Remedios Varo (1908-1963)
- Remedios Varo
- Au Bonheur des Dames (Au Bonheur des Citoyens)
- signed lower right
- 35 by 23 3/4 in.
- (88.8 by 60.3 cm)
- Painted in 1956.
Galerías Diana, Mexico (1956)
Galería Juan Martín, Mexico City (1962)
Ofelia Valdés, Havana
Private Collection, Canada
Sale: Sotheby's, New York, Latin American Art, May 20, 1986, lot 38, illustrated in color
Hanni Bruder Kafka, Mexico
Private Collection, Mexico
New York, National Academy of Design; Mexico City, Centro Cultural Arte Contemporáneo; Monterrey, Museo de Monterrey, Women in Mexico/La Mujer en México, September 27, 1990-Spring, 1991, p. 28, no. 30, illustrated in color
Mexico City, Museo de Arte Moderno, Remedios Varo 1908-1963, February 25-June 5, 1994, p. 53, no. 59, illustrated in color
Tokyo, Isetan Museum of Art; Nagoya, Denki Bunka Kaikan; Kamakura, The Museum of Modern Art, Remedios Varo, June 10-November 28, 1999, p. 59, no. 13, illustrated in color
Washington D.C., National Museum of Women in the Arts; Chicago, Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, The Magic of Remedios Varo, February 10-August 20, 2000, p. 59, illustrated in color
Octavio Paz and Roger Caillois, Remedios Varo, Mexico City, Ediciones Era, S.A., 1966, p. 77, illustrated
Octavio Paz and Roger Caillois, Remedios Varo, Second Edition, Mexico City, Ediciones Era, S.A., 1969, p. 77, illustrated
Edouard Jaguer, Remedios Varo, Paris, Editions Filipacchi, 1980, p. 20, illustrated
Janet Kaplan, Viajes Inesperados: el Arte y la Vida de Remedios Varo, Mexico City, Ediciones Era, S.A., 1988, p. 199, illustrated
Octavio Paz, Apariciones y Desapariciones de Remedios Varo, (exhibition catalogue) Barcelona, Ediciones Julio Soto, 1988, no. 31, illustrated in color
Beatriz Varo, Remedios Varo: En el centro del microcosmos, Madrid, Ediciones Sombras del Origen, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1990, p. 125, illustrated
Janet Kaplan, Remedios Varo, Viajes Inesperados, New York, Abbeville Press, 2000, p. 199, no. 183, illustrated in color
Luis Martín Lozano, The Magic of Remedios Varo (exhibition catalogue), National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C., 2000, p. 59, illustrated in color
Ricardo Ovalle and Walter Gruen, Remedios Varo: Catalogue Raisonné, Third Edition, Mexico City, Ediciones Era, S.A., 2002, p. 265, no. 148, illustrated in color
The painting Au Bonheur des Dames was more than likely featured in the artist's first solo exhibition in 1956 at Galeria Diana in Mexico City. Although Varo had been making art most of her life, it was not until the early 1950s that the personal circumstances of her life afforded her the opportunity to devote herself completely to the practice of artmaking, And, it was during this final decade of her life that she developed her mature style which merged aspects of surrealism, alchemy, autobiography, engineering, architecture, occultism, psychology, spirituality, and science to create a truly unique visual language that represents a distinct contribution to the history and lexicon of surrealist art.
In many ways Au Bonheur des Dames exemplifies many of Varo's thematic, intellectual, and formal concerns. The subject and title of the painting are based on the 19th century novel by the French writer, Émile Zola. Set in late-19th century Paris, it tells the story of Denise, a young woman who moves to Paris with her two brothers after their father dies. Life's circumstances thrust her into the realities of modern life and she is obliged to take a job at Bonheur des Dames, a fictitious department store largely based on Paris's then largest retailer, "Le Bon Marche." The novel intersects the worlds of commerce, capitalism, and the emerging metropolis to tell the story of shifting mores and values vis à vis gender roles and class relations.
Varo used Zola's novel as a point of departure to create a fantastical world of hybrid female creatures or homo rodans1—a term coined by the artist—who possess human characteristics along with inanimate or mechanized body parts, such as wheels in place of legs. These hybrid creatures glide about propelled by their own self-sufficient systems of locomotion stopping briefly only to shop at the stylish Bonheur des Dames to replenish old or worn body parts. The magical, yet somewhat disturbing scene recalls the surrealists' penchant for recreating aspects of the inner psyche or world of dreams. Likewise Varo employs a number of formal techniques associated with surrealism—decalcomania (blotting), frottage (rubbing), and grattage (scraping)—all of which further intensify the painting's overall otherworldly quality. Rendered in Varo's unmistakable style, her brushwork is masterfully on display here through her detailed precision and exquisite fine lines that guide the viewer's eyes from the orthogonal effects of the tiled courtyard floor to the vaulted entryways that suggest the inner recesses of the artist's mind, to the dramatic illumination that beckons us into the shops interior. The architectural elements in the painting are particularly interesting as they convey a sense of the theatrical, as well as an overall sense of enclosure and isolation reminiscent of the work of the Italian Giorgio de Chirico. It should be noted that like her contemporary and friend, Leonora Carrington, Varo collaborated on various costume and set designs throughout her career which no doubt informed the stage-like qualities of this work and others in her oeuvre.
Inspired partly, by the northern Renaissance painter Hieronymous Bosch's moralizing allegories inhabited by fantastical beings and creatures, Varo described the world she created in Au Bonheur des Dames as follows: "Creatures who have succumbed to the worst kind of mechanization, all their body parts are now little wheels, etc. In the store they sell all the parts one would want to purchase as replacements for used ones. These are creatures of our times, with no ideas of their own, machinelike and on the verge of becoming insects, especially ants."2 Varo's distrust of machines may be seen in the context of her own experience as an exile of war, fleeing Barcelona for Paris during the Spanish Civil War, and then again, forced to leave her newfound life in France at the onset of World War II to begin yet anew in Mexico.
However while Varo's painting may suggests a dystopian world view intended to comment on the perils of mechanization and the effects of fascist regimes on individual liberties, it is no less true as art historian Janet A. Kaplan points out, that Varo's position vis à vis these circumstances was never of helpless victim. But rather, both in her life and in her work she sought to use her position of marginality—as woman, artist, exile, and foreigner—as a strategy for resistance and self-empowerment.3 Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent then in works such as Au Bonheur des Dames in which woman are at the center of the action, no longer as mere muses of their male surrealists counterparts, but as active agents of their own destiny, much like Émile Zola's 19th-century heroine, Denise.
1 See Janet A. Kaplan, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys (New York, London, and Paris: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2000), p. 196.
2 Remedios Varo, "Comments by Remedios Varo on Some of Her Paintings (Addressed to her Brother Dr. Rodrigo Varo)" in Remedios Varo: Catalogue Raisonné (Mexico, D.F.: Ediciones Era, S.A., 2002, 3rd Edition), p. 113.
3 See Janet A. Kaplan, "Domestic Incantations: Subversion in the Kitchen" in Catalogue Raisonné, p. 34.