MARCH 26 – MAY 27, 2022
HELEN EVANS RAMSARAN
MARCH 26 – MAY 27, 2022
HELEN EVANS RAMSARAN
McClain Gallery presents Cosmic Eye of the Little Bird: a group exhibition of sculpture and works on paper that set up a call and response with a selection of Dorothy Hood's ink drawings from the second half of the twentieth century. The exhibition includes artists who inspired her, like Max Ernst and Odilon Redon, and her contemporaries Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Louise Bourgeois, and Dorothea Tanning. It also looks at the resonance of Hood’s expressive artistic impulse with a younger generation of sculptors from Alma Allen, Ficus Interfaith, and Katarzyna Przezwańska to Helen Evans Ramsaran.
Hood's formative years as an artist, following graduation from Rhode Island School of Design and a brief time in New York City, were spent in Mexico City. From 1940 to the early 1960s, she would absorb the influence of the culture and spirit of Mexico and its people and participate in the dynamic intellectual and artistic community. In 1943, Hood’s first solo exhibition took place at Galería de Arte María Asúnsolo (GAMA) in Mexico City. Drawings created during Hood’s early period in Mexico evoke empathy, loneliness, and the atrocities of World War II. A figurative work in ink and pencil, The Seeming Beginning, 1943, is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
In 1961, Dorothy Hood moved to Houston and began teaching at the School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Hood continued drawing and painting in her large, light-filled studio garnering national attention and resulting in solo exhibitions in Texas and New York, with placements in the permanent collections of numerous American museums. In 1974, James Harithas curated a solo exhibition of Hood's drawings at the Everson Museum, Syracuse, NY, and noted her drawings "reflect the profound intimacy of the artist's spiritual, emotional growth… and contain organic symbols and a multi-dimensional spatial framework which functions psychically and plastically as the unifying entity.” Through line and gesture, Hood was constantly interested in "probing outer space in search of realities of being." For Hood, the drawings seem to operate to unite inner and outer worlds.
In Cosmic Eye of the Little Bird, Hood’s drawings often materialize as a visual manifestation of her subconscious. They are full of curiosity and humor, explorations of intimacy and power, symbols of regeneration and growth, and the surprise appearances of a menagerie of animals, insects, devils, and lithe, skeletal figures. There is a mysterious narrative and psychological intensity that sets these finely lined ink drawings apart from her practice of painting and collages. Hood often expressed her admiration for Max Ernst, and she pays homage to his process-based exploration of textures through her collages and use of decalcomania in her paintings. In her drawings, Hood's sinewy, fibrous, and intricate line work recalls the repetition of vegetation or natural wood grain, as seen in Ernst’s frottaged Forêt series. Hood’s forms meander from plant-like structures into organic abstractions and feel quite sculptural: Detectives’ undulating and muscular waves resolve into a series of directional arrows pointing us beyond the paper’s edge.
Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo, contemporaries of Dorothy Hood, were immersed in the Surrealist movement that had a stronghold in Mexico City where they lived and worked starting in the 1940s. Carrington, who was born in the UK, and Varo, from Spain, arrived in Mexico by way of Paris during World War II to escape Nazi-occupied France, and became very close friends. They were both intrigued by astrology and alchemy, and they met almost daily to discuss their work. Hood knew Remedios Varo, who visited her studio on a few occasions. The drawings of all three of these artists are charged with magic as they depict mystical human-animal hybrids. Remedios Varo’s pencil drawing of an owl-woman with a heart-shaped face in flight illustrates the unique symbolism that Surrealist artists often created for themselves, much like Max Ernst’s iconic “Birdman.”
Louise Bourgeois’ small porcelain sculpture Fallen Woman evokes feelings of helplessness, obligation, or failure. A woman's head is attached to a club-shaped handle without arms or legs, her bodily agency reduced. While the shape refers to a weapon, it also suggests immobility and isolation. Dorothea Tanning’s drawing Double or Nothing from 1988 was first exhibited at Runkel-Hue-Williams LTD in London with a grouping of soft sculptures bursting at their seams with stuffing. The sculptures and works on paper in Tanning’s 1989 exhibition address the theme of "birth versus infertility" and are a nod to Marcel Duchamp's Étant donnés, the female body laid bare. Hood’s Untitled drawing, seen in our exhibition between Bourgeois and Tanning’s powerful works, contends with similar issues: gender roles, sexual exploration, and the figure as a site of artistic practice.
