After apprenticing in Paris, where she was admitted to the Surrealists’ innermost circle, Spanish-born painter Remedios Varo fled the Nazi Occupation for Mexico. There she created her own brand of Surrealism, bringing to it a passion for alchemy, mysticism and the occult.
Useless Science or the Alchemist
When Remedios Varo died suddenly in Mexico City in 1963, Andre Breton joined the international art world in lamenting her demise. “Surrealism claims totally,” he announced from Paris, “the work of the enchantress too soon gone.” At 54, Varo had only recently enjoyed her second one-person exhibition after years of economic hardship, wartime dislocations and exile from her native Spain. Her jewel-like paintings, steeped in fantasy, humor, and secret and scientific wisdom, mostly date from the last decade of her career. If their debt to Surrealism seems obvious, Varo owed as much to Mexico, for it was there that she found conditions sufficiently stable to create her art. Thus Luis-Martin Lozano, curator of the Varo retrospective organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts last spring, may be justified in calling her “An Artist from Mexico” in the title of his catalogue essay. But neither Mexican muralism nor pre-Columbian art had any impact on Varo’s decidedly European style. And in Chicago, where the exhibition traveled to the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum after its debut in Washington, D.C., viewers may have been struck more by her paintings’ resonance with the magic realism of Chicago eccentrics like Gertrude Abercrombie and Julia Thecla than by any manifestations of Mexicanidad.
El Flautista/The flutist
Varo escaped to Mexico from Nazi-occupied France in 1941 with Surrealist poet Benjamin Peret, whom she married the following year. She was not befriended, as one might have expected, by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, but by fellow refugees; like them, she struggled to put the war behind her and piece together a modest existence. She painted furniture, designed costumes, made toys and dioramas, and found employment as a commercial illustrator for Bayer Pharmaceuticals. During a trip to Venezuela, she produced scientific drawings for that country’s Ministry of Public Health. To function as an artist, however, she needed the equivalent of what Virginia Woolf had prescribed for the woman writer–a steady income and a room of her own. This Varo was finally provided, after the disolution of her marriage and Peret’s return to France, by her major supporter, Austrian emigre and businessman Walter Gruen. Marriage to Gruen in 1952 relieved her of the necessity of pursuing odd jobs and allowed her to realize fully her creative potential. Until then, her art had been experimental, uneven, sporadic.
It had also been subject to the intimidating brilliance of the first generation of Surrealist men. Freed from their proscriptions, Yaro came into her own. In his essay, Lozano marshals everyone from Victor Brauner, Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst to Marcel Jean, Yves Tanguy and, less convincingly, Salvador Dali and Paul Delvaux as “visual point[s] of reference” for Varo’s early efforts. What’s truly fascinating, however, is how she assimilated and, in her mature work, diverted Surrealist techniques to her own ends. From Wolfgang Paalen she learned fumage–the technique of passing an image over a flame to form suggestive, smoky swirls–and from Oscar Dominguez, decalcomania–pressing a sheet of paper over a painted surface and lifting it off to create spongy patterns rich with imagistic possibilities. Varo used the former process to indicate a misty atmosphere in the dark landscape The Souls of the Mountains in 1938 and the latter for the Rorschach-style Cat Man in 1943. But in the ’50s, she rejected the chance effects inherent in these procedures for absolute artistic control, using decalcomania selectively in hallucinatory compositions to “illustrate” mossy trees, grass or, in the delightful Sympathy (1955), a puddle of milk. For Varo, blowing and blotting thinned paint on canvas or Masonite was a way to achieve calculated textural effects rather than a road to psychic automatism.
Cazadora de Astros / Stars Catcher
Her exile enforced a dramatic break with the past, and she conveys its emotional effects in Rupture (1955), where a solitary figure in a hooded robe descends the steps of a stark villa. She walks resolutely away, conscious of being spied upon by a ghostly face at every window. Though haunted, she’s free. The theme receives a witty treatment in Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst (1960). Here the protagonist, swathed in green veils, exits her analyst’s office, marked by a plaque inscribed “Dr. F.J.A.” for Freud, Jung and Adler. Traversing the archaic courtyard, the woman holds out a disembodied head by its long white beard to drop it into the little well at her feet. As she sheds this object, a green mask falls from her face. The bearded head may be symbolic of all patriarchal controls, from the internalized father of the artist’s superego to the reality of her disapproving Catholic family and the authority of official Surrealism to which she was once in thrall.
Varo’s real father, an engineer, had encouraged his daughter in art. He trained her in mechanical drawing, instilling in her a love of draftsmanly precision, and sent her to art school when this was an unusual privilege for young women. In Madrid, Varo studied at the School of Arts and Crafts and the School of Fine Arts, and she enrolled at the Academy of San Fernando at age 15. This rigorous preparation helps explain her meticulous style; equally important were the influences encountered in the Prado Museum, especially Northern and Italian primitives and Spanish masters. Many of Varo’s borrowings from history are unabashedly direct–outsize birds and fantastic vessels from Bosch, bat-winged flying creatures from Goya–but elsewhere more generally applied influences can be seen. The oddly attenuated, gothic proportions of her figures, for example, derive from Varo’s admiration for El Greco.
