varo

Lot 16, large detail of "Catedral Vegetal," by Remedios Varo,

oil on masonite, 29 1/2 by 17 3/4 inches, 1957

Far less somber is Lot 16, "Catedral Vegetal," a 1957 oil on masonite, 29 ½ by 17 ¾ inches, by Remedios Varo (1908-1963). This enchanting and mysterious work depicts two people in a tall vehicle surmounted by a flag and compass that is drawn by the sails and wings of a large bird on a wheel. The vehicle is rose-colored but not particularly festive but it has a door that opens onto a curved rear platform. The vehicle appears to be not a road but also not moving despite mysterious wisps of mist or fog streaming backwards from the bird’s phantasmogoric headdress of sails underneath the trees whose branches have grown together to form a vaulted ceiling, a vast canopy. The lot has an estimate of $450,000 to $550,000. It was passed at $420,000.

Other interesting works are Lot 19, "Serie del Tibet," a 8 3/8-by-4 ¾-inch tempera on paper, dated 42, by Juan Batlle Planas (1911-1966), which has a high estimate of $15,000, and Lot 15, "Hombre Amarillo," a 26-by-46 ½-inch oil and sand on paper, executed circa 1964-5, by Francisco Toldeo (b. 1940), which has a high estimate of $40,000. Lot 19, however, was withdrawn from the auction. Lot 15 sold for its high estimate, not including the buyer's premium.

"Oracle sur Managua," by Armando Morales

Lot 52, "Oracle sur Managua: Hommage a Ernesto Cardenal," by Armando Morales,

oil on canvas, 64 by 79 inches, 1989

Armando Morales (b. 1927) has a very distinctive painting style that conjures the sculptural. Lot 52, shown above, "Oracle sur Managua: Hommage a Ernesto Cardenal," a 64-by-79-inch oil on canvas, executed in 1989, is a major and superb example of his work.

The catalogue offers the following fine commentary on this work:

"The ethereal quality of Morales' paintings can be attributed to his unique approach to the depictions of light. Like a magic prism, rays emanate and occasionally even refract from figures while moonlight caresses the glowing objects. Reminiscent of the work of Italian metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico, Morales manipulates our view of reality by elevating his figures to supernatural status while placing them in settings familiar to us....Monumental not only in scale but also in its visual impact, Oracle sur Managua: Hommage to Ernesto Cardenal offers an optical feast to its viewers. Images found throughout the figurativ period in Armando Morales' oeuvre flood the canvas. Nudes, bicycles, dogs, horses, mirrors, found objects, train tracks and the carriages are forms that populate the canvas of this masterpiece. Morales has deftly synthesized virtually every element into what can be descibed as the quintessential painting in his oeuvre."

The lot has a conservative high estimate of $450,000. It was passed at $320,000.

Morales has another good work, Lot 38, "Selva," a 63 3/4-by-73 1/2-inch oil on canvas, dated 1986, which is the cover illustration of the catalogue. This dense, surreal forest scene has an ambitious high estimate of $600,000. It sold for $370,000.

"Blue Package with Ostrich Eggs" by Claudio Bravo

Lot 54, "Blue Package with Ostrich Eggs," by Claudio Bravo,

oil on canvas, 43 by 55 inches, 1971

Claudio Bravo (b. 1936) is one of the world's great photorealist painters but such a label is too simple and insufficient for his dramatic, enigmatic work. A marvelous technician, he has a great knack for surprise and a bold sense of composition. His work is not cluttered with the detritus of inkempt detail, yet he combines the prosaic with the astounding with a very formal classicism. Lot 54, shown above, "Blue Package with Ostrich Eggs," oil on canvas, 43 by 55 inches, executed in 1971, is a fine example of his work. Most painters would have cropped the top third of the painting to achieve a tighter, more focused composition, but Bravo's composition gives it a spatial dynamic that greatly increases its mystery and drama. It has a high estimate of $450,000. It sold for $460,000. Lot 26, "Blue Package," a 33 3/4-by-573/4-inch oil on canvas by Bravo soared above its $700,000 high estimate and sold for $925,000 not including the buyer's premium. Another Bravo that happens to have a "tight" composition is Lot 67, "Magnetic Red," a 65-by-47-inch oil on canvas whose brilliant red painted crinkles are almost hypnoptically Cubist. A stunning work, it has a somewhat ambitious high estimate of $700,000. It was passed at $390,000.

"Trino al Alba" by Carlos Mérida

Lot 182, "Trino Al Alba," by Carlos Mérida,

oil on canvas, 31 5/8 by 23 7/8 inches, 1979

More than most contemporary Latin American artists, Carlos Mérida has a great sense of the abstract vocabulary of Pre-Columbia culture. Lot 182, shown above, "Trino al Alba," a 31 5/8-by-23 7/8-inch oil on canvas, executed in 1979, is an excellent example that evokes, both in its palette and iconography, many of the great Pre-Columbia designs, but puts them together into a new, unified arrangement that is most pleasing. It has a conservative high estimate of $30,000. It failed to sell.

The auction also has several by Fernando Botero (b. 1932) including Lot 47, "Feliz Cumpleaños" a 61-by-75 1/4-inch oil on canvas that has a high estimate of $400,000 and depicts a still life of food and cake that explains how his many bulbous figures, not here present, got that way. It was passed at $260,000.

One of the most impressive contemporary works is Lot 220, an untitled acrylic oil, rein and voile on canvas, 59 by 78 inches that is marvelous and full of mystery and has an almost holographic look that is quite fascinating. It is by Daniel Senise (b. 1955) and was executed in 1998 and has a quite conservative estimate of $12,000 to $18,000. It failed to sell.

Lot 217, "Torso de Hombre," is a 67 1/2-inch-high clay statue by Javier Marín (b. 1962) that is memorable and would most likely have impressed Michelangelo. Executed in 1997, it has an estimate of $15,000 to $20,000. It sold for $18,400 including the buyer's premium.

The well-attended evening sale bought numerous bursts of applause for lots that did well.

See The City Review article on the Fall 1999 Latin American Art auction at Christie's

See The City Review article on the Spring, 1999 Latin American Art auction at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on The Latin American Sale at Christie's in New York in June, 1999


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