Home Arts Take a magical and mysterious tour of the surrealist paintings of Remedios Varo in a great exhibition

Take a magical and mysterious tour of the surrealist paintings of Remedios Varo in a great exhibition

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Artist Remedios Varo (1908-63) was an avid reader and fan of science fiction authors such as Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. His paintings can also resemble scenes from a fantasy novel, with their steampunk protagonists conducting alchemical experiments, seeking new discoveries, and communing with the cosmos. A new exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago will present this singular corpus under the title science fictiona phrase the show’s press release says “alludes to the tensions and possibilities that Varo brought together in her work as she sought to visualize hidden orders and unseen truths”.

Born María de los Remedios Alicia y Rodriga Varo y Uranga in Catalonia, Spain, the artist developed polymath interests from an early age. From her father, a hydraulic engineer, she learned mathematics, technical drawing and linear perspective. She devoured books by Verne and others to escape her strict Catholic upbringing in a convent school. Even before enrolling at Madrid’s prestigious San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts – one of the only women to do so at the time – she regularly visited the Old Masters at the Museo Nacional del Prado, studying works by Hieronymus Bosch and Francisco Goya.

Today, I don’t belong to any group; I paint what happens to me and that’s it

Varo Remedies

Varo first encountered surrealism as a student in the 1920s and began exhibiting with the surrealist-leaning Logicofobista (phobia of logic) group in Barcelona a decade later. By 1937 she was mingling with the inner circle of Surrealists in Paris, although she later recalled her position as a “shy and humble listener…again open-mouthed among that group of brilliant and gifted people.” After the outbreak of World War II, she fled France for Mexico City, settling in a tight-knit artistic community of European exiles alongside surrealist painter Leonora Carrington and photographer Kati Horna. Together, the friends were nicknamed “the three witches”.

It was in Mexico that Varo established herself as an artist. In 1952, she gave up technical illustration and advertising to devote herself fully to painting and drawing. The Art Institute of Chicago exhibition, organized in partnership with the Museo de Arte Moderno de Mexico, will bring together more than 25 works from the brief peak of Varo’s career: from 1955, the year of his first exhibition in his country of adoption, to her untimely death in 1963. During this period, she declared: “Today, I don’t belong to any group; I paint what happens to me and that’s it.

Remedios Varo Taurus (Taurus) (1962) © 2023 Remedios Varo, ARS, NY / VEGAP, Madrid. Photo: Rodrigo Chapa

For curators, Caitlin Haskell of the Art Institute and independent art historian Tere Arcq, Varo’s unique achievement has been to “probe the potential for material re-enchantment in art”, creating “cosmic richly textured for his paintings that corresponded to the “expansive questions” of his imagination, they write in the catalog of the exhibition.

New curatorial research for the exhibition, published in the catalog, deconstructs Varo’s exquisitely precise techniques, reminiscent of the Old Master paintings she loved as a child. She chose inlaid mother-of-pearl, an important material in shamanic rituals, to burnish the faces of otherworldly figures in several paintings, and covered her panels with fine-grained scratches, possibly using quartz crystals. which she “charged” by moonlight and kept as talismans in the workshop.

Varos The Huida (the escape, 1961) © 2023 Remedios Varo, ARS, NY / VEGAP, Madrid. Photo: Rodrigo Chapa

Such mystical motifs abound in Varo’s images. “His symbols evoke wonder and enigma, as do his subjects, which include lonely wanderers, mystical musicians and unconventional scientists,” the curators write. The artist’s ideas were as multi-layered as his painted surfaces, blending “sources as broad as chivalrous romance, ecology, esotericism (including tarot), feminist criticism, mysticism, and psychology.”

Varo’s knowledge-seeking protagonists appear as “avatars” of the artist’s own ongoing search for spiritual transcendence beyond the visible world, the curators suggest. If the paintings seem mysterious, it is by design. As Varo told an interviewer the year before his death: “I deliberately proposed to do a mystical work, in the sense of revealing a mystery, or better, of expressing it in ways that do not correspond always in the logical order, but in an intuitive, divinatory and irrational order.

Remedios Varo: science fictionArt Institute of Chicago, July 29-November 27

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