Addicted To Remedios Varo (Adictos A Remedios Varo), Museo De Arte Moderno, Mexico City
There is not one adequate word to capture the wonderment of Addicted to Remedios Varo. (Adictos a Remedios Varo.) on view at the Museo de Arte Moderno (Mexico City). Varo, who died in 1963, and her art are not widely known in non-Spanish art communities. Her first and only painting retrospective in the United States was at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (Washington, DC) and the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum (Chicago, IL) in 2000. Her career is barely represented in North American museum collections. Yet from time to time, some of Varo’s most important paintings have entered the international auction market. One late work—Hacia la Torre (Towards the Tower), 1960—achieved $4,309,000 at Sotheby’s (New York) in November 2014.
Remedios VaroIMAGE COURTESY OF MUSEO DE ARTE MEXICO | EL INSTITUTO NACIONAL DE BELLAS ARTES (MEXICO CITY.)
In her lifetime, Varo had only two solo shows in Mexico and presented barely a dozen works in each one. When the Spanish-born 54-year-old artist died in Mexico City of a heart attack in 1963, she had developed a small, but historically significant, painting legacy. Her posthumous retrospective at the Museo de Arte Moderno in 1971 displayed 130 of her paintings and drawings and drew the largest audiences in the museum’s history. Attendance was even higher than that for the survey exhibitions of Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. Since then The Museo de Arte Moderno has exhibited Varo's work in 1983 and 1994.
Janet A. Kaplan, the late art historian and chronicler and scholar of Remedios Varo’s life and career, summarized the artist’s biography in this pithy paragraph:
The painter Remedios Varo (1908-1963) was born in Spain, worked in France, and gained renown after settling in Mexico. She knew many worlds: rural Spain and North Africa, where she traveled with her family as a child; Catholic convent schools and the fine arts academy of Madrid as a young student; the artistic vanguard of Casablanca during the years of the Spanish Republic; the Parisian Surrealist group (including the poet, Benjamin Péret, who become the second of her three husbands) with whom she exhibited experimental work, the chaos of wartime Marseilles and Casablanca, where she sought to arrange the many documents needed to escape the Nazis; and finally, the hospitable refuge of Mexico, where she created her mature work. Varo’s startling and distinctive paintings were greeted with such resounding and popular success that from her first solo exhibition in 1955, she had to establish waiting lists for her many eager patrons. (Remedios Varo, Feminist Studies, 13, No. 1 (Spring, 1987): 38.)
Varo’s biographical wanderings, movements and dislocations exposed her to the fantastical drawings and paintings of Hieronymus Bosch in Madrid and later led to the friendships with and the works of metaphysical and Surrealist artists like Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Roberto Matta and René Magritte in France. (Varo who was known for her technical prowess, attention to detail, and her matte surfaces, confessed to making expert forgeries of de Chirico paintings as a way of surviving the political turmoil of the 1930s.) After her arrival in Mexico in 1941, her closest friends included fellow expatriate Surrealists, Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) and Kati Horna (1912-2000), a lesser known Hungarian photographer. One could say that Varo was nourished by Surrealism. It provided extraordinary inspiration and triggered a search for a personal aesthetic and subjectmatter beyond the subconscious.
Varo’s art was unique storytelling which synthesized her interests in dreams, alchemy, astrology, mysticism, magic, the occult, and science, while drawing inspiration from an exceptionally broad range of visual and literary sources for her thematic and stylistic innovations. When asked in a 1956 interview to name her creative models, Varo responded, perhaps disingenuously, “Consciously, I have none. Without a doubt, certain people and events have influenced my style of painting, but only in a way that is not deliberate.” (Varo, Remedios, Cartas, Textos, y Otros Sueños, (Mexico: Universidad Autonoma de Tlaxcala, 1994), 14.)
Varo often created pictures that are at once of this world and completely outside it; they are puzzling, yet also rationally constructed. Though some of her works fall into the surrealist category, a great many of them simply “turn daily life into eerie form,” a key characteristic of magic realism. . . “magic realists try to convince us that extraordinary things are possible by simply painting them as if they existed.” (Kaplan, Lauren A., “Traces of Influence: Giorgio De Chirico, Remedios Varo, and ‘Lo Real Maravilloso’,” The Latin Americanist, Volume 54, Number 3 (September 2010): 43.)
In essence, Varo created her own highly individualistic art that, despite her popularity, was likely understood by only a small number of people.