A large-scale pleated bronze by Alma Allen rises totem-like into the space. Allen’s work is defined by an ineffable spirit that is at once organic and surreal. Like Hood, he has conjured the imaginable into being and, in doing so, invites us to navigate a mindscape around this now materialized object. Ficus Interfaith presents two terrazzo sculptures; the first, Firmament, functions as a window frame to operate “as a metaphor for other worlds, portals with the potential to activate your imagination.” This construct, and allusions to alternate spaces, are omnipresent in Hood’s work. Winged Genie with Sacred Tree depicts a pair of hands supporting and caressing a fruit-bearing plant. Mythological references abound in these works and express celestial concerns through earthen materiality.
Katarzyna Przezwańska’s practice employs nature and architecture as essential themes. In her exuberant sculptures, rocks, minerals, plants, and seed pods are brought to life as they are reconfigured to evoke animation, a face, a mood. Helen Evans Ramsaran revisits the period of her childhood in her chimeric sculpture series Visual Tales when “reality and dreams fuse, and one is often mistaken for the other.” She invented a realm of her own making, creating people and animals that conformed to her imagination. Her work evokes the cultural cadences, aesthetics, and spirituality of other societies and times, revealing inspirational springboards that stem especially from Mexico, China, and Japan.
Dorothy Hood's pen and ink drawings distillate her fertile imagination, the natural world, artistic influences, and affinity with myths and the fantastical. At the interstices of the conscious and subconscious, the formal qualities of the works reveal her creative spirit and the rigor with which she approached her entire practice.
WORKS IN EXHIBITION
ALMA ALLEN (b. 1970, Heber City, UT, US) Psychologically charged and compulsively expressive, Alma Allen’s works evoke a curiosity regarding the life of objects and how form and material can circumnavigate the utility of language. Known for his diverse organic references, the artist’s works simultaneously invite and resist classification.
Often realized in stone, wood, or bronze—materials hand-selected from quarries or foraged from landscapes in the area surrounding his studio—the works emit a mysterious and ineffable life force. These abstracted, biomorphic shapes feel talismanic not only in their atmospheric qualities but also in their playfulness: bronze sculptures appear impossibly malleable, even liquid; wood and stone grain patterns are accented to highlight their material history. Whichever medium Allen chooses, the works’ final forms and their particular outcrops and eccentricities seem like the artist has conjured them during their making, born of a wordless conversation between sculptor and object.
The artist’s hybrid process encompasses preindustrial methods of hand-shaping and carving alongside advanced 21st-century technology. After repeatedly reworking finger-scale clay maquettes, Allen will employ, as needed, a self-built robotic device for translation into large-scale works, finished with an impeccable softness that belies their weight and density. A bronze foundry, constructed in the artist’s studio in Tepoztlán, Mexico, enables Allen to complete works onsite. This instinctive shaping of material draws upon both the process-based conceits of Surrealist automatism and the formal inventiveness of Constantin Brancusi and Samuel Beckett.
Alma Allen participated in the 2014 Whitney Biennial where he gained recognition and a wider discovery of his work. Recent group exhibitions include the de Saisset Museum, Santa Clara, CA and Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT. In Conversation: Alma Allen & J.B. Blunk, a two-person exhibition that began at the Palm Springs Art Museum, Palm Springs, CA (February 2018) and traveled to the Nevada Museum of Art in Spring 2019. His most recent solo exhibitions include Mendes Wood DM & Van Buuren Museum & Gardens, Brussels (2021); Kasmin Gallery, New York (2020); Blum & Poe, Los Angeles (2019); and Shane Campbell Gallery, Chicago (2016). DOWNLOAD CV
LOUISE BOURGEOIS (b. 1911, Paris, France; d, 2010, New York, NY, US) was a French-American artist. Although she is best known for her large-scale sculpture and installation art, Bourgeois was also a prolific painter and printmaker. She often spoke of her early, emotionally conflicted family life, her practical and affectionate mother, and her father’s overbearing disposition and marital infidelities. Although Bourgeois exhibited with the Abstract Expressionists and her work has much in common with Surrealism and Feminist art, she was not formally affiliated with a particular artistic movement.
