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

Niño y mariposa (Niño triste)

REMEDIOS VARO (1908-1963)
Niño y mariposa (Niño triste)
signed 'R. VARO' (lower right)
oil on Masonite
21 ¼ x 12 1⁄8 in. (54 x 30.8 cm.)
Painted in 1961
Galería Juan Martín, Mexico City.
Agustín Guevara Alas, Mexico, by 1966.
Private collection, Mexico, by 1994.
Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.
Acquired from the above by the present owners.
E. de Champourcin, 'La pintura alucinante y perfecta de Remedios Varo' in Gaceta Social de México, September 1964 (illustrated).
O. Paz & R. Caillois, Remedios Varo, Mexico, 1966, no. 64, p. 177 (illustrated pl. 64).
E. Jaguer, Remedios Varo, Mexico, 1980, p. 57 (illustrated).
'La pintura surrealista de Remedios Varo', in Siempre! La Cultura en México, Mexico, December 1983 (illustrated).
B. Morris, 'El surrealismo extragaláctico de la pintora de Remedios Varo', in Turia, Teruel, October 1992.
R. Ovalle, Remedios Varo: catalogue raisonné, Mexico, 2008, no. 319, p. 368 (illustrated p. 264).
E. de Diego, Remedios Varo, Madrid, 2007, p. 95 (illustrated).
J. A. Gil & M. Rivera, Remedios Varo: El hilo invisible, Mexico, 2015, p. 128 (illustrated).
Mexico City, Galería Juan Martín, Óleos recientes de Remedios Varo, June 1962.
Mexico City, Galerías Excélsior, Segundo salón de la plástica feminina, February 1962.
Mexico City, Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno, Palacio de Bellas Artes, La obra de Remedios Varo, August 1964, no. 88.
Mexico City, Museo de Arte Moderno, Obra de Remedios Varo 1913-1963, October - November 1971, no. 49.
Mexico City, Museo de Arte Moderno, Remedios Varo 1913-1963, August 1983, no. 56.
Madrid, Fundación Banco Exterior, Remedios Varo, November 1988 - January 1989, no. 64 (illustrated); this exhibition later travelled to Monterrey, Museo de Monterrey, March 1989.
Mexico City, Museo de Arte Moderno, Remedios Varo, February - June 1994, no. 141 (illustrated).
Tokyo, Isetan Museum of Art, Remedios Varo, June 1999, no. 48, p. 105 (illustrated); this exhibition later travelled to Nagoya, 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, p. 117 (illustrated); this exhibition later travelled to Chicago, Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, June - August 2000.
San Francisco, Gallery Wendi Norris, Remedios Varo: Encuentros, May - July 2023, pp. 55, 57, 59, & 61 (illustrated).
Further Details
We are grateful to Dr. Salomon Grimberg for his assistance cataloguing this work.

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Ottavia Marchitelli
Ottavia Marchitelli Senior Specialist, Head of The Art of The Surreal Sale

