Archive for Surrealism

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

At Five in the Afternoon: Robert Motherwell Meets Federico García Lorca

Posted in Artists Speak, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2009 by Liz Hager

Robert Motherwell, At Five in the Afternoon, 1950, oil on canvas, 3 x 4 feet.

I begin a painting with a series of mistakes. The painting comes out of the correction of mistakes by feeling. I begin with shapes and colors which are not related internally nor to the external world; I work without images. Ultimate unifications come about through modulation of the surface by innumerable trials and errors. The final picture is the process arrested at the moment when what I was looking for flashes into view. My pictures have layers of mistakes buried in them—an X-ray would disclose crimes—layers of consciousness, of willing. They are a succession of humiliations resulting from the realization that only in a state of quickened subjectivity—a freedom from conscious notions, and with what I always suppose to be secondary or accidental colors and shapes—do I find the unknown, which nevertheless I recognize when I come upon it, for which I am always searching. 

The absolute which lies in the background of all my activities of relating seems to retreat as I get on its track; yet the relative cannot exist without some point of support. However, the closer one gets to the absolute, the more mercilessly all the weaknesses of my work are revealed. 

For me the medium of oil painting resists, more strongly than others, content cut off from external relations. It continually threatens, because of its motility and subtlety, to complicate a work beyond the simplicity inherent in a high order of abstraction. I attribute my increasing devotion to oil, lately as against the constructionalism of collage, to a greater involvement in the human world. A shift in one’s human situation entails a shift in one’s technique and subject-matter.

—Robert Motherwell, “Statement,” Motherwell exhibition catalogue at Samuel Kootz Gallery, New York, 1947. 

After receiving his BA degree from Stanford University (1937), Robert Motherwell continued his studies at Harvard, completing one year of a the Ph.D program there. Motherwell dropped out, but in 1940 decided to continue his studies at Columbia University under the tutelage of celebrated art history professor Meyer Shapiro. Shapiro, recognizing Motherwell’s real desire to be a painter, introduced him to emigré painter and writer Kurt Seligmann, who was deeply versed in the tenets of Surrealism. It turned out to be Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta who most actively engaged Motherwell’s intellect, pushing him off on a journey to uncover his own original creative principle. 

A major turning point for Motherwell came in the summer of 1941, which he spent with Matta in Mexico. Matta introduced him to “automatism” (i.e. free association), and this set the painter to a technique he called “artful scribbling.  It became the starting point for all of his future work. Motherwell was intensely intellectual, and the process of accessing spontaneity was a perfect foil to his to impulse to reason. This device tapped into deep subconscious roots; for Motherwell it provided the means of getting to the innermost, or pre-conscious, self from which true creativity sprung.  Motherwell grabbed tightly a hold of the notion that pictures would, to paraphrase Miró, assert themselves under his brush. Through this overarching principle, he succeeded in brilliantly connecting in an unbroken line action painting (i.e.  The New York School) to Surrrealism. 

Perhaps Matta’s even more profound contribution to Motherwell’s development was his enthusiasm for the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca.

The aura of fatality is overwhelming in García Lorca’s 1934 poem “The Goring and the Death.” He repeats the line “at five in the afternoon” 28 times in 52 lines, forecasting the bullfighter’s death with each knell of the repeat. The poem is a metaphor for the Spanish Civil War, and an eerie foreshadowing of García Lorca’s own tragic death two years later at the hands of the Franco’s regime.  

At five in the afternoon 
It was exactly five in the afternoon.
A boy brought the white sheet
at five in the afternoon.
A basketful of lime in readiness
at five in the afternoon.
Beyond that, death and death alone
at five in the afternoon. 

Motherwell’s At Five in the Afternoon (1949) was a prelude to his artistic tour de force, the Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, which eventually came to include some 200 paintings.  Together they are a visual lament for the poet, his bullfighter, and the original Republic of Spain. 

Wider Connections

PBS  “American Masters” on Motherwell

SF MOMA’s Motherwell collection

Robert Motherwell: The Complete Prints

Selected Poems of Frederico García Lorca

Roberto Matta images

Hidden Identity: Musings on the Backside (Part IV)

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , on March 3, 2009 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts on portraits featuring sitters’ backsides. Others in the series may be found here.

By LIZ HAGER

Réné Magritte, La reproduction interdite, 1937,
Oil on canvas, 81.3 x 65 cm
©Museum Boymans-van Beuningen).

