Progression of Art
The Souls of the Mountain
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.
Oil on plywood - Private collection
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.
Gouache on Bristol board - Private collection
Allegory of Winter
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.
Gouache on paper - Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain
In luminous colors of earth, a figure wrapped in a mantle made from entwined forest foliage, draws a musician's bow across a light ray that intersects the painting. Where the celestial beam illuminates the ground, the plants spring upwards and become green. As the bow is drawn across the solar fingerboard, white arcs echo in concentric circles to reach the upper branches on the tress. Such 'playing' releases caged birds from their entrapment as they burst forth in flame-colored rebirth.
No longer restricted by a necessity to make money, in parallel to the birds, Varo now enjoys newfound regeneration. The reality of having unlimited time to explore her ideas bears witness to more multi-layered painting techniques and complex compositions, as well as harmony in her own spirit and mind. Resembling the artist, the lone figure works fully in tune with her surrounding natural environment; she delicately orchestrates a union between light and sound that brings forth an experience of growth and enlightenment.
Oil on masonite - Private collection
As is typical for Varo, a single female figure is in our focus, but the setting has moved inward and has become claustrophobic. Upon leaving behind a shadowy landscape the woman enters a room through an open door behind her. With staunch regal presence, she wears an elaborate hat, an intricate lace collar, and a butterfly sleeve dress composed of symmetrical folds resembling a vagina. In her right hand, the woman holds a long empty net, whilst in her left she carries a small cage that contains a glowing crescent moon recently captured. Insect looking in her symmetry, the figure looks forward to Dragonfly Woman (1960) and highlights the repeated theme of mimicry in the artist's oeuvre. Varo evokes the Egyptian Isis, the goddess of the moon and of magic. Unusually here, the strong lunar force of fertility is caged, perhaps making reference to the fact that Varo did not have children or that she viewed the potentiality of reproduction as an imprisoning factor. The tiled floor is a repeated motif for the artist as it was also for her great friend Leonora Carrington; the checkered black and white pattern reinforces important notions of opposites combined. The elongation of the central figure, her arms, and the disproportion of her small head strongly evoke the work of El Greco by whom Varo was much inspired. There seems to be an overall message of torture imposed by restriction expressed through this image. It is as though the woman feels at once defined and confined by her sex. The viewer's attention is drawn into a whirlwind by the seemingly erotic golden and grey plumage created by the process of decalcomania, but the labia-like opening in her dress greets the gaze with darkness rather than pleasure.
Mixed media on paper - Private collection
Creation of the Birds
In an austere setting that is suggestive of a monk's cell as well as countless images of St. Jerome in his study, an equally academic hybrid owl-woman is seated at her desk painting a bird. The brush is connected to the sound hole of a three-stringed musical instrument, hanging around her neck. In the other hand she holds up a triangular magnifying glass that channels power from a lunar source to bring the picture of the bird to life. Another bird has already taken flight over the desk, a third is flying away through an open window, and a fourth is eating seeds from the tiled floor. Connected to tubing that funnels out of a high circular opening at the back of the room, an insect-like looking machine with two egg shaped canisters attached, flows forth the primary pigments of red, yellow, and blue on the alchemist's palette. In the far corner of the room two identical vessels hang from opposing walls as gold liquid flows freely between them.
In another painting, Mimesis (1960) Varo depicts the passivity of women's roles by depicting a woman that Varo said, "remained motionless for so long that she is turning into the armchair." Not at all restricted by sex as is hinted at in Star Catcher, whether it be in the realm of human, spirit or animal, here Varo is a crucial and integral part of life itself. She manages effortlessly to unite a trinity of sound, image, and light and in doing so illustrates her power as an artist, as a thinker, and as an individual. Symbolically poised as the wise old owl, Varo presents the marriage of science and art to bring forth the baby of elemental creation. Somewhat paradoxically, she further reveals that all have potential to find good balance by at once existing isolated and as themselves whilst also accepting a place as only part of the larger eternally interconnected 'machine' of nature.
Oil on masonite - Private collection
In the small chamber at the summit of a much taller multi-sided medieval looking tower, a lone woman sits on a stool in front of a small table, clearly doing 'woman's work' of some sort. The desk, chair and apparatus placed there remind one of a sewing machine set up, or of pasta making equipment, but this instrument does not have an ordinary usage. Hiding from the earthy realm below, close to heavens and surrounded by swirling darkness, Varo pipes starlight in through a hole in the ceiling and then turns the handle of her small machine to crush these celestial fragments to create the pablum (baby food) that she then somberly, at a distance and with mechanical resolve, spoon-feeds her caged moon.
The atmosphere is one of melancholy and although the moon is typically associated with female strength and fertility, for Varo it seems that such associations have negatively domesticated women and fueled restrictive patriarchal societies. Thus, Varo creates a wry commentary upon the endless care taking of motherhood. Even when one's baby is cosmic and the food is as beautiful as the stars, the task is portrayed as arduous, repetitive, and quite isolating. Yet there is also a sense of longing in this image, which raises the question of whether Varo did want to have children. Drawing upon her knowledge of science, as the astrophysicist Karel Schrijver says, "most of the material that we're made of comes out of dying stars". Varo therefore, whilst seemingly extraordinarily, in fact quite realistically portrays an ordinary woman continuing the cycle of natural creation.
