Discover more from I Require Art
Chance Encounters, Edition 14
Remedios Varo: Science Fictions at the Art Institute of Chicago
Visiting the Art Institute of Chicago is always a wonderful experience, but when I went last month I had the opportunity to explore two excellent exhibitions, “Van Gogh and the Avant-garde,” about which I wrote at the time (Chance Encounters 13) and “Remedios Varo: Science Fictions” (on view until November 27). Some readers may recall that I shared a painting by Remedios Varo in “Chance Encounters, Edition 2,” noting that women members of the Surrealist movement have received more scholarly, gallery, and museum attention in recent years. The current exhibition at the Art Institute IS evidence of this desirable development.
Remedios Varo (1908–1963) was born and received her first artistic training in Spain. After the completion of her studies, she spent most of the 1930s in Barcelona, exploring the avant-garde art of the period which was dominated by the ideas and practices of Surrealism. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 led her to flee to Paris, where she became part of the Surrealist community surrounding Andre Breton, author of the Surrealist Manifesto and one of the movement’s leaders. In 1940, along with many other avant-garde artists and writers, Varo fled to the south of France to escape the Nazi occupation of Paris. Having earlier sought the aid of Frida Kahlo to help her emigrate to Mexico, Varo arrived in Mexico City in late 1941. The city was home to a supportive community of native and refugee artists and writers which welcomed Varo and she soon felt fully at home there. Other than a couple of brief trips to other countries, Remedios Varo remained in Mexico City until her death in October 1963.
One of the recurring themes in Remedios Varo’s paintings is the voyage of discovery and the work reproduced above, Exploration of the Sources of the Orinoco River, is a characteristic example. This 1959 oil painting on canvas was inspired by the 1951 discovery of the source of the Orinoco River in Venezuela, a long-standing geographic mystery. Varo has transformed the river’s literal source, a stream, into a symbolic one, a goblet located within a room which has been formed inside a tree. The surreal quality of a river’s source being found on an elegant table is reinforced by the explorer, an elegant figure steering a red boat that seems to have been tailored from fabric and features a pocket holding letters, a row of buttons, and lapel-like wings that support strings manipulating a pair of wings. A pleated rudder is controlled by ropes through the figure’s belt. The explorer might be either female or male, like many of Varo’s characters and appears unemotional, perhaps to signal their scientific detachment. Adding a slightly sinister note are black birds which peak out of two trees beyond the boat. Voyages of discovery, like many of the artist’s subjects, appealed to her as symbolic of the power of art to lead to self-discovery, for both the artist and the viewer.
Remedios Varo had a wide-ranging curiosity and read extensively about subjects including psychiatry, natural sciences, the occult and alchemy, history, religion, feminism, and fiction, especially science fiction, the interest from which this exhibition takes its subtitle. Alongside her paintings, the galleries display surviving items from Varo’s library as well as diaries and notebooks in which she both wrote and drew. Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst (Could be Juliana) is one of the few works by Varo that is thought to be a portrait of a real person, her friend Professor Juliana González. An interest in psychoanalysis had deep roots in Surrealism. From the movement’s earliest days, its members were fascinated by the writings of Sigmund Freud and other early explorers of the unconscious. In this painting, the sign on the door from which the woman in green has emerged identifies it as the office of “Doctor Von FJA,” psychoanalyst. The initials refer to three important practitioners of psychology, Freud, Carl Jung, and Alfred Adler. The figure wears a cloak which has an embedded mask that has slipped, revealing her true appearance. From one hand dangles a bearded man’s head, which it appears she will soon drop into the small pool in the center of the circular courtyard, likely symbolic of a father complex from which she has been freed by her treatment. Her other hand carries a small basket of various objects, which probably represent problems yet to be resolved. This was the first painting by Remedios Varo that I can remember encountering, in reproduction. I was fascinated by the echoing of face and mask, by the tiny details that begged to be explored and interpreted, and most of all by the air of mystery that permeates the painting. Seeing it in person, indeed seeing all of the paintings in this exhibition, was as mesmerizing as I could have hoped.
Though it relatively small and monochromatic, the first painting to catch my attention as I entered the exhibition was Star Catcher. This is hardly surprising as it was already one of my favorites by the artist, but it also lived up to my expectations. One of a group of works in which Varo depicts figures interacting with the moon, stars, and other celestial objects, this painting depicts a woman carrying a crescent moon in an ornamental bird cage and brandishing a long narrow net. The tall figure stalks through a shadowy space with a carefully delineated tiled floor and is enveloped in a garment made from clouds of light and shadow. The original Spanish title uses the word cazadora which means “huntress” rather than the less aggressive “catcher” of the English title and this imposing figure seems a bold huntress. Is the moon bait for the stars that she is hunting? Or will the stars join the moon in its cage? The ambiguous meanings of Varo’s paintings are in keeping with the Surrealist tradition in which the artist’s imagery is meant to free the viewer’s imagination just as the artist has freed theirs through the creative process.
