by Mark Van Proyen
Remedios Varo was always on the run. Born in 1908 near the Catalonian town of Girona (adjacent to the French border), she was compelled to flee the fascist takeover of Spain in 1937. After four years of living in Paris, she was on the move again, exiting France to escape the Nazi invasion. Her destination was Mexico City, as was the case for many artists affiliated with European Surrealism.
There, she lived and worked for the following 23 years before her sudden and untimely death in 1963. Because her father was a hydraulic engineer, her childhood years were marked by frequent travel across Spain and North Africa. To this add the fact that she was a replacement child, named after an older sibling who died during childbirth, and the experiential basis for her abiding sense of depersonalization becomes clear. Such children tend to be haunted by the thought that they are pale, unloved facsimiles of other people, consolation prizes awarded in family romances run awry. The upshot of this is that for Varo, the normally comforting idea of home was an abstraction saturated with uncertainty and the omnipresent potential for unexpected peril.
Given this history, it’s easy to understand why architectural forms play such an important role in so many of Varo’s paintings. One could go so far as to say that some of her pictorial psychodramas specify and elevate those forms to the status of motivated characters echoing memories of her father. In other words, they appear to be haunted, leading us to imagine that they have something to do with her father’s focus on the challenges of engineering functional structures. In most cases, those architectural forms enclose solitary figures that invite other recognitions. They could be surrogate self-portraits, or, possibly subconscious evocations of Varo’s devoutly Catholic mother. Or maybe both, a notion supported by archival photographs that anyone can dredge up on the internet. So, a final question: Are the architectural forms sites of protective refuge or scenes of stultifying confinement? Again, psychologically speaking, both could be true, depending on what we can see in individual paintings.
These possibilities permeate the eleven choice examples of Varo’s work included in Encuentros, a stunning, museum-quality exhibition at Gallery Wendi Norris. The show takes its title from a 1959 painting by Varo titled Encuentro (“encounter”), an oil rendition of a solitary female figure sitting on a throne-like chair next to a table. The elongated figure is depicted in a blue shroud that flows into the garment that covers her body, revealing a beleaguered, squinting face with almond eyes, high cheekbones, and a tiny chin, the blue looking exactly like that of Picasso’s blue period. An ominous face contained in a box set atop the adjacent table is cast as the source of the fabric from which the garment is crafted, with several other such boxes visible in the background. The garment also conceals the point where the figure’s feet touch the floor, echoing other paintings with similar concealments. For example, in the oil paintings titled Nino y Mariposa (1961) and Ruptura (1955), we see centrally placed figures surrounded by symmetrical architectural structures, both figures precariously perched flamingo-like on a single foot that obscures the other. The twilit and subdued color palette of these works hints at an additional possibility, that of partial color blindness, reminding us that Tintoretto used a very similar palette for the same reason. Either that or Varo made sparing use of inexpensive pigments because of financial duress.
Either way, some of the subtleties of these works are worth noting. Look closely at the windows of Ruptura and you will see white gossamer curtains flapping in the breeze. Take an even closer look and you will note that those curtains are responding to winds blowing from diversely illogical directions. The androgynous figure centrally located in Nino y Mariposa is Varo’s stepson, Sergei, but the “mariposa” hovering above his head is no butterfly. It is a sinister-looking moth, appearing here as an evil spirit, or possibly a protector. Bruja que va al Sabath (1957), another mixed media painting, centrally depicts a figure that also has a demonic look, sporting an undulating mane of fiery red hair while clutching a geometrical talisman in her right hand and a fantastical creature in the other. The paint handling in this one is truly remarkable, reminiscent of Rene Magritte’s gouache works presented in his 2018 SFMOMA retrospective.
A gouache on paper from 1947 titled La torre is the earliest work in the exhibition. It shows what appears to be a decrepit bull ring full of water, located in a desert. It features a small windmill and a brick chimney, with tiny roads entering it from two sides. Its execution is loose and playful, showing the influence of Giorgio de Chirico. A similar fluidity of technique is revealed in an oil sketch titled Estudio para Trasmundo (c. 1955), a preparatory work for another painting not included in the exhibition. It shows a fanciful sailing ship navigating a perilous sea, also painted in a dreamy devil-may-care style.
One of the most complex paintings in the exhibition is Catedral Vegital (1957). It features a solemn figure sitting in the cab of an ornate pink carriage, dwarfed and contained within a vast chamber of gothic arches. The surrounding chamber is an unmistakable salute to the Mosque-Cathedral in Córdoba (Spain) — even though the vast labyrinth of arches is Romanesque, not Gothic.
The largest painting in the exhibition, Naturaleza muerta resucitando (1963), is the last that Varo completed before she died. Prophetically, it contains no human figures. It’s a fantastical still life showing a table set with eight hovering plates, below a selection of fruits orbiting like planets in a solar system. The
improbable folds of the cloth covering the table are uncanny echoes, adding metaphorical ballast to the ascendent magic of the painting’s moment. In 1924, Andre Breton claimed that the essence of Surrealism was the marvelous, something found in abundance in Varo’s final painting.
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Remedios Varo: “Encuentros” @ Gallery Wendi Norris to July 15, 2023.
About the author: Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.