Remedios Varo

Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum

The idiosyncratic and evocative work of Remedios Varo (1908-63) constitutes a superb but little-recognized episode in the history of Surrealism. This exhibition of seventy paintings and drawings, organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC (Chicago was its second and final stop), was Varo’s first US retrospective; her long-standing neglect in this country is hard to understand, considering the visual and conceptual elegance and historical relevance of her work. Born and trained in Spain, Varo (with her companion Benjamin Péret) was a member of André Breton’s Surreahst circle in Paris in the late ’30s. Swept up in the European diaspora at the beginning of World War II, Varo and Péret fled to Mexico, where she remained for the rest of her life at the center of an émigré community that remained distinct from Rivera’s and Kahlo’s indigenista school of Mexican modernism.

Like Magritte, Dali, and Ernst, Varo retained a connection to many of the painstaking procedures of traditional academic painting. In her smallish, hyperrefined works, the stage is carefully and logically set, the visual evidence in line with that of the so-called rational world, but this order is then subjected to a whimsical, imaginative, topsy-turvy dislocation. Walls shift in space or become alive; men walk with the aid of their beards; clothes become heads and vice versa; people fly about; and curious forces seem everywhere to compel even more curious people to acts of some charged significance. Varo’s pinched spaces and spiky, elongated figures, as well as her emphasis on the vertical and attention to domestic details, bring to mind fifteenth-century Sienese painting, with its air of tender fables made strange and oddly expectant. In Exploración de las fuentes del rio Orinoco (Exploration of the sources of the Orinoco River), 1959, a slender and highly stylized woman in a tan trench coat navigates a flooded forest in a small, elaborate vessel seemingly constructed from an attenuated waistcoat. Propelled by fragile disembodied wings and ruddered by a fabric bustle, the impassive figure directs her fantastic vehicle through a complex but functional pulley arrangement, gliding toward a small niche where the river’s source reveals itself as an overflowing wineglass. The image reads as a personalized late-medieval fantasy, dreamy and disconnected yet somehow pulled together by the kind of specific articulation and sober conviction that marks all of Varo’s work.

In Mujer saliendo del psicoanalista (Woman leaving the psychoanalyst), 1960, a figure in a very odd green garment steps away from the office of her doctor, identified by a doorplate as Dr. von F.J.A. (an amalgam of Freud, Jung, and Adler, according to Varo’s notes). The woman carries a tiny male head upside down by its long white beard (indicating psychiatry as masculine headshrinking?). Her mouth is covered by the folds of her robe; a mask-like rearticulation of her eyes and nose appear in her clothing. Psychoanalysis, with its attention to realities behind appearance, looms large in Varo’s images, as do alchemy, astrology, and magic, which are committed to seeking out and uncovering harmonies that extend beyond the palpable toward a logic that seems enhanced by its very unexpectedness. Varo’s work is marked by crystalline bursts of the imagination that offer specific new possibilities, presenting connections and alternatives in a cosmology of fantastic tableaux that always somehow seem perfectly possible.

James Yood