Remedios Varo's oneiric paintings represent an alchemic combination of varied sources ranging from philosophy, autobiography, engineering and architecture to occultism, psychology, spirituality and science. Collectively her oeuvre represents one of the most enigmatic and unique visions within the vanguard surrealist movement of the twentieth century. And, although her relationship with the French poet Benjamin Péret put Varo in direct contact with the members of the Parisian surrealist circle in the late 1930s and 1940s, it was not until the early 1950s that she devoted herself completely to painting. Indeed, it was not until Varo was living in Mexico as a member of the European ex-patriot community that she developed her mature style and produced a body of work that remains today as one of the most distinct contributions to the history and practice of surrealist art.
Varo's paintings reveal intimate, fantastical scenes inhabited by otherworldly beings. As the daughter of a hydraulic engineer, Varo learned at an early age about perspective, mathematics and draftsmanship—all of which are masterfully on display in her paintings. Thus her miniature worlds are rendered with phenomenal precision which add to their overall illusory effects and seductive allure. Interestingly, despite Varo's early contact with the surrealists, it was not until she was obliged to uproot herself due to the circumstances of World War II, coupled with her position as an "outsider" within Mexico's cultural and intellectual vanguard, that she successfully liberated herself from the constraints of the tenets of surrealism. The latter enabled Varo to develop a unique voice still guided by the principles of the movement, but unencumbered by its limitations—particularly those circumscribed to women. One such example is Varo's frequent use of references in her paintings to domestic interiors (such as the boudoir or kitchen) or practices traditionally associated with "women's work" (such as weaving, knitting and embroidery) as a way of countering male dominant imagery and as art historian Janet A. Kaplan asserts, "thus transferring power across gender lines and conferring heroic authority on women."1 The latter is evident in the painting, Planta insumisa, in which the stems of the plants and the hair growing from the scientist's head are inexplicably sprouting facts and equations rendered in a detailed lettering akin to needle-point or embroidery. The prevalent use of decalcomania, the surrealist technique of blotting paint on the pictorial surface in order to obtain unexpected results, is another example of how Varo resorted to the accepted repertoire of "tricks" but often subverted its meaning by employing it at cross-purposes. In works like Planta insumisa, Varo uses decalcomania not as a technical strategy associated with the surrealist penchant for chance, but rather as an opening to a mysterious world ruled not by unpredictability, but by meticulously rendered imagery.
Executed in 1961, Planta insumisa reveals Varo's life-long fascination with science and nature which she seemed to enjoy with an almost childlike sense of wonderment. And, perhaps it was her early exposure to science and to the importance of gathering quantifiable data that fueled her adventurous spirit and inquisitive nature—one for example that would famously prompt her to join an expedition to the Orinoco region in South America to study insects that she would later draw as part of a campaign in the region against malaria. But alas, Varo's insatiable appetite for systemized knowledge was equally tempered by her love of all things empirical, spiritual and supernatural. As is evident in this painting where Varo makes an ironic, yet sobering statement about the perils of scientific intervention on nature such as those hailed by genetic engineering and other advancements aimed to disrupt, control and or enhance natural phenomena. Varo's own description of the painting is full of humor and wit as she asserts her mistrust of science while reveling in the sheer beauty and mystery of nature: "This scientist is experimenting with different plants and vegetables. He is somewhat bewildered because there is an unruly plant. All the plants are growing shoots in the form of mathematical figures and formulas, except for one that insists on producing a flower. And the only mathematical branch it sprouted at the beginning, which drooped onto the table, is very withered and weak and, besides, is mistaken for it says 'two plus two is almost four.' Each hair on the scientist's head is a mathematical equation."2
Indeed the young botanist's latest experiment has no doubt con awry—his quantifiable world of facts and figures has been thrown into utter disarray by a most rebellious specimen threatening the very foundations of his theories. Here Varo depicts the pitfalls of a universe subjugated by control and overtaken by ultra rational and mathematical forces. And, while the immediate subject of her painting is science, it is indeed quite tempting to interpret the subject of the "unsubmissive plant" in the context of Varo's own stance against authority and power. As a woman, artist, exile, and foreigner, Varo often found herself at odds with authority and rather than submit to their whims she acted much like the unruly flower in her painting—challenging accepted norms and forging ahead with a highly independent and innovative vision. Perhaps it was this indomitable spirit that enabled her to witness first-hand some of the most extraordinary and horrific events of the twentieth-century, yet still emerge from that experience with a profound sense of optimism and self-empowerment—ready to conquer the challenges and opportunities of modernity.
1 Janet A. Kaplan, "Domestic Incantations: Subversion in the Kitchen" in Ricardo Ovalle, et al, Remedios Varo: Catalogue Raisonné, Second Edition (Mexico: Ediciones Era, 1998), p. 38.
2 See "Comments by Remedios Varo on Some of Her Paintings (Addressed to her Brother Dr. Rodrigo Varo)" in Remedios Varo: Catalogue Raisonné, p. 60.
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