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Remedios Varo, Surrealist extraordinaire at the Art Institute


You think you know about Surrealism, then you visit an exhibition dedicated to a Surrealist artist you’ve never even heard of. You think you’ve seen a painting completely, then you look at it again and again, and each time you notice elements you missed in previous rounds. You think you understand the world that surrounds you, but its infinite abstractness becomes clear for a moment.

The pleasures of chance encounters, mystery, and the unknown were highly regarded by the group of artists known as the Surrealists, founded by André Breton in Paris in 1924 and proudly represented in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Indeed, one of the museum’s most seductive galleries, dark and spotlighted, houses dozens of strange little treasure boxes by Joseph Cornell; The exquisite corpses playfully drawn by Man Ray and his friends; René Magritte’s brilliantly contradictory paintings; and, of course, Salvador Dali’s chilling erotic dreamscapes. However, so far no artwork by Remedios Varo has been found anywhere in the AIC.


Definitely. Unless you’re an expert on the women of the Surrealist movement, you, like me, are probably unfamiliar with Varo, who was only 54 when she died of a heart attack at her home in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. It was 1963, the peak of his career. He has since developed a cult following in Mexico, where much of his work was produced, but he is little known outside the country; This is slowly changing with its inclusion in New York’s recently acquired 2022 Venice Biennale. the Museum of Modern Art, the Toledo Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and now “Remedios Varo: Science Fictions,” A survey of his final term will be available on AIC through the end of November.

Born in a small Catalonian town in 1908, María de los Remedios Alicia y Rodriga Varo y Uranga’s father was an Esperanto-speaking hydraulic engineer who encouraged her interest in technical drawing, mineralogy and museums. He grew up and attended art school in Madrid, eventually moving to Barcelona, ​​where he made a living doing commercial work for advertising firms and joined the avant-garde art scene by exhibiting his work at Logicophobiastas, one of the most influential Spanish Surrealist exhibitions. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he fled to Paris and the innermost circle of French Surrealism, but did not survive World War II. He escaped again when World War II escalated. By 1942 he was making a new home in Mexico City, amid a close community of European refugee artists and intellectuals, including painter Leonora Carrington and photojournalist Kati Horna; They would be friends for life.

The basis of “Remedios Varo: Science Fictions” consists of 21 oil paintings of different sizes, painted between 1955 and 1963. These are astonishing. Moreover, it is extremely difficult to place these images in time, enriched with the details, architecture and comedy of Renaissance allegorical scenes; illuminated by precious materials and the secrets of medieval manuscripts; Painted using incidental techniques favored by the surrealists; and to illustrate narratives, characters, and philosophies inspired by and sometimes satirically critical of contemporary scientific research, the occult theories of the Russian-Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff, and much in between. To look at his paintings again and again is to be drawn into a wonderfully different world, populated by beings who, for all their strange technology, magical events and unusual landscapes, could almost be us and have so much to reveal. about the invisible workings of our world and our potential to change it.

"Escape" (1961), Museum of Modern Art.  Part of it "Solutions Varo: Science Fiction" at the Art Institute.

Varo’s technical ability is part of the appeal. How does he create the incredibly subtle white strokes of reels, turbines, funnels, rays, hairs and wires that reappear in his paintings? Lines often mark the elements through which energy is transferred; sometimes invisibly, sometimes magically. They form rays of starlight passing through the prism held by the owl-lady alchemist and bring to life the birds she draws, a profound testament to the power of creativity. Likewise, they embody melodies played by enlightened musicians, sounds that can stimulate human flight, and building an octagonal tower from fossils. They trace the entire wind-driven mechanical system that powers the wheeled cloakroom worn by the shaggy-haired subject of “Vagabond,” a wandering wanderer who, like many immigrants, carries the burden of the trappings of home. To do all this, Varo borrowed the sgraffito technique from ceramics; he most likely used sewing needles to scratch the painted surface, revealing the contrasting white gesso underneath.

The superbly informative catalog, edited by Caitlin Haskell of the AIC and Tere Arcq of the former Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, who co-curated the show, includes an inspiring section explaining the wide range of techniques Varo used. If only art books that relied on interviews with living artists or, as here, advanced technology such as portable microscopes and high-resolution photography, could achieve this.

Some of his methods will be familiar to anyone who has taken a painting or drawing class, while others will be less familiar. Varo meticulously planned his compositions into full-size drawings called caricatures, several of which are displayed, then transferred to prepared panels; It’s an explanation that fits with the meticulous geometry seen in works like “The Alchemist.” There, on a rooftop, a scientist is brewing an elixir of life from the natural atmosphere, but the room’s checkered floor is also a garment he wears, somewhere between prison and life cycle, merging seamlessly with his scalp.

Varo also used decalcomania, which involves pressing a material such as glass or paper onto a freshly painted surface and then lifting it, causing a suction that creates a biomorphic texture. Surrealists favored this method because of its unpredictability; Varo used this with extreme control to achieve otherworldly yet believable landscapes, such as the eerie mangroves explored by boat in “Discovery” and the sheer cliffs against which the protagonist of “The Flautist” leans. Behind these rocks, under a foggy night sky, stands a series of erupted volcanoes; their blurred effect is achieved through soufflé, in which air is blown through straw bubbles and thinned paint is splashed around the canvas, recalling paintings of the cosmos found in Varo’s library and archive. A selection of such items are on display, from books to crystals.

With only a small handful of Varo’s works of art in public collections in this country, and none in Chicago, this exhibition should not be missed. This is also, surprisingly, the AIC’s first solo exhibition dedicated to a female Surrealist painter or a female artist working in Mexico. Let it be the first of many.

“Remedios Varo: Science Fictions” through Nov. 27 at the Art Institute, 111 S. Michigan Avenue; For more information, call 312-443-3600 and artic.edu

Lori Waxman is a freelance critic.


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