Archive for Remedios Varo

The Beautiful Vagabonds: Birds in Art

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, XC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

The very idea of a bird is a symbol and a suggestion to the poet. A bird seems to be at the top of the scale, so vehement and intense his life. . . . The beautiful vagabonds, endowed with every grace, masters of all climes, and knowing no bounds — how many human aspirations are realised in their free, holiday-lives — and how many suggestions to the poet in their flight and song! — John Burroughs (1837-1921)

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, center panel, detail,
c. 1503-04
Oil on wood
The Prado, Madrid

In his mysterious and enigmatic allegorical triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, Netherlandish master Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) painted enormous fruits and giant birds cavorting with tiny people of all races in a sumptuous garden. This painting presents a complex labyrinth of seemingly contradictory ideas and motifs. The triptych has been interpreted as a critique of the Catholic Church, a panorama of the Creation or a reflection on the humanist writings of Thomas More. Whatever his intent, Bosch’s giant birds are wonderful examples of the way that painters throughout history have used birds—as symbols of nature and the soul, as go-betweens, harbingers and messengers—and as intriguing examples of the wonders of nature.

Here are some of my favorites.

Roman garden painting, detail, first century A.D.
Casa del Bracciale d’Oro, Pompeii

Roman garden painting, detail, first century A.D.
Casa del Bracciale d’Oro, Pompeii

Gardens were often depicted in tomb and wall paintings in the ancient world. There is evidence that many types of gardens flourished—domestic gardens for both relaxation and as sources of food, gardens with sacred and religious meaning, cemetery gardens, opulent orchards and parks. Where there are gardens, there are birds.

Hans Holbein, A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, c. 1526-1528
Oil on oak
National Gallery of Art, London

German painter Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543) was a very versatile artist who did portraits, religious paintings, frescoes and woodcuts, as well as designing jewelry and metalwork. Holbein first traveled to England in 1528 with an introduction to Thomas More from the Renaissance Humanist scholar Erasmus, whose portrait Holbein had painted in  1523. Holbein moved to England permanently in 1532, as court painter to Henry VIII, and there he perfected his art as a portraitist. This wonderfully detailed painting is a study in contrasts, the serious pose of the sitter playing against the lively squirrel and starling (which may have represented the lady’s family coat of arms.) A luminous and rich blue background sets this enigmatic and fascinating portrait off like a jewel.

Georg Flegel, Fruit and Dead Birds, n.d.
Oil on canvas
Private collection, Germany

German still-life painter George Flegel (1566-1638) specialized in paintings of tables set for meals with food, wine and flowers. I find this particular painting of Flegel’s very unusual and idiosyncratic. The elements of the composition are very deliberately laid out on the table and amidst the dead birds, feathers and fruits—all rather scientifically painted in a presentational manner—is perched a little goldfinch, very much alive.

Melchior d’Hondecoeter, The Floating Feather, c. 1680
Oil on canvas
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636-1695) was a Dutch Baroque painter who specialized in painting animals, particularly birds. What is interesting to me about d’Hondecoeter is that he didn’t paint birds merely as trophies of the hunt or table, but as creatures with moods as well as relationships, feelings and inner lives.

Jan van Kessel, Concert of Birds, c. 1660-1670
Oil on copper
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Flemish painter Jan Van Kessel (1626-1679), the grandson of the great floral painter Jan Breughel the Elder, did beautifully detailed intimate paintings on copper. He was an avid student of the scientific naturalism of his day and excelled at painting insects. I am particularly interested in his panoramic scenes of birds—with their attention to detail and rich coloration, they have a cabinet of curiosities ambiance. Van Kessel also did some very beautiful still lifes, like this one, which includes a lively little bird that is depicted with wonderful movement and energy.

Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch, 1654
Oil on panel
Royal Picture Gallery, Mauritshuis, The Hague

This delightful painting by Dutch painter Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) is very much a portrait—you feel he has captured the essence of a particular bird. Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt, was very interested in exploring spatial effects and trompe l’oeil. This little goldfinch looks like he could fly off his perch at any moment—if he was not held captive by the little chain attached to his leg. Fabritius very much created his own style. Eschewing the dark backgrounds and dramatically lit subjects popular at the time, he applied paint thickly, using a light-colored textured background and subtle lighting on his subjects.