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 (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’ (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. By the time that she painted Niño y mariposa, decades later, Varo was an undisputed virtuoso in Surrealist alchemy, and this mysterious portrait deftly synthesizes transatlantic Surrealism and transhistorical mythology in its poignant image of adolescence and metamorphosis.
‘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’ (quoted in ibid., 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 (Varo, quoted in ibid., pp. 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 Walter 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 ibid., 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. Varo held her second solo exhibition at Galería Juan Martín in 1962 and drew similar plaudits – one critic proclaiming ‘this collection is the pinnacle of her career’ – for the works she showed, among them Niño y mariposa (M. Machín Gurría, quoted in ibid., p. 145).
The sylvan, moss-cloaked protagonist of Niño y mariposa is modelled on Xabier Lizarraga, the son of Varo’s first husband, Gerardo, and his second wife Ikerne Cruchaga. If Varo had earlier spurned motherhood, she felt tremendous affection for the children born into her circle of friends, among them Xabier and his sister Amaya, whom she treated as her own. As the artist’s biographer Janet Kaplan has noted, Varo’s relationship with Xabier became particularly close and creatively fulfilling: ‘They did artwork together, collaborating on Surrealist games including ink-blot drawings and exquisite corpses… From the time he was five until about ten, she would ask him what he thought her latest work was about and gauge her success on whether this unusually sensitive and gifted child had grasped her intentions (Xabier showed such extraordinary early artistic talent that he had a solo gallery exhibition of sixty works when he was only nine years old)’ (J. Kaplan, ibid., p. 160 and 214). Xabier was about thirteen years old at the time that Varo painted the present work, and he materialises here under the widespread wings of a butterfly, a suggestively apotropaic charm. ‘I sometimes lived with Remedios, temporarily, for vacations,’ Xabier recalled. ‘It was like passing into another world, a world of art, of magic, of animals, of games. No matter the differences in age, I thought of her primarily as a friend… and as a magician… Although I don’t believe in magic, I believe that Remedios was magical’ (quoted in ibid., p. 161).
An aura of magic permeates Niño y mariposa, augured by the majestic butterfly that hovers protectively above her charge, casting the scene with metamorphic and mythological mystery. An uncannily anthropomorphic specimen of Rothschildia orizaba, this butterfly is associated in Aztec lore with the mother and warrior goddess Itzpapalotl (the ‘Obsidian Butterfly’), who safeguarded fertility and learning and presided over Tamoanchan, a long-lost paradise believed to be the cradle of Mesoamerican civilization.
In his prose poem, ‘Mariposa de obsidiana’ (1949), the Mexican poet Octavio Paz imagined the goddess as a cipher of the indigenous worldview. ‘I was the mountain that creates you as it dreams, the house of fire, the primordial pot where man is cooked and becomes man,’ the narrator begins. ‘I am alone and fallen,’ she continues, her words a lamentation of the Conquest. ‘In my navel the whirlwind grows calm: I am the fixed center that moves the dance. Burn, fall into me: I am the pit of living lime that cures the bones of their afflictions. Die in my lips. Rise from my eyes. Images gush from my body: drink in these waters and remember what you forgot at birth. I am the wound that does not heal, the small solar stone: if you strike me, the world will go up in flames’ (in O. Paz, Selected Poems, New York, 1984, pp. 17-18).
The poem appeared in Breton’s Almanach surréaliste du demi-siècle in 1950 and signalled Paz’s gravitation toward the post-war Surrealist circle during his years in Paris. Its symbolism – of transformation, death, and rebirth - taps into Surrealist fascinations with visual mimicry, camouflage, and transfiguration as well as the desire to return to origins, in this case to Mexico’s mythic, pre-Hispanic past (‘remember what you forgot at birth’).
Beautifully rendered, with chevron-shaped markings on finely detailed wings, the obsidian butterfly-goddess in Niño y mariposa and its architectural backdrop harken back both to Mexico and to Varo’s earlier encounters with Surrealism and its Spanish antecedents. In earlier works such as Magic Flight (1956) and Personage (1958), she had depicted hybrid flying creatures that nod to Goya’s otherworldly A Way of Flying (circa 1815-1816) and allegorical They Have Flown (1797-1798). Varo would have seen these works decades earlier while a student at the Real Academia de San Fernando in Madrid; the latter etching portrays a woman – possibly Goya’s reputed lover, the Duchess of Alba – with a butterfly in her hair, a black mantilla spread out as her wings. While Varo found ample source material in Goya and El Greco, she shared Giorgio de Chirico’s fascination with ‘the psychological power of architecture,’ as Kaplan explains. ‘In a number of Varo’s paintings the walls extend above the heads of her characters like a scenery flat, then terminate, revealing their upper edge and the space that continues beyond them… The choice was deliberate: to create an illusion of reality while emphasizing it as an illusion. De Chirico employed similar artifice in many of his works, depicting architectural spaces dominated by artificial façade’ (ibid., p. 208). Alive with alchemy and enchantment, Niño y mariposa collapses the mysteries of origins, adolescence, and metamorphosis within just such an illusionary space, its gleaming-copper confines imbued with preternatural charm and providence.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park

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