Spanish-born painter Remedios Varo would have appreciated the synchronicity of it all.
Earlier this year, I read Claire McMillan’s wonderful new novel Alchemy of a Blackbird (about Remedios Varo’s relationship with her fellow artist Leonora Carrington). Tarot cards feature strongly in Claire’s text as Remedios learns how to read them, so it had to be the perfect alignment of stars and planets when, during my subsequent interview with Claire for FF2 Media, she told me that the Art Institute of Chicago – my hometown art museum – would be opening an exhibition on Remedios Varo the very next month.
When I finally got to go, the show was breathtaking. Remedios Varo: Science Fictions (which runs through November 27th) features over 20 paintings and drawings of her work. While the show may only take up two rooms of the huge museum, each work was like a poem transformed into an alchemical explosion of colors, shapes, and symbols.
Remedios’s attention to detail is astonishing.
Remedios’s paintings often show a singular figure framed in contraptions and towers against a quasi-abstract background. Like her artistic sister and best friend Leonora Carrington, she often has figures turning into other figures. Sometimes humans become furniture; sometimes clothing functions both as transportation and cloak. Remedios’s attention to detail is astonishing. (Claire McMillan beautifully describes her preference for the tiniest of brushes.)
As an amateur musician, I was particularly overcome by her works visualizing music. For instance, in The Flutist (1955), a person plays the flute and the notes become stones which culminate in a three tier tower. It’s like the opposite of a quotation attributed to German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Architecture is frozen music.” Here music is building the tower, just as we may envision worlds when we listen to haunting lines of music.
Another piece Harmony (1956) shows an androgynous person creating music with actual objects. Instead of notes on a sheet of music, the symbols include flowers and crystals. For Remedios, Harmony (1956) depicts the composer “trying to find the invisible thread that unites all things.” But, for me, I think of how composers and musicians can be inspired by the world around them, how they turn the noise of everyday life into aesthetically-structured sound.
Remedios and Leonora are often called “Surrealists,” but it’s a term that I’ve always felt fitted them poorly. The Surrealists were largely a men’s-only exclusive club. True, Remedios and Leonora did paint at the same time as well-known mainstay Surrealists like Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, and their works are also far from abstract or figurative in the traditional sense. But Remedios and Leonora were also influenced by esoteric, occult, and other spiritual practices, and Remedios added science fiction into her mix too. (The show includes Remedios’s copies of science fiction books, especially Jules Vernes, one of her favorites.)
As I wandered through the galleries with a good friend, she commented that some of the paintings had an almost medieval quality to them, from attention to the architectural elements in the background to the framing of the figures. Then I realized that Remedios’s paintings remind me of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516). Best-known for the Garden of Earthly Delights – featuring Heaven, Earth, and Hell – Hieronymus Bosch’s works also feature fantastical creatures (often in the form of demons).
My friend and I also got to see the drawings behind Remedios’s paintings; even her sketches were incredibly detailed.
I feel fortunate that this show was in my city… but a tiny bit sad that this is likely the largest collection of her work that I will see in one place.
I feel fortunate that this show was in my city, and I definitely plan to return several more times before the show closes at the end of November. I am a tiny bit sad that this is likely the largest collection of her work that I will see in one place. The bulk of Remedios’s work was done after her arrival in Mexico (which became her home after Peggy Guggenheim helped fund her escape from Nazi-occupied France) and is still held there – at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City – as well as in private collections.
Alas, Remedios died young – only 54 years old – in 1963. But I am so pleased that she’s finally getting more recognition internationally, at the Tate Modern in London last year (2/24/22 thru 8/29/22), and here in Chicago now.
Last but not least, I love that the Art Institute’s website points out that this is AIC’s “first solo exhibition dedicated to a woman Surrealist painter and to a woman artist working in Mexico.” I hope we’ll be seeing more shows like this. May I recommend a Leonora Carrington exhibition sometime in the near future?
© Elisa Shoenberger (10/6/23) – Special for FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Remedios Varo: Science Fictions (7/29/23 – 11/27/23)
This show at the Art Institute of Chicago was curated by Caitlin Haskell (the AIC’s Gary C. and Frances Comer Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art) and guest curator Tere Arcq.
Listen to Tere Arcq discuss Remedios Varo on The Great Women Artists podcast. (Tere Arcq was formerly Chief Curator of the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City.)
Read my interview with Claire McMillan about her wonderful new novel Alchemy of a Blackbird which explores the deep personal relationship between Remedios Varo & Leonora Carrington.
Read a brief bio of Remedios Varo by Carlos Reyes Vega (which includes several terrific photographs) on the FEMALE ARTISTS: The Other Voice of Art website. (Note: All Text is in Spanish.)
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Crop of Remedios Varo’s Armonía (1956) = Harmony in English.
Middle Photo: Remedios Varo. Armonía (1956). Collection Eduardo F. Costantini. © 2023 Remedios Varo, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Madrid. Use of this image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago. All Rights Reserved.