Lot 14
  • 14

Adriana Varejão

400,000 - 600,000 GBP
488,750 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Adriana Varejão
  • Blue Sauna
  • oil on canvas


Lehmann Maupin, New York

Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2003


New York, Lehmann Maupin, Adriana Varejão, February - March 2003

Turin, Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Somos Libres II, May - September 2014, n.p., no. 10, illustrated in colour 

Catalogue Note

Painted in 2006, Blue Sauna is a strikingly distinguished example from Varejão’s most acclaimed series, Saunas and Baths. The series was inspired by a chance encounter with a photograph of a tiled interior in Macau that Varejão came across while flicking through a bookshop in Portugal. It was not just the formal qualities of the tiles that caught Varejão’s attention, but their significance in a global discourse on colonialism that stretches from Brazil to Portugal, and until then unbeknown to Varejão, China. For it was China and their trade with the Portuguese that inspired the famous azulejos tiles that have become Varejão’s most iconic artistic motif. It was these Macau tiles, in their banality and aesthetic formalism as opposed to the ornate decoration of the azulejos, which provided a counterpoint to her previous artistic excursions into a specifically Brazilian colonial history. Staring at the old photograph in the bookshop, Varejão realised she could widen the scope of her enquiry, though still rooted in her Brazilian experience, to explore similar cultural environments across the world. In response, the series has been culturally omnivorous, jumping across continents and cultures, from Brazilian abattoirs to segregated female-only hammams in Paris to public baths in Budapest.

Speaking on occasion of her acclaimed solo show at the Fondation Cartier in 2005, Varejão said “my painting in the Sauna series departs from the conceptual field of references to historical iconography and enters the field of the sensorial… They work on questions intrinsic to painting, such as colour, composition and perspective” (Adriana Varejão cited in: Hélène Kelmachter, ‘Echo Chamber’, in: Exh. Cat., Paris, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain (and travelling), Adriana Varejão: Chambre d’ échos, 2005, p. 89). By moving away from the explicitly coded colonial critiques of her earlier tiled works, in which tiles are literally slashed open to reveal the guts and gore of Brazil’s colonial past, Varejão allows her work to embrace more formal considerations while also evoking the violence of the Baroque period in a more subtle way. In creating a work with strong formal values, Varejão has dragged the domineering legacy of Latin American abstraction, the Concrete and Neo-Concrete movements, into the real world. She has plastered its legacy onto the walls of her saunas. The series is Varejão’s own figurative rebellion, aided by some well-known artistic conspirators. These works are essays in minimalism, explorations of colour that evoke the still life subtly of Morandi; the blues of Klein; Richter’s colour charts and the static electricity of Hockney’s pools.

Yet for all its referential depth, Blue Sauna is both nowhere and everywhere. A timeless space devoid of history and place, they are projected, virtual realties inspired by photographs yet drawn from Varejão’s imagination. It is here that Brazil’s colonial past, so overt in her earlier work, takes on a more subtle guise. Through the maze-like composition of openings leading to dead ends, a disquieting foreboding envelopes the viewer. In the knowledge of her gruesome earlier work, the formal minimalism in Saunas and Baths takes on an almost surgical cleanliness. In these all too serene spaces, it’s the absence of narrative that makes these works foreboding. As one enters the space inside the canvas, the viewer is subjected to a multisensory experience made rich with contrasts. One is struck by the coolness of the blue and yet reminded of a sauna’s overbearing heat. A pictorial homage to John Cage’s 4’ 33”, the silence is deafening. This continual push and pull, from quiet to loud, hot to cold, only enhances the viewer’s unease.

Saunas, in Varejão’s opinion, are perfectly democratic spaces. Naked, they strip us of our clothing and jewellery and by doing so rob us of our class, status and identity. They expose us. It is this reckoning with ourselves that makes the Saunas and Baths series so powerful. As the art critic Phillippe Sollers writes, “here in the sauna all illusions vanish, everything evaporates” (Phillippe Sollers, ‘Vertigo by Adriana Varejão’, in: ibid, p. 13). While these interiors strip us down to our basic humanity, Varejão wryly picks up on the sauna as a motif for the Brazilian appropriation of European culture in the Baroque period. Founded in Scandinavia, saunas were a specifically European phenomenon that evolved from the great hot bath tradition that stretches from the bathhouses of Vienna back to Rome and Athens. It is with this history that Varejão’s weaves her colonial framework into the grids of the sauna’s tiles. For all their quiet formalism, it is Varejão’s fascination with anthropophagy – the capacity to incorporate foreign ideas and transform them into your own – that roars. As Paulo Herkenhoff writes Adriana Varejão understands ‘that the purpose of artistic practice is not to tell histories, but to create mechanisms that enable history to be told’ (Paulo Herkenhoff, ‘Saunas’, in: ibid, p. 24).