REMEDIOS VARO (1908-1963)
REMEDIOS VARO (1908-1963)
REMEDIOS VARO (1908-1963)
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REMEDIOS VARO (1908-1963)
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REMEDIOS VARO (1908-1963)

Retrato del Doctor Ignacio Chávez

REMEDIOS VARO (1908-1963)
Retrato del Doctor Ignacio Chávez
signed 'R. VARO' (lower right)
oil on Masonite
37 1/4 x 24 3/8 in. (94.6 x 61.9 cm.)
Painted in 1957
Dr Ignacio Chávez, Mexico, by whom acquired directly from the artist.
Private collection, Mexico, by descent from the above.
Frey Norris Gallery, San Francisco.
Acquired from the above by the present owners in 2010.
A. De Neuvillate, 'Remedios Varo, pintora de lo imposible', in Novedades, México en la cultura, Mexico City, 1964.
J. Fernández, 'Catálogos de las exposiciones de arte', in Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Mexico City, 1965, p. 104.
O. Paz, et al., Remedios Varo, Mexico City, 1966, no. 23, p. 175 (illustrated p. 23).
Bambi, 'Remedios Varo', in Revista de Revistas, Mexico City, 1968 (illustrated).
P. Montelongo, 'Un mundo de magia y revelaciones', in El Heraldo, Mexico City, 1971 (illustrated).
J. Fernández, 'Catálogos de las exposiciones de arte', in Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Mexico City, 1972, pp. 122 & 104.
E. Jaguer, Remedios Varo, Mexico City, 1980, p. 71 (illustrated).
J. Kaplan, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys, New York, 1988, no. 122, pp. 136 & 172 (illustrated p. 139).
R. Santos Torroella, 'El tiempo nunca perdido de Remedios Varo', in Remedios Varo, Madrid, 1988, p. 57 (illustrated).
J. Kaplan, et al., Art Vivant n. 32, Tokyo, 1989 (illustrated).
B. Espejo, Historia de la pintura mexicana, vol. III, Mexico, 1989, p. 231 (illustrated).
L. Andrade, Remedios Varo y la alquimia, Mexico, 1990, p. 52.
B. Morris, 'El surrealismo extragaláctico de la pintora Remedios Varo', in Turia, Revista Cultural, nos. 21-22, Teruel, Spain, 1992.
R. Ovalle, et al., Remedios Varo, Catalogue Raisonné, Mexico City, 1994, no. 192, p. 275 (illustrated p. 149).
R. Ovalle, et al., Remedios Varo, Catalogue Raisonné Second Revised Edition, Mexico City, 1998, no. 192, p. 275 (illustrated p. 149).
R. Ovalle, et al., Remedios Varo, Catalogue Raisonné Third Edition, Mexico City, 2002, no. 192, p. 340 (illustrated p. 209).
R. Ovalle, et al., Remedios Varo, Catalogue Raisonné Fourth Edition, Mexico City, 2008, no. 192, p. 340 (illustrated p. 209).
M. Nonaka, Remedios Varo: The Mexican Years, Mexico City, 2020, p. 56 (illustrated).
Mexico City, Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno, La obra de Remedios Varo, August 1964, no. 75.
Mexico City, Museo de Arte Moderno, Obra de Remedios Varo, October 1971, no. 22.
Mexico City, Museo de Arte Moderno, Surrealismo y Arte Fantástico, November 1971, no. 139.
Mexico City, Museo de Arte Moderno, La mujer como creadora y tema del arte, June 1975, no. 25.
Mexico City, Museo de Arte Moderno, Remedios Varo 1908-1963, February - June 1994, p. 102 (illustrated p. 58).
Tokyo, Isetan Museum of Art, Remedios Varo, June 1999, no. 24; this exhibition later travelled to Tokyo, Denki Bunka Kaikan, July - August 1999; and Kamakura, The Museum of Modern Art, October - November 1999.
Washington, D.C., National Museum of Women in the Arts, The Magic of Remedios Varo, February - May 2000; this exhibition later travelled to Chicago, Mexican Fine Arts Center, June - August 2000, p. 138 (illustrated p. 77).
Mexico City, Museo de Arte Moderno, Five Keys to the Secret World of Remedios Varo, May - August 2008 (illustrated on the cover and p. 118)
Chichester, England, Pallent House Gallery, Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Kati Horna, June - September 2010, p. 111 (illustrated).
San Francisco, Gallery Wendi Norris, Exultation: Sex, Death, and Madness in Eight Surrealist Masterworks, February - April 2011.
San Francisco, Frey Norris Gallery, Remedios Varo: Indelible Fables, January - February 2012 (illustrated).
Copenhagen, The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, The Moon - From Inner Worlds to Outer Space, September 2018 - January 2019, no. 205, p. 71 (illustrated).
Special notice
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent. This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.
Further details
We are grateful to Dr. Salomon Grimberg for his assistance cataloguing this work.

