By JONATHAN OROZCO November 7, 2023
The Spanish-Mexican artist Remedios Varo was a bruja, or witch, through and through, and she permeated her artwork with her spiritual beliefs. This emphasis on otherworldly realms is the subject in her timely and much anticipated exhibition Remedios Varo: Science Fictions at The Art Institute of Chicago.
Science Fictions is the largest exhibition of Varo’s work to have been exhibited in the United States in over 20 years, and was a collaborative international project between Caitlin Haskell, The Art Institute’s Gary C. and Frances Comer Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and former Chief Curator of Museo de Arte Moderno Tere Arcq. It brings together over 20 paintings and material’s from the artist’s archive.
“The very first conversations about doing a Remedios Varo show began in the fall of 2018,” Haskell said in an interview. “I had recently moved to Chicago, and I was starting to immerse myself in the extraordinary collections of Surrealism in this city. Varo was a figure who could be almost ideally contextualized within the Art Institute of Chicago's holdings, but was not represented in the museum's collections. Tere Arcq and I had some initial conversations about co-curating a show together in 2019, and then in February 2022 we brought a small research team from the Art Institute of Chicago to Mexico City. The contours of this specific project took shape then.”
Born in Spain, Varo fled Europe to Mexico in 1941 over the growing dangers of World War II. Once in Mexico, Varo found a community of artists, and drew inspiration from the varied Mexican geography and landscapes that subtly influenced her work.
Visually, though, her paintings resemble illuminated manuscript paintings, with subdued and faded tones of brown, oranges, and greens. This feels almost antithetical to the bright and lively colors Mexico is popularly known for.
While her paintings stylistically align with surrealism, of which artists like Salvador Dalí or René Magritte are often associated with, she didn’t identify with the movement.
“There were certainly moments in Varo's career when she was aligned with Surrealism,” Haskell said. “But in the period under consideration in our exhibition (1955-63) she preferred not to affiliate with a movement or a style.”
What stands out more than the style or the colors is the subject matter in Varo’s paintings, which are interpreted as magical and alchemical, something that transforms one substance into another. The artist invites you to interpret and construct as much as she does.
In a 2008 book titled Enochian Vision Magick, author Lon Milo DuQuette describes the act of magickal practice as an art, saying, “Make no mistake about it, magick is an art form, and every true magician is an artist… Just like the painter or sculptor, he or she must be armed with proper tools, skills, knowledge, and, most of all, inspiration.”
Ciencia inútil, o El alquimista (Useless Science, or The Alchemist) is a 1955 work by Varo depicting this identity of the blended magician-artist. Constructing an architectural cross-section, we see a castle-like interior with a figure positioned at the center of the composition. Coded as a female, the figure is somehow wrapped in a soft, velvety fabric that blends into the room’s checkerboard floor. As she turns a wheel, she propels some alchemical transformation in the background, turning cogs in an intricate system throughout the building.
We see some rain being captured by a funnel, draining into a pot that is then distilled and bottled. The purpose of this liquid is something we can never know, and only speculate whether it is medical, poisonous, romantic, or even just a fizzy drink.
This uncertainty is where the magic lies in Varo’s work. Its undefinability lets you become active in the meaning of each piece. While the works are ghastly and serious, they can also be fun and lighthearted to view and interpret.
One other such painting titled Armonia (Harmony) is another piece showing an artist as a magician, this time, the magician is a composer. In a subdued, dream-like environment, a woman sits on a stool, placing flowers, equations written on parchment, and crystals, creating a musical score, with the assistance of a spirit gently emerging out of a wall. The song plays on a type of modified phonograph.
Overall, the show made an important contribution to surrealist scholarship, and it has expanded the common perception of it as a male-dominated European movement. It serves as evidence that surrealism was an international style, inclusive of and defined by women.
DuQuette would enjoy the work of Varo. He goes on in his book, “as quantum physicists tell us, both the observer and that which is observed are changed by the act of observation itself. By appreciating the artist's handiwork, we are fundamentally affecting the reality and life of that creation. More importantly, when we expose ourselves to the artist's creation, we enjoy the passive luxury of allowing our consciousness to be altered, elevated, and enriched in unique and personal ways the artist might have never imagined.” WM
Jonathan Orozco is an independent writer based in Omaha, Nebraska. He received his art history BA from the University of Nebraska Omaha in 2020. Orozco runs an art blog called Art Discourses, which primarily covers Midwest artists and exhibitions.view all articles from this author