Indian miniature, Akbar period, 1600-1605
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Royal figures with their falcons are a fairly common theme in Indian miniatures. In this beautifully naturalistic portrait, the bird is imbued with a definite personality and temperament. Only a member of a royal family would have worn such a magnificent robe. The silk brocade, which depicts animals, birds and plants in a lush landscape, was probably woven in Iran.

Mark Catesby, The White Crown Pigeon, The Coco Plum
Natural History, Volume 1, Plate 25
Hand-colored Etching, London, 1727-1731

Mark Catesby (1682-1749) was an English naturalist who spent 10 years in the American colonies observing the natural history of the New World and collecting specimens. The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, which he wrote and illustrated, is a magnificent achievement. Catesby’s etchings were innovative—whenever possible, he drew from life, and he often portrays his subjects in flight or in motion, with bits of plants and landscape that suggest their native habitat. His fascination and love of the natural world is evident in each illustration, especially the ones from the original edition, which he personally hand-colored.

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Captive Robin, c. 1864
Oil on canvas
Private collection

At first glance, the work of  Victorian fairy painter John Anster Fitzgerald (1819-1906) is very deceptive—the intense, saturated colors and the beauty of the images initially distract from the often macabre, nightmarish or sadistic subtexts. There’s plenty of evidence that Fitzgerald’s imagery owed more than a little to opium and laudanum use, not an uncommon vice in Victorian England. Robins have a complicated role in fairy-lore which is often ambiguous—they are variously allies and enemies. Fitzgerald painted a number of paintings about robins. As was often the case with fairy paintings, The Captive Robin is mounted in a large hand-made gilded twig frame that is quite extraordinary.

Paul Klee, Twittering Machine, 1922
Oil transfer drawing on paper with watercolor and ink on board with gouache and ink borders
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) brings us into the modern era, which reveals a new kind of menace. His Twittering Machine seems to be about the uneasy alliance between nature and the mechanical, with the distinct possibility that mayhem will ensue. Klee’s nervous, edgy line, contrasted with the soothing blue and violet background, adds another layer of meaning to this unsettling fusion of bird and machine.

René Magritte, The Natural Graces, c. 1961
Oil  on canvas
Private collection

Belgian Surrealist painter René Magritte (1898-1967) transformed and juxtaposed every day things—the changed context jolts us into seeing things we thought were familiar in a new light. Magritte described painting as:

…the art of putting colors side by side in such a way that their real aspect is effaced, so that familiar objects—the sky, people, trees, mountains, furniture, the stars, solid structures, graffiti—become united in a single poetically disciplined image. The poetry of this image dispenses with any symbolic significance, old or new.

Remedios Varo, Troubadour, 1959
Oil on masonite
Private collection

Remedios Varo (1908-1963) was a Spanish-born Surrealist painter who adopted Mexico as her home. Varo’s imagery was drawn from nature, and she had an intense and abiding interest in science. As a child she often visited the Prado with her father, and it there that she discovered Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, whose mixture of wit and menace she found inspiring. Birds play a large role in Varo’s personal iconography and appear often in various stages of transformation in her work.

Walton Ford, Eothen, 2001
Watercolor, gouache, pencil and ink on paper
Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York

American watercolorist and printmaker Walton Ford (1960-) creates beautifully rendered large-scale images of nature gone amok. At first we are seduced by the beauty of the image, then we realize that the work is haunted by a sense of impending doom—something sinister and violent is taking place. Ford’s work operates on several levels at once, seeming to celebrate the romantic beauty of the work of naturalist John James Audubon while it satirizes colonialism and consumerism, mourns the extinction of species and dispassionately chronicles the destructive forces inherent in nature.

Darwin’s finches from the Galapagos Islands

No other creatures in nature represent as complex and intriguing a variety of qualities as birds. Artists have pictured them in many guises—as harbingers of doom, symbols of resurrection and as intermediaries between man and the Divine. They represent dreams, magical powers, clairvoyance and the mysteries of the unconscious. With their enormous variety and often spectacular beauty they embody the infinite and fearful powers of nature. As Charles Darwin wrote:

We behold the face of nature bright with gladness. We do not see, or we forget, that the birds singing around us live on insects or seeds, constantly destroying life.