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Lot Essay

‘I can see that my life not only in material or emotional terms, but also my intellectual life is there in the land I sincerely love with all its faults, shortcomings, and hardships,’ Remedios Varo reflected of Mexico, her adopted country, in a letter to her last husband, Walter Gruen, in 1958 (R. Varo quoted in ‘Remedios Varo: A Biographical Sketch, The Magic of Remedios Varo, exh. cat., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 146). She had fled Europe at the end of 1941, following the German occupation of France, and like fellow émigrés Benjamin Péret, Leonora Carrington, and Alice Rahon she became enamoured with the land that André Breton once called ‘the Surrealist place, par excellence.’ In the decade before her arrival, Varo had established herself first among the avant-garde in Barcelona, creating cadavres exquis and joining the Logicofobistas, a quasi-Surrealist group, and then in Paris beginning in 1937. ‘My position was the timid and humble one of a listener,’ she recalled of her entrée into the Surrealist circle. ‘I was not old enough nor did I have the aplomb to face up to them, to a Paul Éluard, a Benjamin Péret, or an André Breton. There I was with my mouth gaping open within this group of brilliant and gifted people’ (R. Varo quoted in J. Kaplan, Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varo, New York, 1988, pp. 55-56). Yet if she initially played the passive role of femme-enfant, Varo soon emerged as a creative force within the movement, participating in its collaborative games (e.g., the Jeu de dessin communiqué) and its deep studies of esoterica and theories of the occult. Among the last portraits that Varo painted, Retrato del Doctor Ignacio Chávez embodies her abiding interests in mysticism and metaphysics as well as in science and medicine, here encapsulated in the person of Dr. Chávez, the distinguished Mexican cardiologist and founding director of the Instituto Nacional de Cardiología (colloquially, ‘the Chávez Institute’) in Mexico City.
‘I came to Mexico searching for the peace that I had not found, neither in Spain that of the revolution – nor in Europe – that of the terrible war,’ Varo later acknowledged. ‘For me it was impossible to paint amidst such anguish’ (R. Varo quoted in J. Kaplan, op. cit., p. 85). She found solace and friendship in an expatriate circle that included Luis Buñuel, César Moro, and Wolfgang Paalen, among others, and filled the house she shared with Péret, on calle Gabino Barreda, with talismans, crystals, and stones. But it was the extraordinary friendship that she developed with Carrington, who arrived the next year and settled close by, that catalysed new dimensions of creativity, encompassing collaborative playwriting, alchemical cooking 'recipes and advice for scaring away inopportune dreams, insomnia, and deserts of quicksand under the bed’ and above all the magic of painting (R. Varo quoted in ibid., p. 85 and 95). The two women met daily, and together they studied the mystics P.D. Ouspensky and George Gurdjieff as well as Tarot and astrology, whose ideas percolated through their work, often manifested in empowered female protagonists. Varo supported herself with a variety of commercial work during her first decade in Mexico, notably illustrations for the pharmaceutical firm Casa Bayer; not until her marriage to Gruen, in 1952, did she have the wherewithal to devote herself fully to painting.
Varo’s first solo exhibition, at Galería Diana in 1956, was a resounding success, drawing praise from artists and critics, including Diego Rivera – ‘Remedios Varo, ah, how the painting of that woman enchants me!’ and Jorge Juan Crespo de la Serna, who declared that ‘she has been consecrated as a sublime mistress of the plastic arts, so that from now on her name ought to be inscribed with gold letters in the sacred phylacteries where those of true worth in art history are seated’ (in op. cit., p. 133). A categorical triumph, the exhibition elevated her stature in Mexico and beyond, firmly establishing her work in national as well as proto-feminist contexts. In the wake of her success, Varo accepted portrait commissions from two Mexican families – resulting in the works Hijas de la familia Arnouz (1957) and Retrato de los niños Villaseñor (1957) – before turning to the present portrait of Dr. Chávez, her third commission of the year.
