The remarkable creativity evidenced in the work of Remedios Varo stands as some of the most significant contributions to the story of Surrealism. The complex matrix of influences that serve as the foundational architecture and iconography for her paintings—from medieval history and Greek mythology to scientific reason and alchemy, nature, and pagan practices—is uniquely her own. While Varo’s reality is abundant with fantasia, she presents her fantastic pictorial universe within the sobering realities of her past. The outpouring of works she produced during the “last ten years of her life presents a coherent study of her preoccupations in those years: as an émigré uprooted and exiled from her homeland of Spain, she embarked on a pilgrimage, both psychological and spiritual, to establish deeper, more reliable roots and to seek control by creating a world of her own design.” (Janet A. Kaplan, Unexpected Journeys, The Art and Life of Remedios Varo,” New York, 1988, p. 147)
Executed in 1962, L’École buissonnière (hacienda novillos) is an essential example of Varo’s complex visual lexicon. Grounding the extraordinary into the ordinary, she invites viewers into a world within the context of daily experience, filling her paintings with self-referential characters who are abstracted, metaphoric, ironic. “Placed in a variety of situations—some related to her life experience, others purely invented—they become symbolic equivalents of the artist herself.” (ibid, p. 147) Varo had a strict and traditional Catholic upbringing, receiving her education in a convent school run by strict nuns in Madrid. Unsatisfied by this world of routine and religious convention, the young Varo sought out acts of rebellion, indulging her fascination with the occult by secretly writing to a Hindu yogi and collecting magic plants. Her interest in the fanciful was further spurred by trips to the Prado Museum with her father, where she would obsess over the entrancing painting of Hieronymous Bosch (see Fig. 1). At first awed by his macabre sense of humor, she later took careful note of the devices the Flemish master used to create a world so absurd yet to strangely plausible. (ibid, p. 193) Later on as a young, unmarried woman in 1920s Spain, she found herself restricted by the conservative social codes of Spanish society of the time. As a consequence, she turned her physical restlessness toward spiritual pursuits, studying mystic disciplines and reading metaphysical texts such as the writings of G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky and Helena Blavastky among others. Eventually, while a student at Madrid’s prestigious Academia de San Fernando, the wave of the Surrealist movement from France was beginning to seep into the intellectual and artistic rhythms of Spain. Varo was immediately allured by the Surrealist ethos of the omnipotence of the dream. Surrealism for her offered the ultimate physical escape, a bohemian lifestyle of adventure she longed for, eventually marrying the surrealist poet Benjamin Péret moving to Paris and then settleing in Mexico City.
L’École buissonnière (haciendo novillos) embodies Varo’s lifelong pursuit for freedom and ascension to a world of special, divine knowledge. Literally translating to “school in the bush”, and colloquially as “playing hooky”, Varo presents us with a youth who has snuck away to the forest in pursuit of accessing the secret connections between the human and otherworldly. Creating a scene of extraordinary subtlety, Varo utilizes elements of the natural world to harken cultural traditions of initiatory ceremonies to mark a child’s transition to adulthood. Specifically here she likely refers to those of the indigenous tribes of the Northwest Coast of British Columbia intensely studied by fellow Surrealist émigrés Wolfgang Paalen, Alice Rahon, and Kurt Seligmann, that begin with the separation of children from their families and enter the sacred forest where candidates are instructed in the secrets of their tribe. As is commonplace in her oeuvre, Varo sets this scene in a quiet, undisturbed place, in this instance a secluded enclave of the forest—a location often used in occult ceremonies, and here by Varo as an active protagonist for the ceremonial practice to come. The child encounters a looming monumental tower, where an owl, fox and raven await as otherworldly messengers and guides; composing a striking resemblance to Bosch’s The Tree has Ears and the Field has Eyes (executed circa 1500). (see Fig. 2) The quest of the child suddenly becomes a journey of mystical revelation and spiritual awe.
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