Mexico is often seen as a country that embraced surrealism in the broadest sense. Breton himself described it as a “surrealist country by nature.” So it seems only natural to focus on some of the plethora of surrealist artists and innovators that hail from the country. Today’s example is Remedios Varo, a painter who tragically died at the height of her career in 1963.
Actually Born in Spain, Varo fled the civil war to Paris where she found herself greatly influenced by the surrealist movement – bringing that influence back to Mexico City in 1941. She stated that her father, Rodrigo Varo y Zajalvo, was a great influence to her work also. He was an intellectual, and provided her with works of early science fiction and horror such as Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe. He later provided her with works on mysticism, which along with her family’s Catholic tradition and Picasso, influenced the core themes and images of her art. You can easily see this influence in her works, often revolving around a mystic theme or figure, painted onto a surrealist landscape taken from a Cubist formula and transformed into a beautifully rendered dream-space.
Take her work ‘Useless Science or The Alchemist’ (1958) which depicts a shadowed figure hunched over and blending into a chequered, black and white floor underneath a castle pitched against a brooding, orange sky. Immediately we notice the castle opened up like a doll house, rather than threatening, it simply appears archaic with few roots in reality as it’s cogs seem to buzz in their static state. The painting gives the distinct impression of futility. A figure attempting to solve a puzzle that cannot be solved. Perhaps I only got this from the title, but the imagery seems to suggest an obsessive nature too. The pursuit of alchemy is a coloured one, it’s intrinsically linked with the occult and concepts of mystical potential, tapping into the powers, not of the divine, but of tradition. A tradition that dates so far back that no-one can explicitly determine its origin. This mystic ‘aim’ as it were, to reach through the magic arts is also represented with the glowing object in the centre of the castle, behind the figure and out of their site. The figure in question is pulling on what seems like a loom – again portraying the act of futile devotion to a mystic practise. It seems more likely that Varo is criticising this process of traditional mysticism, but it’s critique based in fascination. Much like the fascination I share in surrealism. It’s a painting of layers, with smaller details hidden in the swathes of colour in that brooding sky and smaller section of the castle which suddenly make it seem more like a house It’s a work that seems to be in a transient state, changing the more you look at it. Of course, it’s not – but the fact that she can control and divert our perception like that is credit to her ability to produce an image which encapsulates that mystic element of human belief.
The same kind of mystic operation can be seen in other works, such as ‘Celestial Pabulum’ (no specific date) or ‘Creation of The Birds’. In that latter piece, we see an anthropomorphic bird-man sat at a table, reflecting the light of a star onto the bodies of newly created birds, painting them with the strings of a small lute around its neck and diluting the paint into an hourglass-like shape. It’s a surrealist image undoubtedly, but one with roots firmly in tradition, crossing over to the boundaries on ‘fantasy’. The creation of the birds through starlight reminds me of the ideas around cosmology and divine texts such as the ‘I-Ching’. It calls back to beliefs centred around the divination of gods, and their creation of life by light from varying religions. An obsession with transcending the physical world into a plain of perception akin to omniscience It also reminded me of certain Celtic traditions (among lenty of others) where a divine figure associated with music e.g. Taliesin, often had inexorable power divined from the sacred nature of their instrument (although it’s often thought that Taliesin was actually a bard in the 6th century.) It immediately involves a viewer into a tradition they’re not familiar with. But the flip side is that this makes it very hard to unpick as so much of this tradition from various cultures worldwide is hard to track down specifically, and often different cultures recall different tales similar to each other. But somehow Varo seems to make these traditions into one, as if she were the ultimate authority on the mystic tradition. Furthermore, the inability to pinpoint an origin or precise story in itself only makes it more surreal. There is no explanation, the image is just there and you get a strong sense of what it’s conveying.
Similarly, ‘Nacer De Nuevo’ (again no date) portrays a similarly mystic image of rebirth within belief. It contains a woman being born from the red skin of a wall over a standing water basin, reflecting the moon overhead. Again it’s a piece packed with implied symbolism, so that different viewers see different meanings to it. For example I used the word ‘rebirth’ above but that’s not necessarily true – it’s just how I see it. The moon can represent many things but for me it always comes down to the mystic. For me it’s a symbol of madness, of The Wild Hunt in European mythology, and of the wildness of the human spirit – and so often comes across as a symbol of rebirth from the version of ourselves that appears under the sun. Perhaps that’s a cliched interpretation but for me that’s what it is. This piece however seems more traditional, and less surreal. It seems more like a work of fantasy – although both genres can often intertwine.
Varo’s work can sometimes be more overtly surreal and devised from the influence of her time in Paris and her love of cubism. ‘Eyes on The Table’ (1938) is a piece that shows this, displaying the rich, deep orange, red and yellow colours layering the table and room as well as a pair of glasses sat opposite a detached pair of eyes. It’s one that could have many interpretations, but immediately grabs you for the playful nonsensical nature it holds. And yet the textures of the background feel pleasing, it’s a picture which juxtaposes both surreal anti-logic and Renaissance, artistic order. She blends the two seamlessly so that the central image always exists on a plan of what could easily be a classically trained hand. Indeed, this trait of her painting can also marry with her obsession with mystic and religious belief. The painting ‘Garden of Love’ (1951) displays a similar image diluted from traditional mythology. Although I don’t know for certain what it is, it seems very reminiscent of old European tales of ghostly maidens in the forest giving quests to knights. Forests in themselves are commonly places of exploration, where the boundaries of reality and spiritual fantasy blur – in works such as the anonymous Middle English poem (influenced by the Greek narrative of Orpheus) ‘Sir Orfeo’. And yet Varo still maintains a classical painting style with the forest and even the figures themselves – who almost look like the original sketches in medieval manuscripts. She blends the two styles to form this overall surrealist manifested design which revolves around the fusion of the two and the process by which Varo makes it happen.
I only discovered Varo recently, and she’s often overlooked. Women in general had it pretty tough in surrealism as a lot of the early surrealists rejected female painters on the basis of their sex. This meant they had to find even more underground methods through which to display their work – the under-underground. Ironically though, this oppressive attitude towards them led to an incredibly interesting strain of surrealism that looks at the way gender and sex is portrayed in our world. Some of these early female surrealists, such as Frida Kahlo, occasionally explore the projection of the female aesthetic by male-dominated anthropomorphism within a surrealist environment. I would touch on this as a topic all on it’s own but it seems almost derogatory to cast all early female surrealists with this brush, as I’m certain that in many cases, their sex or gender was not relevant to their work but was more a context of production instead. I could say that Varo was one of the first major female surrealists, which she was, but that almost seems irrelevant. For me she was simply one of the first great surrealists. While it’s interesting context to bear in mind, I personally don’t believe that Varo’s position as a woman comes through in her work. I think she focuses more on her beliefs, her studies of mysticism and her transformation of a classical style into a modern surrealist design. Maybe I’m wrong, but it’s how I see her work at least.
She’s a truly masterful painter and undoubtedly one of the forerunners for bringing surrealism into Mexico, and an early example of surrealism fusing with both fantastical and Renaissance styles. Having quite a small discography of work, it won’t take long for you to have a browse through her work. Take your time to let the image unwind in your head and you’ll see just how beautifully fantastical and detailed her painting really is.