One interesting aspect of this work is the artist’s technique in creating it. Unlike her compositions on canvas or hardboard which were carefully laid out in a cartoon (or preparatory drawing) and then transferred to the final support, for this painting Varo applied black paint to paper and then folded it over, top to bottom and left to right, to create symmetry across both the horizontal and vertical axes. The Surrealists adopted techniques like this to introduce the effects of chance into their works. The artists saw the chance effects as a means of provoking free association and greater creativity. Remedios Varo used many Surrealist automatic processes, but often applied them in a more pre-meditated and controlled fashion than other artists did. The specific method used here is known as decalcomania, in which a painted surface is altered by the application of a second surface, in this case the other side of the paper support. Varo used decalcomania frequently for creating background textures and atmospheric effects, as in the clouds at the top of Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst (above) or the foliage beyond the wall in The Juggler (below). In Star Catcher, the underlying blotting effect was a planned substructure on which the artist constructed her figure.
One of the largest and most complex compositions in this exhibition is The Juggler or The Magician, in which a colorful character performs in a public square for a group of 21 villagers whose unenlightened state is symbolized by the fact that they occupy a single garment. In contrast to that rough gray cloth, the juggler wears a bright red cloak, has ridden into town in a bright green caravan, and is surrounded by orbs and a mist of white light. One of the brightest elements in the painting is the juggler’s face which is made from an inlaid piece of mother-of-pearl, the iridescent lining of some mollusk shells. Varo used this effect in several paintings, when she wished to indicate that the character occupied a higher spiritual plane. In addition to its visual appeal, mother-of-pearl was used in traditional Mesoamerican crafts and had occult symbolism. Everything about the juggler suggests he has unique powers to lead his audience to greater self-awareness. His head, hat and beard form a pentagram which points upward suggesting he is working for good. He is accompanied by animal familiars, a lion, goat and owl, as well as a disciple seated inside the caravan. A display of plants on the stage and of mysterious vials on the table at the juggler’s side suggest he has many tools for leading followers to grater self-awareness. Finally the juggler plays with magical lights which appear from inside his cloak and float around him almost like a halo.
In applying the white paint for this halo of light Varo used another form of Surrealist automatism, spattering, where small flecks are flicked from the brush. Varo left most of the spatters untouched but a few were manipulated to create star shapes. Soufflage, in which extremely watery paint on the painting’s surface is blown about with a straw, gave texture to the juggler’s garments and decalcomania, perhaps with real tree leaves, was used for the foliage beyond the wall.
A recurring theme in Remedios Varo’s oeuvre is music as a powerful universal force, capable of creation.
I deliberately set out to make a mystical work, in the sense of revealing a mystery, or better, of expressing it through ways that do not always correspond to the logical order, but to an intuitive, divinatory and irrational order.
Harmony shows a composer at work stringing physical objects – a flower, a shell, a crystal, and scraps of paper bearing mathematical equations, onto a musical staff. The composer is aided by a female being or spirit emerging from the wall; a complementary male figure emerges from the opposite wall and is stringing objects on another staff. As in all of Varo’s paintings, there is a multitude of tiny details to be explored: bins and drawers filled with objects which the composer and spirits might choose; books, vessels, and garments; a rope ladder leading to a bed incorporated into an armoire; birds and a nest built into a chair back; and lifting floor tiles from which protrude plants and wisps of fabric. Everything in the space has the potential to create, or is created by, the music the composer produces. For Varo, music was always a symbol of transcendence, but in Harmony, music is also a manifestation that unifies the seen and the unseen.
The remaining three works in this edition of Chance Encounters were intended as a narrative triptych (three paneled work) by Varo. The story told in the triptych is of a young woman’s escape from a regimented existence through her own resistance to the hypnotic forces attempting to control her, eventually joining her lover in a boat that ascends a mountain via a golden mist. The three paintings were never attached to one another and after their initial exhibition, they were sold to different buyers and remain in different collections today. This group is the only case in the artist’s career of a single story continuing through multiple paintings and expresses themes that Varo viewed as deeply important. Thus, one of the pleasures of this exhibition is the opportunity to see the group reunited.