A pioneering physician and cardiologist, Igancio Chávez was also a noted humanist and a founding member of the Colegio Nacional, the honorary academy for Mexico’s leading artists and scientists. ‘Humanism is not a luxury,’ he once reflected. ‘It means culture, understanding people in their aspirations and miseries; a valuation of what is good, what is beautiful, and what is fair in life; settling the rules that govern our interior world; an eagerness to better ourselves that leads us, as in the phrase of a philosopher, ‘to equal our thoughts with our life.’ He allowed that ‘science is something different, it makes us strong, but not better,’ and concluded that, ‘for this reason, a physician becomes wiser as he becomes more cultured’ (I. Chávez quoted in A. R. Pérez-Riera et al, ‘Professor Dr. Ignacio Chávez Sánchez (1897-1979): Pioneer of Latin American cardiology’, Cardiology Journal 18, no. 4, 2011, p. 471). Inspired by Renaissance humanists from Copernicus to Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Chávez had previously commissioned Rivera to paint murals describing the history of medicine for the new building of the Instituto Nacional de Cardiología, inaugurated in 1944. Varo herself later accepted (though ultimately declined) a commission to paint a mural for the new Cancer Pavilion of the Medical Center in Mexico City. ‘According to Fernando Gamboa, former director of the Museo de Arte Moderno, who arranged for the commission, by 1959 Varo was a celebrity in Mexico, and her interest in scientific imagery made her a natural choice for the mural,’ notes art historian Janet Kaplan (op. cit., p. 140).
‘As compelling as Varo found the intuitive and irrational aspects of mystical philosophies, she was also attracted to the logic and order of scientific investigation,’ Kaplan explains. ‘Still very much the engineer’s daughter, she read science as avidly as metaphysics, and her personal journey was propelled as much by her interest in scientific phenomena as by her study of the mystics. Turning to the sciences, she recognized in the newest developments in medicine, biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, and botany infinite possibilities for further exploration. She made careful distinction, however, between the kinds of scientific practice that she trusted and those that she did not, warning in a number of her paintings against manipulative abuses of authority, myopic belief in facts, infatuation with gadgetry, and misguided attempts to conquer nature. Seeing scientific inquiry as analogous to spiritual pursuit, she felt that science must adopt the role not of domination but of harmony with natural forces’ (ibid., p. 172).
Varo’s interests in science naturally recommended her for this portrait of Dr. Chávez, which suggestively commingles cardiological and spiritual healing. The doctor appears within a tessellated sepia façade, his figure merging with the layered architecture of the archway; a constellation gleams against a ruddy sky, directing three androgynous figures through gossamer rays of light. Varo acknowledged that she painted the physician ‘in somewhat priestly clothing to suggest that his profession is perhaps a kind of priesthood. In his hand he holds a key. The persons coming from the gorge have a little door in place of a heart and he winds them up as they pass by’ (R. Varo quoted in ibid., p. 136). ‘His power seems to have reached tyrannical dimensions since he peers out from his crystal cave on the other side of the world only to wind his patients who move toward his threshold by their long white hair to continue their journey,’ observes scholar Dina Comisarenco Mirkin of Dr. Chávez. ‘Only one of them, represented as well in Elixir (1957) and perhaps favoured by the stars that direct his destiny, includes on his costume the fleur-de-lis, symbol of high spirituality. His arms and legs, like the others’ chests, seem like wood, a symbol perhaps, in Gurdjieff’s terms, of his initial hypnotic condition’ (D. Mirkin, ‘Remedios Varo, The Artist of a Thousand Faces,’ Aurora X, 2009, p. 109). Chávez is at once diviner and supplicant: the alchemy of the scene is vested both in the doctor’s powers of healing and in the cosmic knowledge incarnate in his otherworldly patients, their movements fated by the starry heavens above. ‘Remedios volatizes [reality],’ marvelled the great Mexican poet Octavio Paz. ‘It is not blood but light that flows through its body’ (O. Paz, ‘Remedios Varo’s Appearances and Disappearances,’ 1966, in J. Kaplan, op. cit., p. 230).
‘Learn as much as you can, teach everything you know,’ Chávez counselled his students, ‘and do not forget that those who greedily save their science for themselves are under the risk of having their soul and their science rot together’ (I. Chávez quoted in A. R. Pérez-Riera, op. cit., p. 469). In the gleaming phosphorescence of Retrato del Doctor Ignacio Chávez, Varo harmonizes soul and science in a fittingly oracular tribute to Mexico’s modern Renaissance man.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park

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