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Important Art by Remedios Varo
In this early work, mountains, depicted as slender volcanic tubes rise from light-imbued mist. Heads of women resembling the artist emerge from the tallest two. A translucent veil billows between them and a windswept plume issuing from several others suggest active forces deep beneath these chimney tops. Cloaked by the craggy rocks, one of the women conjures her powers, whilst the other entombed summons an other-worldly slumber.
Using fumage, a Surrealist technique developed by Wolfgang Paalen that employs a candle flame to leave sooty marks across a freshly painted canvas, the work reveals that - as a way to limit one's own control and thus best represent the subconscious - Varo enjoyed experimental methods like many other figures connected to the Surrealist group. Yet it is less a question of being 'Surrealist' or of a particular technique that is important. By adding traces of candlelight, Varo herself is ever the more present. With assured mythical and universalist beliefs, the microcosm of an individual becomes the macrocosm of the earth, and Varo feels intuitively connected to the energy of the candlelight and the mountain. Having painted over the fumage to create clouds swirling around and linking the stony peaks, she reveals the inherent connectivity of all. True to the alchemical union of opposites, one thing cannot exist without its other: darkness without light, solidity without the gaseous, or Varo's strength without her fragility. The artist stands colossal, wide awake and affirmed of her own artistic abilities but equally dormant and vulnerable at this time, overshadowed by a band of more established male artists and troubled by financial pressure and political unrest.
In a bare room, two large crystalline-winged moths flutter between a dark interior window and a burning candle. Pairs of floating eyes stare out at the viewer from doorways to more empty rooms.
Recalling the work of René Magritte in its flatness, the painting is not typical of Varo's all-immersive and multi-layered style that she develops further throughout the 1950s. It thus makes sense that the painting was commissioned by the Bayer pharmaceutical company to advertise sleeping pills; an illustration designed to evoke the text copy description of how insomnia can feel: "Sensing that someone has been observing them, they open tired eyelids, searching the nocturnal shadows! Undefined anxiety fills the solitude of dark, dry rooms, devoid of warmth." Interestingly, Bayer became a longstanding client for Varo and her principal source of income at the time, resulting in 30 illustrations that allowed further exploration of an already active interest in science.
Like the forerunner of Surrealism, Giorgio de Chirico, Varo uses a collage-type method of painting, with focus placed on converging lines, geometric shapes, architectural forms and on sharply receding perspective. The lack of daylight emphasizes the sense of being trapped in a seemingly endless and empty space of night, whilst the staring eyes combine a longing for rest with the weight of personal unease felt here most acutely because of the lack of sleep. The nocturnal insects fly towards the single light source, delicate but bringing hopeful lightness and the message of transformation.
In Varo's allegory, winter appears threatening and frozen, holding captive the promise of new growth amid a parched high desert landscape. Skeletal remains of cacti-esque organic matter dominate the composition and thorny stalks, a mass of snowflakes and a muted gray sky reinforce the sense of lifelessness. White, web-like marks suggest a network of cocoons or pods containing living plants, birds, and insects.
The pods look forward to the motif of the cage and other small-enclosed spaces that the artist will continue to explore. Painted while the artist was exploring the Venezuelan jungle with a French scientific expedition, Allegory of Winter incorporates Varo's work as a naturalist with her Surrealism-inspired use of the symbolic, often contradictory language of dreams. Recalling both A Morning in March (1920) by the Norwegian painter, Nikolai Astrup, as well as Tree Anatomy (1942) by Ithell Colquhoun, it is crucial to recognize that Varo's 'trees' share much in common with humans. Sadly, these organic totems are, at this point, on the defensive and in pain.