Adictos a Remedios Varo is not a rediscovery exhibition or another retrospective. It may be best considered a more personalized expansion of what we know about the artist’s life and career. Organized by Marisol Argüelles, Curator, the exhibition leverages a 2002 gift of 39 paintings and drawings given by Walter Gruen (Varo’s long-time companion) and his wife Anna Alexandra Varsoviano, plus the integration into the museum’s collection of Varo’s personal archive, which was a bequest by Varsoviano upon her death. (Yes, it’s complicated. While living with Varo, Gruen never divorced his wife.)
Unusually but entirely appropriately, music permeates from the exhibition’s entrance. In keeping with the palette of the paintings, the galleries’ walls are painted gun metal gray, indigo and deep teal. Central to the exhibition is Varo’s archive which is comprised of more than 500 personal objects, 500 books from Varo’s personal library and 250 preparatory drawings and sketches that are the preliminary works for the oil paintings in the MAM collection. Much of the archival material is displayed in a darkened, separate gallery. A glass-enclosed book case includes photographs of pet cats, as well as books, ranging from Drogas Mágicas (Magic Drugs) to translated writings of Rodney Collin, a British spiritualist, like El Desarrollo de la Luz (The Development of Light.) A central vitrine contains Varo’s amulets, stones, jewelry and symbolic objects, which provides insight into the influences and almost fetishistic source material that inspired her. In combination, these materials reveal the depth of the artist’s history and personality.
The curator has integrated numerous works into the exhibition from the museum’s permanent collection. The works are dense with detail. For example, Creación de las aves (Creation of the Birds), 1957, an oil on Masonite work, is consummate Varo, among many of the artist’s masterpieces included in this exhibition. Creación de las aves is a depiction of a
visionary endowed with extraordinary power. An anthropomorphized owl-woman-artist sits at a desk painting small birds in the three primary colours which, when combined with the rays of starlight she filters through a Newtonian prism, fly from the page into the room. The spiritual significance of the scene is symbolized by the octagonal table, which represents the coming together of the circle and the square and the meeting of celestial and terrestrial planes. The primary colours, which appear to have been extracted from an egg-shaped alchemical vessel, represent a new pure substance that has been developed from the basic matter of the atmosphere that is drawn in from outside the building. The process of refining this material in the alchemical vessel has garnered the powerful ‘noble Tincture’ sought by the alchemists, a substance which in its esoteric interpretation would facilitate the perfection of a soul in balance with the universe. By combining this substance with celestial light refracted by a Newtonian prism, the protagonist draws out its hidden complexity, engendering new life in the form of a bird. (O’Rawe, Ricki, “The Re-enchantment of Surrealism: Remedios Varo’s Visionary Artists,” Bulletin of Spanish Studies, 95, no. 5, 2018: 552-53.)
Throughout the exhibition there is much to see and absorb, from the mysterious to the whimsical. In El flautista (The flautist), 1955, an extremely thin piece of mother-of pearl is adhered to the canvas, onto which Varo painted the musician’s face. The mother-of pearl is a light catcher and is what initially caught my eye from across the room. Approaching the painting, you see a tower encrusted with fossils, shards of which are being propelled upward. Like a snake charmer, the flautist is building the tower by raising the fossils with the sound of his flute. There are faint, smoky directional markings revealing the air-borne paths of the fossils. The woods behind the flautist are painted using a Surrealistic technique of decalcomania (transferring designs from prepared paper onto another surface.) The painting not only depicts magic, it is pure magic.
The pantheon of historically important and globally recognized Mexican artists from the 20th century includes familiar names: Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, María Izquierdo, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Dr. Atl and Rufino Tamayo. Many of these artists specifically referenced indigenous and Mexican imagery history and used vibrant color. Remedios Varo’s work is unquestionably European influenced, but it is mediated by her experience in post-War Mexico. You can get lost in her biography. You can get lost in her art. You will get lost in “her” reality.
Informational notes: The catalog of the exhibition Adictos a Remedios Varo. Nuevo Legado 2018 is on sale at the Museum of Modern Art and in bookstores of the INBA museums at a cost of 400 pesos (USD $21.00). The publication is a Spanish language 400-page book divided into three sections. The majority of literature about Remedios Varo is overwhelmingly published in Spanish. The best and most comprehensive English source is Janet Kaplan’s book, Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varo. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988. There is also a more recent 2013 documentary Remedios Varo: Misterio y revelación (Remedios Varo: Mystery and Revelation), directed by Tufic Makhlouf Akl.
Addicted to Remedios Varo. A New Legacy. (Adictos a Remedios Varo. Nuevo Legado), Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City through February 20, 2019.