For Bourgeois, the image of the fallen woman had associations with helplessness or failure. The idea first emerged in a painting she made in the 1940s. Returning to the subject in the early 1980s, Bourgeois produced Fallen Woman, a small sculpture in carved marble, and later cast it in bronze. Without arms or legs, the woman’s body has been turned into a club handle. This image appears threatening but may also suggest immobility and isolation. The ‘fallen woman’ in nineteenth-century Victorian culture was a marginalised figure, the victim of hypocritical moral society, used and abandoned to her fate.
Louise Bourgeois: Retrospective opened at the Museum of Modern Art in 1982. Curated by Deborah Wye, it was MoMA’s first retrospective devoted to a female artist. In 1989, the first European retrospective of Bourgeois’s work opened at the Frankfurter Kunstverein, organized by Peter Weiermair. In 1991, she showed the first of a new series of work, the Cells, at Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. A year later, she took part in Documenta IX, and in 1993, she represented the United States Pavilion for the 45th Venice Biennale.
Bourgeois was named Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French minister of culture in 1983. Other honors included the Grand Prix National de Sculpture from the French government in 1991; the National Medal of Arts, presented by President Bill Clinton in 1997; the first lifetime achievement award from the International Sculpture Center in Washington D.C.; and election as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2008, the French Legion of Honor medal was presented to Bourgeois by President Nicolas Sarkozy in the artist’s Chelsea home.
LEONORA CARRINGTON (b. 1917, Clayton-le-Woods, Lancashire, United Kingdom; d, 2011, Mexico City, Mexico) experienced a life of privilege in her early years, yet her freedom was restricted by the conventions of traditional gender roles. However, her childhood was imbued with magical stories from Celtic mythology and folklore, told by her Irish mother, grandmother, and nanny. In these fantastic tales of humans, animals, and natural living harmoniously together as joined forces against threats of injustice and violence, she found ideas that would profoundly influence the rest of her life. Leonora Carrington was first introduced to Surrealism by her mother, who gave her Herbert Read’s book Surrealism for Christmas in 1937, a publication which included a Max Ernst painting that Carrington was immediately drawn to as if she had seen it before.
Carrington met Max Ernst in London in 1937, and moved to Paris with him in 1938. There, in the company of the Surrealists, she developed a singular visual vocabulary that comprised fantastic human-animal hybrids cavorting in mysterious dreamscapes. These imagined worlds created intimate settings that become a locus of mysticism and alchemy through her many fantastical creatures and figures.
When Ernst was interned as an enemy alien in a Nazi prison camp, Carrington left France for Spain, eventually ending up in Mexico City. Carrington connected with a vibrant and creative group of European artists who had also fled to Mexico City searching for asylum. She forged a close friendship and working relationship with Spanish artist Remedios Varo, a Surrealist who had also been an acquaintance of Carrington’s in Paris before the war.
Her art was well-received in Mexico, and in 1963 Leonora Carrington received a government commission to create a mural for the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, which she titled El Mundo Mágico de los Mayas (The Magical World of the Maya). In the 1960s and 1970s, Carrington became a political activist, hosting student meetings at her home and co-founding the Mexican women’s liberation movement in 1972.
MAX ERNST (b. 1891, Brühl, Germany; d, 1976, Paris, France) is most closely associated with Surrealism, an artistic and literary movement in Paris in the 1920s that prized the irrational and the unconscious over order and reason. A key contribution to this movement was his invention of frottage, a technique of placing paper over a textured material, such as wood grain or metal mesh, and rubbing it with a pencil or crayon to achieve various effects. The Surrealists prized this practice for both the serendipity of the resulting imagery and the passivity it encouraged, bypassing the constraints of the artist’s rational mind.
Frottage is perhaps the discovery that he is most famous for, but Decalcomania was also significant and widely adopted by others later on. The process involved the transfer of paint between surfaces. These methods also brought about an element of randomness to some of his work and he enjoyed working in a less rigid, formulated way.
Interested in locating the origin of his own creativity, Ernst attempted to freely paint from his inner psyche in an attempt to reach a pre-verbal state of being. Doing so unleashed his primal emotions and revealed his personal traumas, which then became the subject of his collages and paintings, implementing vegetal forms and animal hybrids as common motifs.
