Since going to the Miró exhibition recently, I’ve been reminded of Remedios Varo. In 2000, I discovered this marvelous Surrealist in an exhibition devoted to her at Chicago’s Mexican Fine Arts Museum. Called The Magic or Remedios Varo, the exhibition had been organized by Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts and shown there. At the moment of this writing there is an exhibition at Mexico City’s Museo de Arte Moderne de Mexico, entitled Remedios Varo: 50 Keys. It includes 50 works of art and a single sculpture.
Certainly Frida Kahlo is much better known, but I find Varo, who knew both Kahlo and Diego Rivera, more evocative and interesting as an artist. Varo also uses a female subject as her chief descriptive vehicle, but she is less self-absorbed than Kahlo and more concerned with the larger world.
Varo was a Surrealist born in Spain in 1908, but exiled to Mexico after 1941. Like Gaudi, Miró and Dalí, she was Catalan, originally from Angles, near Girona and close to the French border. Some of the literature I read of her suggested she was a scientist with a dedication to nature close to that of Leonardo da Vinci. She learned much through her father, an engineer, and lived part of her childhood in Morocco. Varo is certainly a detail artist and paints more in the style of a tempera painter than an oil painter. Yet I hardly see a deep devotion to science; her art taps into more of a spiritual quest for understanding the world. Perhaps, to other observers, she bridges the gap between science and the mystical.
Varo’s people are tall and thin, elongated like Sienese or Catalan figures from around 1400. Her perspective is also similar, somewhat long and exaggerated, also. She has a delicate touch and is able to find connections unexpectedly. As a woman spins in The Alchemist, above, the checkerboard of her cloak turns into tile patten of the floor beneath her. Or is it opposite? She could be weaving the tile floor into her clothing. Some kind of contraption behind her is the machinery that connecting what’s inside with the outdoors. The perspective is like Sienese artist Giovanni di Paolo.
Throughout her work I’m reminded of creativity, where it comes from and where it goes. Her artwork evokes these connections again and again. There something mystical in how it comes about. While The Flutist, above, plays next to a mountain, the stones magically rise and form a tower, while a schematic mathematical drawing holds the tower in place. Stairs of the tower are rising, going up to heaven like a Tower of Babel. However, some sources cite the the periodic table of chemistry, though I don’t quite see that connection. There are fossils on these stones, so a connection to the ancient past, present and future come together in one place.
Creation of the Birds, left, dates to 1957. As a wise woman in owl’s clothing paints birds, the birds fly out the window, She also holds a magnifying glass lit by a star out the window which, in turn, illuminates her creation. The brush comes out in her center, the heart source of creativity, which is really a guitar strung around her neck. There are egg-shaped contraptions on the floor and out another window. In fact, this machine mixes her paint, while a bird eats on the floor. Art, music, inspiration, heart, mind, and inspiration flow together, while birds fly in and out. The artist’s work is to connect inner and outer worlds.
Varo’s connection to Surrealists in Paris and Barcelona was strong. She attended the Academy of San Fernando in Madrid, the same art school as Salvador Dalí had attended. We know little of her work in Europe before she went to Mexico, but we know she admired the paintings of Heironymous Bosch at the Prado and philosophical writings of the hermetic tradition. Most of the work that can be seen is comes from the 1950s up to her death in 1963. Her association with the Surrealism made her unacceptable to either the Spanish government after the Civil War or a France during Nazi occupation. She and her French husband fled to Mexico where they met other artists such as English-born Leonora Carrington, perhaps the artist closest to her in style.
We can’t always know what was on her mind, as in the case of much Surrealism, but there seems to be a desire to tap into the origin of creativity and to connect the self (herself) to the larger universe. Her last painting, before she unexpectedly died of a heart attack at age 53, was Revolving Still Life. Pieces of fruit spin off plates as the planets orbit the sun. How interesting the many ways she can connect the small and ordinary with the big, cosmic implications! She has many online followers and fans of her work. There was an exhibition in Los Angeles last Spring which featured 10 of her paintings.