Oil on masonite - Private collection
Exploring the Sources of the Orinoco River
In a forest fully submerged in water, where large dark birds look out from the hollows of mysterious tree trunks, a woman, dressed androgynously in a beige trench coat and black bowler hat, embarks on a voyage for truth in her appropriately egg-shaped origin seeking flame-red boat. Humorously, the boat is also made out of a coat, with a pocket holding notes visible at the side, a compass on the belt, and a tiny pair of pink stationary wings attached at the back. The woman steers the boat by pulling on strings and directs the vessel to a hollowed out room inside one of the trees. Within the space is a chalice that brims with water and links the depiction of the journey both to the artist's desire to live a deeper interior life, and to the medieval search for the Holy Grail.
By traveling in an egg to find the Source, it is clear that Varo shares her friend Leonora Carrington's alchemical quest for inner wholeness and union with the divine. This particular painting combines Varo's interests in the psychological, occult and scientific. The director of the New York Hall of Science, Alan Friedman, has suggested that Varo's work may have been inspired by her knowledge of the physicist Fred Hoyle's theory that matter is continuously created from nothing. In Venezuela the year before the work was completed, Varo had traveled with friends to the Orinoco River, where in forests flooded during certain times of the year, they were on an expedition in search of gold, but as Janet A. Kaplan notes, the gold is also "philosopher's gold, the alchemical liquid of transformation." The water pouring inexhaustibly out of the vessel signifies the elixir of life rather than any precious and materially valuable metal. In a submerged landscape - a good metaphor for the subconscious - Varo is an explorer on an unending quest for enlightenment and spiritual development.
In this relatively late work for Varo, a wheeled human-animal has been constructed out of various animal bones. The figure is at once bird, dragon and snake like, with small wings and a plumage on its head but also a circular tail turning up and inward back into itself. The sculpture represents the classic and ancient Ouroboros, the serpent that upon eating its own tail symbolizes introspection and the infinite cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
As Varo's only known three-dimensional piece, the work was made in connection with De Homo Rodans, a 'scientific' document that she wrote under the pen name of Halikcio von Fuhrängschmidt. In the persona of her invented German anthropologist, Varo playfully postulates a new theory of the origins and evolution of human beings. Drawing upon other invented works like Multimirto Cadencioso, a collection of poems supposedly from 2300 B.C. and using a Latin which she said even she couldn't understand, Varo proposed that Homo Rodans in his/her magical creaturely state was in fact our first human ancestor. Using bones as material, the work also shows the influence of her friend Wolfgang Paalen and his sculpture, Genius of the Species (1938).
The Mexican writer, Mireya Cueto has said that the substitution of a wheel for legs, which is a common image in Varo's work, reflects the desire to escape "the anguish of time, the anguish of the body tied down by gravity." This is an interesting interpretation, but given Varo's fervently active interest in origin and alchemy at this time, highlighting her Ouroboros motivation is more valid.
Chicken, fish, and turkey bones, and wire - Lic Moreno Sanchez and Carmen Toscano de Moreno-Sanchez
Embroidering the Earth's Mantle
Once again at the peak of a multi-faceted medieval tower, a "Great Master," as Varo described him, stands at the center and stirs an hourglass shaped cauldron that is reminiscent of part of the apparatus introduced to the viewer in The Creation of Birds. Both this looming master of ceremonies and the figure playing the flute in the arched alcove behind him are veiled and cloaked. The master reads from a catechism of instructions, as the alchemical device produces a web-like thread with which six almost identical girls sew. The fabric that they embroider pours out of the openings in the tower, unfolding to become the earth's mantle, replete with active towns, mountains, and lakes. Trapped in their toil, the women create the world.
Varo created a series of three paintings that focus on her experiences in convent school and which all tell a feminist narrative of a young woman's journey to autonomy. The first painting in the series, Towards the Tower (1961) depicts a number of almost identical girls, following a nun, on bicycles and emphasizes the rigid conformity expected of women in Catholicism. The third painting, The Escape (1962), depicts one of the young women having successfully fled the convent with her lover. This, the second painting of the series, depicts the visualization of the escape that is accomplished in the final painting. The narrow claustrophobic tower located in the sky indicates confinement. Varo paints all the girls to resemble one another to show that they are interchangeable, all assigned to women's work overseen by male authority. Their golden hair has been cut to prevent a Rapunzel-esque escape.
Oil on masonite - Private collection
Phenomenon of Weightlessness
An astronomer, with elongated limbs, wearing green clothing, steps forward, trying to catch or perhaps follow his model of the earth that has become weightless and is tracing the course of the moon, to which it is attached, out the window. On the shelves behind him models of the celestial spheres, static and fixed, are arranged. The room has shifted, and it appears to rotate and fold in on itself, as can be seen from the opposing angles in the floor, walls, and window.
Because Varo captures accurately the phenomenon of weightlessness, the image was used as the cover illustration for The Riddle of Gravitation, written by Peter Bergmann, a physicist and colleague of Einstein's. With the angles of the two windows and the wall shifting forward, Varo depicts space bending inward, with the astronomer struggling to find his balance as his knowledge becomes relative. A polymath who read widely in the sciences, Varo felt that art and science were deeply intertwined and that, in both fields, the challenge was to be open to all possibilities. She depicts the astronomer at a moment of discovery, his gaze intense, as he tries to marry his theoretical knowledge of weightlessness to the magic of actually experiencing it.
Oil on canvas - Private collection