Ernst rationalised his fixation with birds by recounting a strange experience he had had as a teenager: in 1906 the artist’s pet parrot died the same night his sister was born. The incident developed, he said, ‘a dangerous confusion between birds and humans that became encrusted in my mind’. This obsession materialised into an alter-ego called Loplop, which took the form of a demonic man-bird in his paintings. As he wrote in 1930, ‘I was visited nearly every day by the Bird Superior named Loplop, an extraordinary phantom of model fidelity who attached himself to my person. He presented me with a heart in a cage, two petals, three leaves, a flower and a girl.’
FICUS INTERFAITH is a collaboration between Ryan Bush (b. 1990, CO, US) and Raphael Martinez Cohen (b. 1989, New York, NY, US). As much a research initiative as a sculptural practice, Ficus Interfaith pursues projects that focus on their personal and collective interactions with the “natural” by relearning production methods that investigate ingenuity and novelty as it emerges from craft. The artists began their collaboration under that moniker in 2014 for a group show with friends. In their own words, “Ficus Interfaith is like a ship we use to explore different crafts, methods and materials. We are still two individual artists and our interests and tastes can be oppositional at times, but part of the benefit of the collaboration is finding ways to communicate together.”
Ficus Interfaith began working with terrazzo as a medium while researching Roman mosaics. Unlike mosaics, terrazzo is a subtractive process. Everything is mixed into a big slurry, left to cure in place, and ground down so that the finished product is a cross-section of a concrete/aggregate matrix. They learned the process of terrazzo through the internet and by trial and error. Their current method involves combining dyed cement with various aggregates (marble, granite, glass, etc). They work through a “paint by number” approach, often using metal strips to create shapes, which they cut, bent, and solder to a background before they pour the aggregate. Finally, they grind, polish, and seal the surface. It is a laborious and rewarding process that allowsfor a combination of many of the things the individual artists are interested in: craft, history, permanence, natural resources etc.
Their work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at Deli Gallery, New York; In Lieu, Los Angeles, CA; Incident Report, Hudson, NY; Jack Chiles, New York, NY; Interstate Projects, Brooklyn, NY; Prairie, Chicago, IL; among others including Noplace at P.P.O.W. Gallery in New York, NY and In Practice: Total Disbelief at SculptureCenter, Queens, NY. In 2018, they were artists in residence at 2727 California Street, Berkeley, CA, and Shandaken: Storm King, NY. DOWNLOAD CV
DOROTHY HOOD (b. 1918, Bryan, Texas, US; d. 2000, Houston, Texas, US) established herself as a pioneer of modernism from 1937, first as a scholarship student at the Rhode Island School of Design and briefly at the Art Students League in New York City, before settling in Mexico City in the 1940s. There, she would spend two decades embedded in the rich cultural fabric of a city amid post-war and post-revolutionary bohemia. She befriended leading artists and intellectuals including Pablo Neruda, José Clemente Orozco, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Mathias Goeritz, Diego Rivera, and Rufino Tamayo.
Hood’s works on paper recall a profound mindscape that echoes her early Surrealist influences from her time spent in Mexico in the 1940s-1960s. In 1962 Hood returned to Houston and had solo exhibitions at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston; Witte Museum, San Antonio; Rice University, Houston; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York; and her work is in the permanent collections of numerous American museums. During her lifetime, Hood’s work, from her formally rigorous yet metaphysical and intimate abstract paintings to ink drawings on paper and collages, garnered an impressive exhibition history and support from influential critics, curators, and collectors, including Philippe de Montebello, Dorothy Miller, Clement Greenberg, and Barbara Rose, among others.
In 2016, the Art Museum of South Texas (AMST), Corpus Christi, organized a major retrospective of Dorothy Hood’s works and published a monograph about her life and career which culminated in the exhibition and book entitled The Color of Being/El Color del Ser: DOROTHY HOOD (1918-2000). In the fall of 2018, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston presented an exhibition entitled Kindred Spirits, Louise Nevelson & Dorothy Hood, mounting an unprecedented visual dialogue between the works of both artists. In 2019, McClain Gallery began representing the estate of the artist, held by the Art Museum of South Texas, and mounted a solo exhibition, Dorothy Hood: Illuminated Earth, and, in 2020, Dorothy Hood: Collage. Examples of her drawings are in the permanent collections of the Art Museum of South Texas, Corpus Christi, TX; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, NY; Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA; Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI; Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA; Whitney Museum of Art, New York, NY; McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, TX. DOWNLOAD CV
KATARZYNA PRZEZWAŃSKA (b. 1984, Warsaw, Poland) studied Painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw (2003–2009). In her artistic practice, she often refers to nature and architecture. She combines both of these fields to improve the quality of human life, constantly trying to make art useful. She is inspired by both vernacular architecture and the 20th-century classics as well as geological phenomena and vegetative processes. Przezwańska is the author of architectural interventions, installations, and paintings, where she often uses natural materials: rocks, minerals, and plants.
