On the afternoon of February 20, 1943, a volcano suddenly appeared in a cornfield near the remote village of Parícutin, Mexico. The field’s owner—a farmer named Dionisio Pulido—later recalled how a crack in the earth widened and swelled, belching sulfurous fumes as the newborn cone thrust skyward. Over the next several months, the volcano continued to grow. Dunes of ash drifted across the land. That June, Parícutin finally erupted in earnest. Two towns were evacuated and then devoured by molten rock. In one of them, San Juan Parangaricutiro, only the church’s bell tower remained standing amid the black lava field.
Parícutin became a sensation, particularly among scientists, but also among Mexico’s artists. Many of the country’s Surrealists made pilgrimages to the site. One of those reportedly enchanted by the scene was Remedios Varo, the Spanish painter who’d emigrated to Mexico in 1941. In The Flutist (1955), Varo includes, in the background, a craggy volcano partly obscured by a tumult of clouds rendered in murky jewel tones—sapphire, jade, topaz. Her roiling sky looks almost oxidized, the effect of decalcomania, a popular Surrealist technique in which material is pressed against wet paint and then quickly pulled away to leave behind a chance texture. The volcano is but one small feature in this richly imagined canvas, but it evokes the mix of nature, science, and something like the magic of the unknown that suffuses all of Varo’s work.
In “Science Fictions,” the Art Institute of Chicago presents more than 60 of Varo’s paintings and drawings, all made between 1955 and 1963, the year she died of a heart attack at 54. Long revered in Latin America, Varo has entered the canon more slowly in the United States. This is her first exhibition here in more than two decades. Like other female Surrealists, especially her friend and fellow émigré Leonora Carrington, who shares a similar animism and mystical iconography, Varo’s achievements are still being measured. This show makes an irrefutable case for her technical mastery while also affirming her as a first-rate fabulist whose disparate influences—chivalric romance, medieval architecture, tarot, psychology, astronomy, and much more—cohere into a visionary whole.
The title of the exhibition alludes to Varo’s connoisseurship of science fiction, evinced by the volumes of Aldous Huxley and Ray Bradbury from her personal library that are on view. But the title also suggests the extent to which many of her paintings smudge the boundaries between science and the occult. In Creation of the Birds (1957), a humanoid owl paints a bird that takes flight off the page, perhaps animated by the starlight refracted through a prism in the owl’s hand. The paint is piped in via metal tubes connected to two nearby biomorphic green orbs, which are themselves fed by thin glass plumbing that zigzags through a portal in the wall. Sympathy (1955) depicts a similar transfer of life force. A figure who, like most of Varo’s characters, appears androgynous sits at a table and strokes an orange cat that’s seemingly in motion, simultaneously hypnotized and convulsed by its owner’s attention. A geometry of finely incised electrical currents crisscrosses the air, emanating from the human’s fingertips and flaming head. Both paintings conjure a moment of alchemy in which people call on wild talents or esoteric knowledge to transform their world.
Varo was twice a refugee: first from the Spanish Civil War, then again from the Nazi terror in Europe. As if dramatizing this exile, many of her paintings feature subjects in medias res, riding bicycles, as in Toward the Tower (1960), or piloting phantasmagoric wheeled-winged-finned contraptions, as in Caravan (1955), Discovery (1956), or Starship (1960). Homo Rodans (1959), a sculpture made of fish and poultry bones, purports to be the skeleton of a creature that balanced on a wheel rather than legs. Other works, such as Vagabond (1957), are portraits of rustic dandies who could have just clattered out of some fairytale’s primeval forest. Varo heightens the otherworldliness by giving her vagabond a disproportionate body—his torso is too long, his arm is too low—and by ensconcing him in a sort of wheeled cocoon that doubles as an architectural overcoat and a jury-rigged safehold. He peers out from behind wooden doors that swing open like a cupboard.
As with many Surrealists, Varo’s images evade description. They seem merely whimsical when summarized, but her technical perfection edges them toward sublimity. In person, her paintings can appear textured, corroded, or exquisitely detailed—sometimes all at once. As an adherent of chance and mysticism, Varo experimented with unconventional methods. She scratched fine lines into her canvases with quartz crystals, and she used soufflage, the Surrealist trick of blowing wet paint to create random patterns.
Yet, her work is also highly controlled and rehearsed. She began with full-scale sketches on translucent paper, called cartoons, which she then transferred to hardboard by covering the back of the paper with graphite and retracing the image. The exhibition includes several of these preparatory drawings along with their finished versions, offering revelatory before-and-after access to Varo’s artistic practice. Like Parícutin, Varo’s bewitching visions seemed to erupt from deep down—a psychic outflow that remains a wonder.
But for all their enigmas, Varo’s paintings have an internal logic and narrative potency. Her storytelling prowess is most ambitiously realized in a suite of three canvases from 1960–61. In Toward the Tower, a brood of doppelgänger blondes in tunics bicycle behind a mother superior figure. The central blonde doesn’t have the chloroformed expression of her sisters, and her coif is unkempt, suggesting she’s not completely brainwashed like the others. In Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle (1961), thesame women occupy a partly open belfry, embroidering vast bolts of cloth that tumble forth from the tower and become the outlying landscape, pictured here in a skewed aerial view of spindly trees, Italianate towers, and seas that defy any horizon. In the last panel, The Escape (1961), our rogue blonde has fled and appears with another figure, perhaps a lover, cruising through a realm of brackish fog and jagged cliffs in a vehicle that resembles a bristly clamshell. The series, hung on the exhibition’s back wall, is a showstopping sequence, whether read as a feminist fantasy or a parable of artistic creation.