To be Reborned
Among her contemporaries, it was artist Leonora Carrington, an English immigrant in Mexico, with whom she shared the most. Like Varo, who at 22 had married fellow art student Gerardo Lizarraga to escape the dictates of her family, Carrington eluded the control of her well-to-do parents by running off in 1937 with Ernst. Her relationship with him and with Surrealism proper ended with Ernst’s wartime internment as a German national, and her own nervous breakdown, in 1939. Safe in Mexico by 1942, Carrington quickly became Varo’s soul mate. The two saw each other daily for years, and their friendship is celebrated in Carrington’s novel, The Hearing Trumpet (1977), in the characters of Marion Leatherby and Carmella Velasquez. In this exhibition, Varo’s painting Mimesis (1960), where a seated woman takes on the characteristics of her upholstered chair and the furniture comes bizarrely to life, is a reprise of Carrington’s self-portrait of 1936-37, The Inn of the Dawn Horse.
Important to Carrington and Varo, as to other Surrealists, were occult traditions that offered alternative paths to knowledge–of the self and the world. References to the 16th-century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus appear in both their oeuvres, as do cooking metaphors that stand for the magical transformation of matter. Varo often presents solitary scientists or scholars in studio or laboratory environments; surrogates for the artist in search of enlightenment, they study nature, conduct mysterious experiments, receive astonishing visions. In Creation of the Birds (1957), the artist is a personification of sacred wisdom, complete with owl-like features and feathery costume, who draws birds at her drafting table and brings them to life with starlight collected through a triangular glass. In Communicating Vessels (1932), pigments spurt from an alembic vessel onto the artist-creator’s palette, while in the corner, two vases exchange their contents, as if to illustrate Breton’s insistence on the interaction of waking life and dreams. The artist-creator wields a brush connected to a miniature guitar worn like a pendant around her neck, signaling the role of musical harmony in the hermetic systems Varo explored.
With her friend Eva Sulzer, a Swiss photographer, Varo mastered the mystical writings of G.I. Gurdjieff, who theorized about the possibility of new perceptions of time and space through higher states of consciousness. Gurdjieffs teachings, and those of his Russian pupil, the mathematician P.D. Ouspensky, illuminate many aspects of Varo’s iconography. For Ouspensky, art could lead to cosmic awareness; he predicted the insights that would follow from this evolved condition: “A feeling of four-dimensional space. A new sense of time. The live universe…. The unity of everything. The sensation of world harmony.”
The astronomer with his floating globe in Varo’s Phenomenon of Weightlessness (1963) and the visionary artisan in Revelation or The Clockmaker (1955) undergo just such previously unimagined experiences, transcending the conventional laws of physics. The astonished clockmaker is visited, like a Virgin annunciate, by an apparition, a translucent, floating orb that reveals to him the relativity of time and the outmoded quaintness of his scattered analogue mechanisms.
From this perspective, the illogic of Varo’s pictorial world is hardly gratuitous and more than surreal. The developed state of human thought forecast by her spiritual mentors would render received ideas obsolete and make possible psychic powers like telepathy and telekinesis. In her paintings, Varo often shows people flying, with makeshift wings or in peculiar airborne contraptions, or miracles of levitation, as in Still Life Reviving (1955), where fruits and plates rise off an animated tablecloth to swirl in concentric orbits around a burning candle. Music is frequently the instrument of these remarkable antigravitational feats. In The Flutist (1955), an Orphic piper with a mother-of-pearl face charms fossilized rocks, which rise from the grassy ground to assemble a ziggurat ascending to the ether. Ouspensky’s recognition of world harmony, as well as the ancient notion that musical relationships order all existence, informs Varo’s conceptions of art, science and nature. Harmony (1956) summarizes this philosophy. Here an androgynous composer pursues her research in a medieval study; floor tiles erupt with diaphanous plants; birds nest in the furniture; and female muses emerge from the peeling walls to guide the creator at work. On a three-dimensional musical staff, the composer skewers an assortment of objects: leaf, flower, turnip, crystals and spheres, scraps of paper with mathematical formulas–the heterogeneous material from which a miraculous consonance may result.
Images that seem merely odd or idiosyncratic become intelligible as part of this occult-artistic project. For instance, the ecstatic orange cat and her fiery-haired mistress (with three tails!) in Sympathy do not just confirm an adage about how pets and their owners seem to resemble each other; instead, electrified by cosmic energy, the communing pair evokes the essential unity of all things. Breton embraced a similar kind of monism, arguing famously against distinctions between the real and imaginary, past and future, life and death. He, too, took an interest in spiritualist teachings, as did Duchamp, Matta, Kurt Seligmann and many others. While Varo has until recently been somewhat marginalized, this intriguing survey underscored her kinship with, as well as her significant departures from, the Surrealists who initiated her in the irrational. In the haunting strangeness and esoteric wisdom of her pictures, we encounter a feminine version of that irrational principle, as well as the centuries-old appeal of empowering alternative epistemologies.