In Toward the Tower a group of nearly identical young women on bicycles leave a stacked, repetitive structure which Varo described as a “beehive home.” A crowned bee that serves as a crest over the door of this home reflects the artist’s extensive knowledge of art history and refers to the Medieval European tradition of placing such a crest over a door to indicate the purpose of a building. Additionally the bee relates major interests of the artist: Classical mythology where the bee was a symbol of Aphrodite and alchemy, where the bees’ honey-making was analogous to the alchemist’s quest to create gold.
The bicycling young women follow a stern nun and a man carrying a bag over his shoulder. Birds escape from the bag and circle the young women. According to Varo, the birds are menacing, “keeping a careful watch over [them], so that no one can escape.” Despite this restrictive environment, the nearest girl looks toward the viewer though the others keep their eyes trained straight ahead. It is this exceptional young woman whose story we follow in the remaining paintings.
The second episode in the trilogy is Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle, where the young women are seated in the top room of a tower, embroidering under the direction of a masked figure. Behind this figure is another, seated and playing a recorder or clarinet, reminding us of Varo’s belief in the connection between music and the creation of reality. In the tower, six girls in blue embroider using threads which emanate from a smoking vessel in the center of the room. As the embroiderers complete a scene the cloth scrolls out through the wall, falling to and creating the landscape below. Though difficult to see (in person and in reproduction), trees and buildings are visible in the cloth dropping from the tower on the right. The vantage point that the artist has given into the tower room allows us to see the images being created by the two embroiderers to the left. The inner canvas shows a building underway, but the nearer canvas shows a blue-robed figure, that is, the young woman is depicting herself. Just like the buildings, animals, ships and trees that come into being, when her cloth reaches the ground she too will come to life, free of the restrictive life she has been living. Very faint images of her figure, accompanied by one in brown, are visible in the cloth falling from her station.
The front wall of the room has been removed, a device used in Medieval manuscripts to allow the viewer to see indoors and out simultaneously. As I looked closely at Varo’s work in this exhibition, I realized that, for me, one of the appeals of her works is their Medieval qualities. The first art history course I took was about Medieval art and the hand-painted illustrations of books from that era remain among my favorite artistic genres. In Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle, the inside/outside view and the bird’s-eye perspective of the landscape remind me strongly of Medieval art.
The final episode in the story, The Escape, sees the young woman and her lover, floating on golden clouds in one of Varo’s strange vehicles, this one a boat constructed of some dark, furry material. The young woman controls the steering rudder while the young man maintains the shape of the boat with cords and creates a sail from his cape. They rise toward a cave, a frequent symbol of rebirth in art, literature, and alchemy. In Varo’s work, ascension signifies physical freedom and spiritual enlightenment. In the story related through these three paintings, the young woman has been able to reach this state through her own creative misuse of the restrictions under which she labored. In her freedom she has reached a state of equality with her partner as they ascend toward the future.
This painting allows us to explore Varo’s painting techniques once more. Decalcomania and soufflage were used in the dark and light clouds behind the figures. In the golden mist in which the boat floats, the artist applied a base layer using decalcomania then topped that with impasto, thick paint that rises above the surrounding paint layers. An additional Surrealist technique, grattage, was used in creating the rocky surfaces of the mountain to the right of the composition. Here Varo scraped through wet paint to reveal the smooth gesso (a glue and plaster layer used to seal the support) beneath. All of the artist’s paintings demonstrate the delicate hatching (thin parallel lines varying in density) that she used to depict variations of light and shadow; it is most evident here in the garments of the figures. For the interior of the boat, she has utilized cross-hatching, in which hatching lines are crossed by perpendicular lines. At this point in Varo’s career, she had developed a repertoire of painting techniques that she could employ in a variety of combinations to achieve her visual and conceptual goals.
“Remedios Varo: Science Fictions” is not a large exhibition or an encyclopedic view of the artist’s life. The works displayed were created between 1955 and 1963, Varo’s mature period when both her technique and content had been perfected. The inclusion of drawings, sketches, diaries, and notebooks provides insights into the artist’s interests and personality. The accompanying hardcover catalog is beautiful and packed with insights into the artist’s ideas and artistic practice. I highly recommend both.
“Remedios Varo: Science Fictions” is on view until November 27, 2023 at The Art Institute of Chicago, located at the corner of South Michigan Avenue and East Monroe Street in Chicago, Illinois. The museum is open from 11 to 5 on Friday through Monday and from 11 to 8 on Thursday. It is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday.