Art Institute of Chicago
July 29 – November 27, 2023
The exhibition Remedios Varo: Science Fiction, on display at the Art Institute of Chicago through November 27, 2023, features the magical work of the Spanish-born, Mexico City-based artist and is the first museum exhibition dedicated to her in the United States in more than twenty years. With this exhibition, the Art Institute builds on its institutional commitments to collect, exhibit and contribute to the study of Surrealist work. It also reaffirms the museum’s commitments to recent vital collaborations with Mexican art institutions such as the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City.
The American-Mexican curatorial collaboration of Caitlin Haskell and Tere Arcq has created an immense experience—perhaps even an occult subtle space that aims to alter our perceptions. The didactics of the exhibition are in both English and Spanish, with the titles of the works appearing first in Spanish and the English translation appearing in parentheses. The walls of the gallery are painted in violet, which according to Penguin Dictionary of Symbols is “the color of moderation, clarity of mind, conscious action, balance.” Violet lies against green, the color of the built interior gallery within the gallery that houses Varo’s drawings, crystals and notebooks. Green evokes associations with the magic associated with Emerald tablet, a hermetic text important to occultists such as Helena Blavatsky, George I. Gurdjieff, and P. D. Ouspensky—all of whom influenced Varro’s thought. The curators seem to have learned a lot from studying the artist’s works between 1955 and 1963, recognized in the stunning catalog designed by Lorraine Wilde with typography by Zuzana Liczko. They write: “We are still her readers, picking up messages delivered nearly seventy years ago, the signal now coming stronger and stronger.”
Varro’s messages take the form of dizzying imagery, often illuminating hidden things and fantasy worlds where girls seemingly trapped in a tower embroider their way to freedom, humans play cosmic music, and travelers engage in clever contraptions. Evoking individuals, often alone and intensely engaged in curious activities, Varro’s work invites and confounds close reading. Her precise brushstrokes create mesmerizing objects – glowing orbs, chairs set on tiny legs, glasses with moons floating in them. There are occult revelations and references to esoteric ideas, to tarot and alchemy. in Harmony (1956), a man works at a cloth-covered table, placing objects on a floating musical staff: crystals, a leaf, torn pieces of paper inscribed with mathematical notation, a flower, a mandrake, a pearl. More crystals glitter in the space as ethereal helpers appear from tears in the room’s bluish walls, and the floor tiles rise up, revealing flowers, roots, transparent fabric, a preview perhaps of the second verse of the mysterious Emerald tablet, usually translated “as above and below.” In another picture, mimicry (mimesis) (1960), a cat peeks out from under the floorboards.
In his second Surrealist Manifesto, André Breton calls for the total occultation of Surrealism. Contributing to this effort, surrealist Kurt Seligman published Mirror of Magic: A History of Magic in the Western World (1948) and stated that “the magical world is literally the artist’s.” By the mid-20th century, many Surrealists, including Varro and others living in exile in Mexico City, were already incorporating Hermetic texts, tarot, and otherworldly possibilities into their practices of automatism and objective contingency. One can see the “literal” reference to Seligman in Varro’s work, whether it is a spell she jots down in a notebook, the surface of a painting she scribbles with a crystal charged with the light of the full moon, or the way she meticulously applies decalcomania, a type of simple printmaking that reveals doubling patterns as in Star hunter (1956). Or brilliantly in Useless Science, or The Alchemist (1955), where as a magician Varro works with ordinary things from the artist’s world – wooden substrate, paint, solvents – channeling mysterious atmospheres literally created by her skillful transformations.
The exhibit includes a small Varo Tarot card painted on bone. A strange little figure holds green threads that emerge from a repeating infinity – or is it a plant or a snake? The figure’s head is shaped like a five-pointed star, a shape that reappears in The juggler [The Magician]) (1956). Referring to the Magician’s Major Arcana map, Varro depicts an itinerant artist whose face—encrusted with mother-of-pearl—glitters as he gazes out at the viewer. The curators describe this material found in molluscs as having the power to channel “creative energy into art”. The magician casts star objects in front of a group of twenty-one figures wearing a “collective cloak”. He is accompanied by familiars: a lion, a goat and an owl. On the floor at the mage’s feet, a small cloth holds an alchemical flask, some roots, and other herbal materials.
Another picture, Creating birds (Creation of the birds) (1957) also features an apparently powerful artist, magician, or alchemist. An extraordinary figure—both human and bird-like—sits at a workbench and paints with a brush that is connected to a small guitar-like instrument hanging around its neck. The figure clearly does more than represent the image of a bird, as the creature comes to life as the artist/scientist trains the light streaming through the window through a prism held in their left hand. The painting perfectly distills Varro’s commitment to the efficacy of art, a practice beyond mere representation that she believed could actually make things happen in the world.
This is where the magic works. Varo’s occult transmissions from this intense period of less than a decade have been powerfully amplified. This is a magnificent show, and the works on view – more than sixty paintings and drawings – cast a spell that is simultaneously a revelation of a whole world of chance-based surrealist techniques, a deep engagement with spiritual systems of thought, and a long-overdue acknowledgment of place of Varro as a major contributor to the Surrealist movement.