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About This Artwork
Ladder to the Light, 1951
Oil on linen
59 1/8 x 39 13/16 in. (150.2 x 100.6 cm)
Lindy and Edwin Bergman Collection, 1960.778
This work seems to have had several variant titles: an early published reference to it gave the title in Spanish as Escala para una luz, with the English translation The Lights That Goes Up; in a letter of 1958, Lam referred to the painting in French as Eschelles pour une lumière (Ladders for a Light or Ladders for Illumination; letter of December 5, 1958, to Edwin Bergman); and Lam's "inventory sheet" for the painting listed the title in both French and English as La Lumière qui monte and Ladde to the Light. All of these titles, together with some distinctive motifs in the painting, may refer not only to Afro-Cuban Santería beliefs, but also to the European mystical tradition of Ramon Llull (c. 1235-1316), Robert Fludd (1574-1637), and Jakob Böhme (1575-1624). The title Ladder to the Light, in particular, conveys the notion of rising stages toward enlightenment. The diagonal of the shaft that traverses the composition vertically reclls a leaning ladder, and the elongated white diamond on the right may allude to crossing beams of light, a shape that also appears in Fludd's diagrams, created by crossing triangles of projection.
These references to a Western tradition of initiation and enlightenment are here brilliantly absorbed into the dominant imagery based on Santería beliefs. Often highly abstract and ambiguous, these Santería-inspired elements are set dramatically against a ark, looselt painted background, haunted by ghostly, imprecise shapes. The diagonal shaft, which is also like a staff, may represent the "lightening spear" of Changó, the Yoruba god of thunder. It is crossed by horned and ax-headed spikes, which may also stand for the rungs of the ladder named in the picture's title. The little round shapes on the shaft, suggesting schematic heads, may refer to Elegguá, an orisga (divinity or spirit who mediates between humans and nature) often present in Lam's work. One of Elegguá's roles, that of guardian of the roads, may be evoked by the brown horizontal strip that crosses the picture behinf the central shaft. The brown, angled form that juts across the upper-right portion of the canvas suggests the presence of a huge figure, whose elbow is represented supporting the shaft or spear. The pink, fleshy forms at the upper right and lower left may be versions of the horse-woman, a motif found frequently in Lam's work. This horse-woman figure derives from the Santería notion that the worshiper is possessed by the orisha in a manner comparable to a horse mounted by it's rider (see Julia P. Herzberg, "Wifredo Lam," Latin American Art 2, 3 [Summer 1990], p. 20). The evidently sexual quality of the pink forms, however, hints at a more personal kind of illumination. There is the suggestion of a breast at the upper right and of buttocks or breasts at the left, forms that rhyme with the circular "heads" on the horizontal shaft and thus introduce a double reading of these round shapes.
— Entry, Dawn Ades, Surrealist Art: The Lindy and Edwin Bergman Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, 1997, p. 162-163.