Remedios Varo: Alchemy and Science

Posted in Christine Cariati, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting, Poetry with tags , , , on August 12, 2009 by Christine Cariati

Remedios Varo, Creation of the BirdsRemedios Varo, Creation of the Birds, 1957

Remedios Varo’s small, complex paintings portray a world in which alchemy, magic, mysticism and science co-exist. Varo was a relentlessly inquisitive, intelligent woman of great wit, whose slight build and striking features are often echoed in the humans and hybrid creatures who inhabit her paintings. As a girl she dreamed of travel, but after world events forced her twice into relocation and exile she came detest travel and chose instead to journey inward, exploring her creativity and spirituality through her painting. It is instructive to trace how Varo’s interests, talents and personal history, combined with her place in world events, lead to a merging of subject matter and style that was so uniquely her own.

Remedios Varo

Remedios Varo (1908-1963) was born Maria de los Remedios Varo y Uranga in Anglés, a town north of Barcelona. When she was a young child, the family traveled for her father’s work, after several years they settled in Madrid. Her father encouraged her artistic inclinations by teaching her how to make mechanical drawings. She also learned about perspective, a device she used often in her work. Her father also took her  to museums—at the Prado she fell in love with the work of Hieronymus Bosch, Goya and El Greco. Varo was enrolled in a Catholic convent school where she rebelled against the strict religious regimen and longed for freedom. From an early age, she was drawn to magic, fantasy and the language of dreams.

Remedios Varo, RuptureRemedios Varo, Rupture, 1955

At fifteen, Varo entered the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid, where she crossed paths with Salvador Dalí, and pursued a rigorous course of academic art training. In addition to the traditional required subjects, such as still-life, landscape, anatomy, color theory, mixing of pigments, glazing techniques, architectural rendering, decorative painting and ornamentation, Varo elected to study scientific illustration. In the mid 1920s, art students and intellectuals in Madrid looked to the Surrealists in Paris for inspiration—including the plays of Federico García Lorca, the paintings of Salvador Dalí, and the films of Luis Buñuel.

Remedios Varo, 1927Remedios Varo and Josep Lluis Florit, c.1927

Varo’s first marriage to Gerardo Lizarraga in 1930, at the age of 21, allowed her to live away from home and to have the freedom a single young woman of the time would not otherwise enjoy. In 1931, she and Lizarraga went to live in Paris for a year where she loved the bohemian café life of good conversation and the exchange of  socially progressive ideas. When they returned to Spain, they went to Barcelona, at the time a more cosmopolitan and liberal city than Madrid. While still married she began a liason with Esteban Francés—this was the beginning of a lifelong pattern of multiple simultaneous relationships that endured as friendships long after the romances ended.

Remedios Varo—The Useless ScienceRemedios Varo, The Useless Science or The Alchemist, 1955

In Barcelona she met French Surrealist poet Benjamin Perét, one of André Breton‘s closest friends. In 1937, to escape the Spanish Civil War, and while still married to Lizarraga and involved with Francés, Varo moved to Paris with Perét, whom she later married. Thrust into the Surrealist milieu, Varo became somewhat less confident, more reticent. The Surrealists embraced the ideal of youth and beauty and the femme-enfant, claiming that women were the more creative force because they operated more outside reason and logic than men. Of course, in reality, this patronizing attitude left women in the Surrealist movement far outside the inner circle—and there was no place for the mature or aging woman artist.

Remedios Varo—Solar MusicRemedios Varo, Solar Music, 1955

From 1937-39, Varos experimented a great deal, influenced by the work of Max Ernst, Giorgio di Chirico, René Magritte, Wolfgang Paalen and Victor Brauner. In 1939, Franco closed the borders of Spain to anyone with ties to the Republican movement, so Varo could not return to home and family. She was again dislocated by war—in 1940 the Nazis entered Paris, and Varo, along with millions of others, including many of her circle in Paris, became a refugee, eventually ending up in Marseille. At the end of 1941, with Perét in danger, they made a long, arduous journey, ending up in Mexico City, where she lived for the rest of her life and did her mature work.

Remedios Varo—Portrait of Dr. Ignacio ChavezRemedios Varo, Portrait of Dr. Ignacio Chavez, 1957

At first, Varo intended to stay for only a short time in Mexico City and remained isolated among her fellow émigrés. At the time, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera ruled the art world in Mexico City, and as Socialists and champions of Mexico’s indigenous culture, they were hostile to foreign influence, decried the Surrealists as decadent, and did not welcome émigré artists into their midst. It was during this time that Varo became very close friends with the English painter Leonora Carrington with whom she shared a strong interest in the occult, alchemy and mysticism. The two met daily and had a tremendous influence on each other’s work.

