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Lot 27: Remedios Varo (1908-1963) , Planta Insumisa

Latin American Art

by Sotheby's

November 18, 2008

New York, NY, USA

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Description: oil on masonite signed lower right

Notes: Painted in 1961.
Remedios Varo's oneiric paintings represent an alchemic combination of varied sources ranging from philosophy, autobiography, engineering and architecture to occultism, psychology, spirituality and science. Collectively her oeuvre represents one of the most enigmatic and unique visions within the vanguard surrealist movement of the twentieth century. And, although her relationship with the French poet Benjamin Péret put Varo in direct contact with the members of the Parisian surrealist circle in the late 1930s and 1940s, it was not until the early 1950s that she devoted herself completely to painting. Indeed, it was not until Varo was living in Mexico as a member of the European ex-patriot community that she developed her mature style and produced a body of work that remains today as one of the most distinct contributions to the history and practice of surrealist art. Varo's paintings reveal intimate, fantastical scenes inhabited by otherworldly beings. As the daughter of a hydraulic engineer, Varo learned at an early age about perspective, mathematics and draftsmanship--all of which are masterfully on display in her paintings. Thus her miniature worlds are rendered with phenomenal precision which add to their overall illusory effects and seductive allure. Interestingly, despite Varo's early contact with the surrealists, it was not until she was obliged to uproot herself due to the circumstances of World War II, coupled with her position as an "outsider" within Mexico's cultural and intellectual vanguard, that she successfully liberated herself from the constraints of the tenets of surrealism. The latter enabled Varo to develop a unique voice still guided by the principles of the movement, but unencumbered by its limitations--particularly those circumscribed to women. One such example is Varo's frequent use of references in her paintings to domestic interiors (such as the boudoir or kitchen) or practices traditionally associated with "women's work" (such as weaving, knitting and embroidery) as a way of countering male dominant imagery and as art historian Janet A. Kaplan asserts, "thus transferring power across gender lines and conferring heroic authority on women."υ1 The latter is evident in the painting, Planta insumisa, in which the stems of the plants and the hair growing from the scientist's head are inexplicably sprouting facts and equations rendered in a detailed lettering akin to needle-point or embroidery. The prevalent use of decalcomania, the surrealist technique of blotting paint on the pictorial surface in order to obtain unexpected results, is another example of how Varo resorted to the accepted repertoire of "tricks" but often subverted its meaning by employing it at cross-purposes. In works like Planta insumisa, Varo uses decalcomania not as a technical strategy associated with the surrealist penchant for chance, but rather as an opening to a mysterious world ruled not by unpredictability, but by meticulously rendered imagery. Executed in 1961, Planta insumisa reveals Varo's life-long fascination with science and nature which she seemed to enjoy with an almost childlike sense of wonderment. And, perhaps it was her early exposure to science and to the importance of gathering quantifiable data that fueled her adventurous spirit and inquisitive nature--one for example that would famously prompt her to join an expedition to the Orinoco region in South America to study insects that she would later draw as part of a campaign in the region against malaria. But alas, Varo's insatiable appetite for systemized knowledge was equally tempered by her love of all things empirical, spiritual and supernatural. As is evident in this painting where Varo makes an ironic, yet sobering statement about the perils of scientific intervention on nature such as those hailed by genetic engineering and other advancements aimed to disrupt, control and or enhance natural phenomena. Varo's own description of the painting is full of humor and wit as she asserts her mistrust of science while reveling in the sheer beauty and mystery of nature: "This scientist is experimenting with different plants and vegetables. He is somewhat bewildered because there is an unruly plant. All the plants are growing shoots in the form of mathematical figures and formulas, except for one that insists on producing a flower. And the only mathematical branch it sprouted at the beginning, which drooped onto the table, is very withered and weak and, besides, is mistaken for it says 'two plus two is almost four.' Each hair on the scientist's head is a mathematical equation."υ2 Indeed the young botanist's latest experiment has no doubt con awry--his quantifiable world of facts and figures has been thrown into utter disarray by a most rebellious specimen threatening the very foundations of his theories. Here Varo depicts the pitfalls of a universe subjugated by control and overtaken by ultra rational and mathematical forces. And, while the immediate subject of her painting is science, it is indeed quite tempting to interpret the subject of the "unsubmissive plant" in the context of Varo's own stance against authority and power. As a woman, artist, exile, and foreigner, Varo often found herself at odds with authority and rather than submit to their whims she acted much like the unruly flower in her painting--challenging accepted norms and forging ahead with a highly independent and innovative vision. Perhaps it was this indomitable spirit that enabled her to witness first-hand some of the most extraordinary and horrific events of the twentieth-century, yet still emerge from that experience with a profound sense of optimism and self-empowerment--ready to conquer the challenges and opportunities of modernity.
1 Janet A. Kaplan, "Domestic Incantations: Subversion in the Kitchen" in Ricardo Ovalle, et al, Remedios Varo: Catalogue Raisonné, Second Edition (Mexico: Ediciones Era, 1998), p. 38. 2 See "Comments by Remedios Varo on Some of Her Paintings (Addressed to her Brother Dr. Rodrigo Varo)" in Remedios Varo: Catalogue Raisonné, p. 60.