In his Surrealist Manifesto published in 1924, poet and critic André Breton, making extensive use of theories adapted from Sigmund Freud, proposed that the conscious and unconscious artistic impulses be reunited under the artistic banner he termed “surrealism”:

I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.

Breton advocated banishing reason from the realm of artistic creation, arguing that a reliance on “automatism” (unconscious, spontaneous behavior) would call forth more authentic images from the dream and supernatural states.

For his masterful La reproduction interdite (Not to be reproduced) Réné Magritte has created a representation of his subject—Edward James, a rich English aristocrat, Surrealist poet, and patron of both Dali and Magritte—that is both rigorously realistic and emotionally detached. A master at posing familiar objects in absurd contexts, Magritte made extensive use of mirror and glass in his work, playing with their ability to hide or mask through reflection. In this painting Magritte presents us with the view of his subject seen from behind. The reflection in the mirror beyond, however, violates the laws of nature, for it reflects that very same backside view back to us.  We gaze over the man’s shoulder expecting to see his face (i.e. his specific identity) and are met instead with the view from our own eyes. The subject’s identity is hidden from us. In the world Magritte has created here we can only ever return to ourselves (i.e. our own reality).

magritte-arnheimRéné Magritte, The Domain of Arnheim, 1938,
Oil on canvas

To confuse us further, Magritte has placed Edgar Allan Poe’s book The Narrative of Arthur Golden Pym next to James on the mantel, juxtaposing its “correct” reflection with the alternative reality of the figure’s reflection. Magritte has created a painting with dual realities, alternate fictions, if you like.  The book itself provides a small clue as to Magritte’s intentions.

Magritte was an unabashed admirer of Poe. In particular, he was inspired by the writer’s preoccupation with the mingling of the real and artificial. The Narrative of Arthur Golden PymPoe’s only novel, purports to be a non-fictional tale of the fantastic sea journey of Arthur Pym from Nantucket to the land of Symzonia (somewhere in the South Pacific?). Along the way, the narrative proves to be distorted and unreliable, deceitful even. The various twists of the novel’s plot embody numerous thematic elements, but masquerade, illusion, and even trickery figure prominently in the action. Ultimately, the tale reveals itself as a figment of the protagonist’s imagination—a fiction cloaking a fiction.

Claudia Kay Silverman (American Studies, UVA)  further observes—

The journey enacted in Symzonia, the journey to the interior of the earth, can be construed as a journey of anti-discovery. It is a journey to discover an emptiness. As does all Utopian fiction, the journey of Symzonia contains a tension. A Utopia is both a “good place” and “no place;” the journey to the interior of the earth is the ultimate journey and the impossible journey. It finds, in those imaginatively inclined, a correlative in a journey into the mind itself, whose outcome will be the unveiling of the deepest secret of humanity.

The grip that the notion of a hollow earth might have had on Poe has to do with a fear that the human mind, rather than containing ultimate knowledge, is, at its very core, empty.

This series of paintings was based on a Poe story of the same name. This story underscores Poe’s fascination with idea that the ideal creation was one in which man-made and the natural co-mingle. Arnheim translates loosely from the German as eagle’s nest.

Réné Magritte, The Domain of Arnheim, 1962
Oil on canvas

The themes of search and deceit, which weave in and out of Pym’s tale, must have appealed greatly to Magritte’s well-developed epigrammatic sensibility. La reproduction interdite is a witty commentary on our search for identity. Human beings, to paraphrase Magritte, always want to see what lies behind what they can actually see. We seek to uncover an essential or unconcealed “reality” or “truth,” which in turn will define who we are. Alas, the painter is in charge of this world; he makes that clear by doing exactly what the title forbids, i.e. copying.

La reproduction interdite proffers a world in which we can only view the reality that we already see. The painting seems to be saying that an individual’s own vision is the reality that matters.  As Jung once pointed out, “it all depends on how we look at things, and not how they are in themselves.”

Hidden Identity—Parts I, II, III

Wider Connections

André Breton—Manifestoes of Surrealism
The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe
Robert Hughes—“The Poker-Faced Enchanter“(Time Magazine)
Magritte Museum; Magritte in public collections
Magritte—Edward James in Front of On the Threshhold of Liberty (photograph)
Tate—Portraiture & Identity
Contemporary Backs—Phyllis Palmer
Fabricator of Useless Articles’—Back Portraits 1990s

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