Przezwańska’s objects, films, photographs, and images constitute a container of forms, not only inspired by the organic world but striving to become a new, equal counterpart. Her artworks take the form of hybrid and modified known shapes – figures, faces, shells – processed into new arrangements. The sculptures simultaneously undermine the definition of nature by manipulating organic materials and the penetration of that which exists and that which is yet to be concocted and implemented.
Katarzyna Przezwańska has exhibited work at Galeria Dawid Radziszewski, Poland; Museum of Modern Art, Poland; and Abteiberg Museum, Germany, among others. Her work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, Poland; Zachęta – National Art Gallery, Warsaw, Poland; Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Poland; The ING Polish Art Foundation Collection, Warsaw, Poland; Bank Pekao S.A. collection, Warsaw, Poland; and the European Central Bank Collection, Frankfurt, Germany. DOWNLOAD CV
HELEN EVANS RAMSARAN (b. 1943, Bryan, Texas, US) has studied and lived throughout Africa, Europe, and Asia. Her practice has been an exploration into issues concerning traditional African architecture and sculptural traditions; spirituality, communal living, extended family, community, rites of passage, and, more recently, global warming. Inspiration for her bronze sculpture and works in encaustic on paper evolved out of trips to Africa where she was fascinated by the animals and the various styles of the indigenous, domestic architecture of Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Benin. On her solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the art critic, writer, and curator Okwui Enwezor explained, “Ramsaran’s work is a scrupulous distillation of her experiences while living and traveling through Africa (Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Egypt) in the early eighties. In her sculpture’s spindly, attenuated forms, the body’s essence fills the exhibition space with an explosive, troubling aura.”
In the 1980s, Ramsaran’s work took a significant shift and developed into exploring ancient rituals, ancient African oral traditions, myths, mysterious fossilized remains, supernatural power, and African-inspired architecture. Although her sculpture during this period and beyond is inanimate, there is a lurking sense of humanity’s presence. The subtle carvings on many of Ramsaran’s bronze sculptures are meant to represent African scarification and elements in nature, such as lighting and rain that mark the change in planting seasons and that speaks of a lost reverence for nature and its life-sustaining power.
Helen Evans Ramsaran’s work has been featured in many landmark exhibitions, such as: The Wild Art Show (1982, MOMA PS 1); Progressions: A Cultural Legacy (1986, MOMA PS1); Slave Routes: The Long Memory (1999, Kenkeleba Gallery, New York); Selections (2000, Skoto Gallery, New York); Assembly /Line: Works by Twentieth Century Sculptors (2002, Mead Art Museum, Massachusetts); Something to Look Forward To (2006, California African American Museum, California); 50 Years/ 50 Gifts (2013, Sheldon Museum of Art, Nebraska); Back to the Future:Contemporary American Art from the Collection (2007, Mead Museum of Art, Massachusetts); Essentia (2016, Taller Boricua, New York); Art of Herstory (2016, Welancora Gallery, New York). DOWNLOAD CV
ODILON REDON (b 1840, Bordeaux, France; d. 1916, Paris, France) was a French symbolist painter, printmaker, draughtsman, and pastellist.
Early in his career, both before and after fighting in the Franco-Prussian War, he worked almost exclusively in charcoal and lithography, on works referred to as noirs. He started gaining recognition after his drawings were mentioned in the 1884 novel À rebours (Against Nature) by Joris-Karl Huysmans. During the 1890s, he began working in pastel and oils, which quickly became his favorite medium, abandoning his previous style of noirs entirely after 1900. He also developed a keen interest in Hindu and Buddhist religion and culture, which increasingly showed up in his work.
He is perhaps best known today for the “dreamlike” paintings created in the first decade of the 20th century, which were heavily inspired by Japanese art and, while continuing to take inspiration from nature, heavily flirted with abstraction. His work is considered a precursor to both Dadaism and Surrealism.