Provenance: León and Ruth Davidoff, Mexico
Private Collection, New York

Dimensions: measurements 33 1/8 by 24 3/8 in. alternate measurements (84 by 62 cm)

Exhibited: Mexico City, Galería Juan Martín, Colectiva inaugural, June, 1961, n.n.
Mexico City, Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno, La obra de Remedios Varo, June, 1964, no. 27
Mexico City, Museo de Arte Moderno, Obra de Remedios Varo 1913-1963, October-November, 1971, no. 25, illustrated in color on the cover
Mexico City, Museo de Arte Moderno, Remedios Varo 1913-1963, August-November, 1983, no. 19
New York, The New York Academy of Sciences; Washington, D.C., National Academy of Sciences, Science in Surrealism: The Art of Remedios Varo, May-July, 1986, p. 2, illustrated
Washington D.C., National Museum of Women in the Arts; Chicago, Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, The Magic of Remedios Varo, February 10-August 20, 2000, p. 106, illustrated in color

Literature: "Dos nuevas galerías," Tiempo, August, 1961, illustrated
Manuel Machín Gurría, "Arte Joven, Apertura de una nueva galería plástica," Revista de América, June 17, 1961, discussed
Mireya Folch, "Homenaje a Remedios Varo," Kena, November 25, 1963, illustrated
Margarita Nelkin, "Remedios Varo," Excélsior: Diorama de la Cultura, August 9, 1964, illustrated
Mireya Cueto, "Remedios Varo," Revista de la Universidad de México, December, 1964, discussed
Pierre Gringoire, "Remedios Varo, alquimista," Lunes de Excélsior, August 31, 1964, illustrated
"Un triunfo póstumo: Varo sobrevive en sus telas," Visión, October 2, 1964, illustrated
Justino Fernández, Catálogos de las exposiciones de arte (suplementos de los Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas), Mexico City, 1965, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, discussed p. 103
Roger Caillois, "Inventario de un mundo," Remedios Varo, Mexico City, 1966, Ediciones Era, illustrated in color on the title page
Bambi, "Remedios Varo," Revista de Revistas, April 28, 1968, illustrated
Toby Joysmith, "The Uniqueness of Mexican Art: Image of Mexico II," Texas Quarterly, University of Texas, Winter, 1969, illustrated
Raúl Torres, "Remedios Varo: tejedora de milagros," Artenoticias, December, 1971, illustrated
Justino Fernández, Catálogos de las exposiciones de arte (suplementos de los Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas), Mexico City, 1972, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, discussed p. 122
Octavio Paz and Roger Caillois, Remedios Varo, Mexico City, 1972, Ediciones Era, p. 173, illustrated in color on the frontispiece
Gloria Orenstein, "Women of Surrealism," The Feminist Art Journal, New York, Spring, 1973, discussed
Gloria Orenstein, "Art History and the Case of the Women of Surrealism," The Journal of General Education, Pennsylvania State University, Spring, 1975, discussed
Gonzalo Celorio, El surrealismo y lo real-maravilloso americano, Mexico City, 1976, SepSetentas, discussed p. 80