Leonora CarringtonThe painter Leonora Carrington

Varo was poor and had to turn to various commercial jobs to secure an income. Over the next few years she made dioramas for a British anti-fascist propaganda office, hand-painted furniture and musical instruments for a high-end decorating firm, and designed costumes for theater and ballet (including working with fellow émigré Marc Chagall designing costumes for the Léonide Massine ballet Aleko, in 1942.) Under her mother’s maiden name of Uranga, Varo did illustration for a pharmaceutical company, Casa Bayer. In these illustrations, done in gouache, she was able to explore her long-held interest in science, and they closely mirrored the direction her personal work was taking.

Remedios Varo—ÂicrocosmRemedios Varo, Microcosm, 1959

1947 was an important turning point for Varo. Making a final break with Perét and the Surrealists, her period of sustained mature work began in earnest. With her lover Jean Nicolle she went to Venezuela for a year. There she was hired to do drawings of parasitic insects for the Ministry of Public Health. The miniature universe she discovered under her microscope had a tremendous influence on her work. Back in Mexico City in 1949, she married Walter Gruen, an Austrian exile who started Sala Marjolín, a prominent Mexico City music store. The financial security gave Varo the opportunity to quit commercial work, set up a studio and devote herself to her personal work.

Remedios Varo—Woman Leaving the PsychoanalystRemedios Varo, Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst, 1960

In 1955 Varo was invited to exhibit her work in a group show at the Galería Diana. The four important paintings she showed were harbingers of the work she did for the rest of her life. The very positive critical reaction to these pieces led to the offer of a solo show in 1956, which was very well received by both critics and collectors. Perhaps weary of an art scene long dominated by large scale murals, socialist ideology, nationalistic and indigenous themes, collectors responded very positively to her intricately detailed, delicate and  personal work—and the intimate relationship these paintings established with the viewer. Her work was in great demand, and there was always a long waiting list for her new work. For a time, Varo did some portraits on commission but much preferred doing her own work. As a foreigner in a country with a great muralist tradition, she was honored to be asked to create a series of murals for the Cancer Pavilion at the Medical Center in Mexico City. However, her dread of cancer and illness and the extreme difficulty involved in transferring her intricate, detailed, miniaturist technique to a large-scale format caused her to abandon the project.

Remedios Varo—Revelation or the ClockmakerRemedios Varo, Revelation or The Clockmaker, 1955

Finally, all the various threads of her life had come together. Magic and fantasy meshed with autobiography—images of nature in counterpoint with mechanical invention, alchemy as allegory for psychic transformation, elements of architecture and theater—all melded together in this new work. Varo would begin each new piece with a detailed drawing then transfer the image to board. Her technique of thinly applied varnishes and glazes, combined with drips, blotting and scratches, created enormous depth and surface interest. With her mastery of technique, Varo was able to explore her themes, the intersection of nature and the mechanical, creation and transformation. Her narratives unfolded in architectural spaces reminiscent of stage sets. Her work took on the quality of a spiritual journey, encompassing memory, personal history and moments of transcendence and transformation. Varo believed in a balance of science and nature, science and metaphysics, and that man should strive to live in harmony with nature, not try to conquer or control it. These were the enduring themes of her later work.

Remedios Varo—The Penenomenon of WeightlessnessRemedios Varo, The Phenomenon of Weightlessness, 1963

Varo died suddenly, of a heart attack, at the age of 55. This is the last painting she did. Unlike most of her work, there is no human presence—the painting reflects on the cycles of nature and rebirth.

VaroStilllLifejpgRemedios Varo, Still Life Reviving, 1963

Her sudden death was a tremendous shock to her friends and admirers. The poet Rosario Castellanos dedicated Metamorphosis of the Sorceress to Varo and poet Octavio Paz wrote Remedios Varo’s Appearances and Disappearances as a tribute. Here is an excerpt from his poem:

In Appearance she paints Disappearance

Roots, fronds, rays, locks of hair, flowing
beards, spirals of sound: threads of death,
of life, of time. The weft is woven and un-
woven: the unreality that we call life, the
unreality that we call death…only the canvas
is real…

Recommended reading: Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys by Janet Kaplan

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