Recently, in my Window Gazing Wednesday photo series, I wrote about finding inspiration for a still life painting in the window of a French seaside museum. Writing that post reminded me of a witty spin on the genre that I want to share with you.
I’ve always been drawn to the still life, across a range of periods and styles, and have enjoyed painting some myself, both reproductions and originals. One example is my reproduction of Paul Cezanne’s 1880-1881, “Fruits, Napkin and Jug of Milk,” above.
With their rich colors, unusual angles and imaginatively sculpted objects, Cezanne’s modernist still lifes convey a striking liveliness to me. Through their particular elements, traditional works in the genre can project a similar sense –– but no matter how infused with life it may be, the still life is, by definition, still.
The French phrase for still life, nature morte (dead nature), perfectly embodies the “still” quality that is the hallmark of the genre.
This arrangement of inanimate objects, usually set out on a table, may include organic items (like fruit, flowers and often, dead game birds or animals), as well as household objects such as dishware, glassware and linens. They never move for the painter or us.
But what if those “dead” objects got restless, channeled their inner life force and began an energetic revival?
Still Life Reviving
Then, we enter the fantastical world of Surrealist painter, Remedios Varo:
In her 1963 painting, Still Life Reviving, the fruit has taken flight –– fat apples, a peach, plums, strawberries –– all wildly spinning above the table in concentric circles like planets. As they zoom around a single candle in their rings of stardust, a pomegranate crashes with another fruit and bursts, dropping red arils to the floor.
The plates have joined the animated spin, rising and whirling below the fruit, while the tablecloth rotates in sculptural folds, its bottom edges fluttering in a mysterious burst of wind.
With the reds, golds and oranges of the fruit, the light emanating from the action around the table, Varo adds a warm glow that enhances the painting’s energy.
If you look closely, you’ll find some small details that also add to its life: diaphanous blue dragonflies hover over the fruit, and delicate green plants have sprung up to the right and left of the table, where seeds have fallen.
This is the still life masterfully reimagined by an exceptional thinker and painter. It was her last completed work before her premature death at 54.
About the Artist
Born in Spain in December 1908, Remedios Varo Uranga was one of three children raised in a well-educated family. Her father, a hydraulic engineer, was a major influence in Varo’s early education, teaching her technical drawing and encouraging her to read widely –– from scientific texts to adventure stories, mystical literature and Eastern philosophy.
Her father’s job required extensive travel, and the family traversed Spain and North Africa before settling in Madrid in 1917. There Varo attended Catholic school and later studied art at the San Fernando Academy, taking scientific drawing courses along with the strict academic curriculum. She graduated in 1930 with a degree to teach drawing.
In the 1930s, Varo married a fellow student and moved to Barcelona. While working as a commercial artist, she began to experiment with surrealist ideas and art techniques. She also met French surrealist poet, Benjamin Peret (whom she later married), and fled Civil War Spain for Paris.
Through Peret, Varo made contact with the Parisian surrealist movement’s inner circle. Under the influence of Andre Breton, Magritte, Max Ernst and others, she continued to experiment with Surrealism and participated in the 1937 International Surrealist Exhibition in Tokyo.
In 1941, Varo and Peret fled to Mexico to escape Nazi-occupied France. In Mexico City they met numerous Mexican and émigré artists and writers, including surrealists Leonora Carrington and Kati Horna who became Varo’s close friends.
In the 1940s, Varo worked as a technical illustrator and commercial artist, didn’t seriously pursue her art and produced little. She created the bulk of her work in the last 10 years of her life, beginning in 1953.
By that time, Varo had broken with Peret several years earlier and was romantically involved with Walter Gruen, a businessman who recognized her artistic brilliance. His support enabled her to devote herself entirely to her art, and her work blossomed until her death from a heart attack in October 1963.
Varo is known for her mysterious paintings of strange humans in dreamlike settings, engaged in magic arts or some form of chemistry. Architectural features also recur, showing the expert drafting skills she developed, beginning with her father’s lessons.
Varo’s singular vision reflects her intellectual background, strong interest in science, as well as magic, and fascination from an early age with fantasy and dreams. She is credited with playing an integral role in establishing the Mexican Surrealist movement.
I first discovered Remedios Varo at a 2012 Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition entitled In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States. The show included works dating from 1931–1968 by major artists such as Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington and Louise Bourgeois, with Varo grouped among these icons.
Despite my art studies, I knew little about the women in the Surrealism movement, so In Wonderland was a revelation from that standpoint. Then, there was Varo: In a show with so many remarkable painters, I found her work particularly intriguing.
I left eager to know more about this woman who created such extraordinary imagery. I hope this post will lead others to discover her too.
Have you seen Varo’s still life before? What is your favorite still life? Comments about the genre and the artist are welcomed.
Remedios Varo: The Mexican Years provides an excellent synopsis of the artist’s life and work, with numerous well-executed reproductions of her paintings and a useful chronology with photos. The text, by Surrealism scholar Masayo Nonaka, includes thoughtful commentary on individual paintings in the catalogue.
The book contains the Varo paintings from the In Wonderland exhibition above, and after the show I was determined to track it down. It can be difficult to find — with variable online pricing, up to thousands of dollars — but it’s well worth the effort.
I ultimately found mine for a reasonable price at Powell’s City of Books: https://www.powells.com/book/-9788415118220.
Copyright M. Vincent 2019
Cezanne painting reproduction and photo copyright M. Vincent 2010, 2019, respectively.
Still Life Reviving image extracted from the book Remedios Varo: The Mexican Years, copyright 2012 RM, and not to be reproduced in any way without permission of the publisher. Used here with kind permission from RM.