Edouard Jaguer, Remedios Varo, Paris, 1980, Filipacchi, p. 46, illustrated in black and white
Janet Kaplan, "Remedios Varo: Voyages and Visions," Women's Art Journal, Konxville, Fall, 1980, discussed
Lea Vergine, L'altra metaÌ dell'avanguardia, 1910-1940 : pittrici e scultrici nei movimenti delle avanguardie storiche (exhibition catalogue), Gabriele Mazzotta, Milan, 1980, discussed p. 273
Alejandro Sorondo, "Espléndida la muestra de Remedios Varo, instalada por Andrea Córdoba," Excélsior, October 30, 1983, illustrated in color
Bertha Taracena, "Espacio y tiempo," Tiempo, September 19, 1983, discussed
Estela Lauter, Women as Mythmakers: Poetry and Visual Art by Twentieth-Century Women, Bloomington, 1984, Indiana University Press, discussed p. 95
Lourdes Andrade, "Remedios y la alquimia," México en el Arte, Fall, 1986, illustrated in color
Pamela Kessler, "Science and Surrealism in Art and Nature," The Washington Post, October 31, 1986, discussed
Paula S. Rackow, "Science and Surrealism," MD Magazine New Horizons for the Physician, New York, July, 1986, illustrated
Peter Engel, "Remedios Varo: Science in Art," Science in Surrealism: The Art of Remedios Varo (exhibition catalogue), New York, 1986, p. 3, illustrated
Peter Engel, "The Art of Remedios Varo: a Struggle between the Scientific and the Sacred," Techonology Review, Cambridge, Massachusetts, October, 1986, illustrated in color
Raquel Tibol, "Remedios Varo con los científicos en Nueva York y Washington," Proceso, May 19, 1986, discussed
Paula S. Rackow, "Ciencia y Surrealismo," MD Magazine New Horizons for the Physician, New York, June, 1987, illustrated
Fernando Martín, "A una artista desconocida," Remedios Varo (exhibition catalogue), Madrid, 1988, discussed pp. 26 and 30
Janet Kaplan, Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varo, New York, 1988, Abbeville Press, pp. 172-173, illustrated in color
Ligia Ochoa, "Carrington y Varo: dos vidas surrealistas paralelas," Contenido, March, 1988, illustrated
Beatriz Varo, Remedios Varo: en el centro del microcosmos, Madrid, 1990, Fondo de Cultura Económica, p. 140, illustrated
Lourdes Andrade, Remedios Varo y la alquimia (thesis), Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico, 1990, discussed pp. 8, 25, 50, 52 and 81
Brian Morris, "El surrealismo extragaláctico de la pintora Remedios Varo," Turia, October, 1992, discussed
Ricardo Ovalle and Walter Gruen, Remedios Varo, Catálogo Razonado/Catalogue Raisonné, First Edition, Mexico City, Ediciones Era, 1994, p. 199, no. 311, illustrated in color
Teresa del Conde, Remedios Varo 1908-1963, Mexico City, 1997, Museo de Arte Moderno, p. 76, no. 150, illustrated in color
Ricardo Ovalle and Walter Gruen, Remedios Varo, Catálogo Razonado/Catalogue Raisonné, Third Edition, Mexico City, Ediciones Era, 2002, p. 259, no. 311, illustrated in color
Ricardo Ovalle and Walter Gruen, Remedios Varo, Catálogo Razonado/Catalogue Raisonné, Fourth Edition, Mexico City, Ediciones Era, 2008, p. 258, no. 311, illustrated in color

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