The Artwork of Michael Divine

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Notes on an Exhibition: Female Surrealists and Remedios Varo

June 24th, 2012

– “The Flutist” by Remedios Varo

On Tuesday, March 27, 2012, Jimmy, Violet, and I went to LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) to see the current exhibition “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States”. What a lovely long title! For a brief intro, here is the blurb from the LACMA website:

North America represented a place free from European traditions for women Surrealists from the United States and Mexico, and European émigrés. While their male counterparts usually cast women as objects for their delectation, female Surrealists delved into their own subconscious and dreams, creating extraordinary visual images. Their art was primarily about identity: portraits, double portraits, self-referential images, and masquerades that demonstrate their trials and pleasures. The exhibition includes works in a variety of media dating from 1931 to 1968, and some later examples that demonstrate Surrealism’s influence on the feminist movement. Iconic figures such as Louise Bourgeois, Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, Lee Miller, Kay Sage, Dorothea Tanning, and Remedios Varo are represented, along with lesser known or newly discovered practitioners.

In any case, often Frida Kahlo usually gets all of the attention. Banners hanging along Wilshire and elsewhere use images of her art to represent the show. But of her popularity and notoriety is due to her marriage to Diego Riviera that also brought her a certain about of fame and attention. Then of course there was a biopic movie a while back with Selma Hayek in the starring role which is really what pushed her and her work into the consciousness of the mainstream.

Her work is distinctly Mexican. It’s motifs, her icon-style compositions, her color palates all have a distinctly Folk Art style to them. This isn’t to discount the emotional depth of her work. It’s just that, when you come down to it – her work is harsh and tends to an inelegant coarseness of brushstroke and linework. Regardless though – she has become known as the female surrealist.

But look, really, I just want to talk about Remedios Varo, an artist whose work is beyond compare really and who I would put on par with Dali but in her own category, her own pedastal. Within her work is an attention to detail, a dedication, a passion, and a drive that eclipses all others – including Kahlo. Why haven’t you heard of her before, you ask. Probably the same reason there’s so many brilliant women through the ages that you’ve never heard of: because men have done their best to relegate them to the sidelines. The introduction to the show speaks of it very succinctly – men have viewed women as objects and, in the art of many surrealists, they are explored as these objects from whence fantastic tangents might arise. And as for the art that women may have made: the art critic world has been a man’s world for a long, long time. Men critiquing men’s art for collectors who are mostly men. Men look at this art that comes from a place that is raw beauty, taps into mysterious emotion, maybe even critiques their own objectification or sense of being relegated to the sidelines – and they shy away. I’m sure that many a male art critic at the time saw the power in this work and, like so many other men through history, shied away from it and ignored it out of fear of what it represented: a real true voice that they might have ignored for all the wrong reasons. Politicians today with their birth control agenda aren’t much different.

The thing is – in viewing all these paintings, the pieces that truly stand out are those by Remedios Varo. I won’t get into a biography of her – you can read a Wikipedia entry on her here and there’s an excellent book about her available here. She was, however, by and large, supported by a small cadre of collectors but for the most part passed over by the art world media machine.

As for her work itself – the linework, the figures, the fantastical tangents are all so richly and patiently rendered that it almost distracts one from the larger vision – almost. In fact, after seeing a number of her paintings one of the things that I found most inspirational was her underpainting. She was adept at creating a textured background that she built upon, incorporating the variations in color and form that were created by whatever her underpainting process was. Another thing that stands out in her work is her incredibly consistent line work. Each panel of her painting – each square and rhombus and triangle – received the same attention to detail and careful quality of brushstroke. Looking at her work the meditative process is obvious and the final product is so breathtakingly magical that one can’t help but get lost in both it’s sense of innocent and careful beauty and it’s depth of association and process. It’s within that framework of a very patient technique that one begins to grasp the larger vision that Remedios was exploring. This is the work of a woman moving into subtle spaces with the intent of exploring her psyche through symbols, associations, and a desire to seek out the mysterious realm that has no words but can perhaps be described as the visionary space.

I am humbled when I leaf through the Remedios Varo book that I have on my shelf. It speaks to me: just pay close attention to every detail. They are all of equal importance and, all of them, are things of beauty.

The Artwork of Michael Divine

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