Redon’s fame grew toward the end of his life; in 1903, the French government bestowed upon him the Legion of Honor. In 1913, the publisher Andre Mellerio issued a catalogue raisonné of his prints; that same year, he was included in the famous Armory Show in New York, exhibiting more works than any other artist in the exhibition. Redon died in 1916, his death perhaps hastened by his anxiety and dread over his son, who was serving as a soldier on the front lines in World War I.
Redon’s far-reaching influence falls into two categories corresponding to the two main threads in his oeuvre: his extraordinarily vivid and colorful late paintings and pastels, and his earlier noirs. For the Nabis, Redon’s free and expressive use of color would have the most impact. Maurice Denis credited Redon with advancing the spiritual evolution of his art, while Pierre Bonnard said of Redon, “All of our generation fell under his charm and received his advice.” Later, Henri Matisse acknowledged the influence of Redon’s pastels on his colorful Fauvist palette.
DOROTHEA TANNING (b. 1910, Galesburg, Illinois, US; d. 2012, Manhattan, NY, US) lived in Paris for the bulk of her early years, having returned to New York upon her marriage to fellow Surrealist artist, Max Ernst, in 1946. Throughout the mid-1940s and 1950s, Tanning belonged to a tight-knit group of Surrealists which included Man Ray and his wife, Juliette Browner; they, along with Ernst, were incredibly influential in Tanning’s œuvre during this time.
Her earliest works echoed a style that closely resembled German Expressionism which eventually transformed into a symbolic, ethereal, and feminist Surrealism. Fraught with sharp lines, dramatic coloration, and high-density lighting, Tanning developed her style in such a way that allowed her own energy and enthusiasm to radiate throughout her work. Most of her pieces are filled with suspended movement – whether it be a flapping wing from an eagle, a woman’s hair blowing in the wind, or some rustling tree branches. She was able to translate her original point of view into that of the classic Surrealist style that introduced bold, rich color into her canvases, a lighter, more airy sensibility, and an inherent femininity.
The post-war era began to affect Tanning’s work significantly, especially during 1955 when her work radically shifted to reflect a more shattered and splintered take on multidimensional facets of consciousness, reality, and the mind. Aspects of sleep also interested her as well as the nuclear era / space-race that inundated pop culture during the ‘50s and ‘60s.
She was involved in a glittering retrospective of her work at the Centre George Pompidou in Paris in 1974 and took part in an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2000. Before her death, Tanning forayed into writing and publishing. She released a novel titled, Chasm, in 2004. Dorothea Tanning died at her home in New York City on January 31, 2012. She was 101 years old, and had just published her second collection of poems, Coming to That (Graywolf Press, 2011).
REMEDIOS VARO (b. 1908, Girona, Spain; d, 1963, Mexico City, Mexico) was raised by a Catholic mother and an agnostic engineer father. These two forces—the spiritual and scientific—greatly influenced Varo’s artistic career. Considered a Spanish-Mexican artist who played an integral role in the Mexico City-based Surrealist movement, Varo is known for her enigmatic paintings of androgynous beings engaged in alchemy or the occult. After graduating from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando in Madrid, Varo moved to Barcelona in the mid-1930s and joined the Surrealist avant-garde art group Logicophobista. After the Spanish Civil War outbreak in 1936, she fled for Paris with Surrealist poet Benjamin Péret. Although Varo was involved with Surrealism in Paris, her works were only exhibited with the group occasionally. During the Second World War, Varo fled Nazi-occupied France for Mexico. She connected with other exiled artists such as Wolfgang Paalen, Gordon Onslow Ford, and Leonora Carrington, who became Varo’s closest friend.
Varo’s first works from this period reflect the trauma of war and displacement, but by 1947, when she decided to stay in Mexico, her practice flourished. During this time, her drawings and paintings explore otherworldly narrative scenes characterized by a protagonist (often female) encountering supernatural forces. She alchemically combined traditional techniques, Surrealist methods, and mystical philosophic inquiry into visionary dreamscapes.
By the time of Varo’s death in 1963, the artist had created over 500 works, most produced in Mexico. Like a magician, Varo aspired to reveal hidden metaphysical wonders through close observation and meticulous technique. As poet Octavio Paz wrote, “as if she painted with her eyes rather than with her hands, Remedios sweeps the canvas clean and heaps up clarities on its transparent surface.”