The art of Remedios Varo was one of the most significant contributions to the history of surrealism. The foundation and iconography of her paintings is a unique layer of influences – from medieval history and Greek mythology to scientific research and alchemy, nature, music, and pagan practices. Varo’s reality is rich in fantasies and she presents her picturesque universe with scientific care. It’s a methodical explanation for the mystical.
“Harmony (Possible Self-Portrait), created in 1956, is a canonical example of Varo’s complex visual vocabulary. Here, her “animistic belief in the power of objects and in the interrelationship between plant, animal, human and mechanical worlds” is poetically manifest. The artist, who had knowledge of craft and technique, pays extremely much attention to detail – each stroke has a clear purpose. In fact, Varo’s paintings are built from details. The imitation of the principles of scientific illustration and the technical precision of “Harmony” is reminiscent of the drawings she made during her scientific expedition to the Orinoco River in Venezuela ten years earlier.
Moreover, Varo’s technical skill leaves an inexplicable feeling in her work. “Although we often see everything [on them], we can’t help feeling that we’re missing an important key that would clearly show us the meaning,” wrote art historian Whitney Chadwick. And biographer Janet Kaplan points to how skillfully Varo quoted historical and literary sources in Harmony. In particular, she compares this painting to the Renaissance panel “St. Jerome in his cell” by Antonello da Messina.
“In each work, the secluded figure, absorbed by spiritual labor, is in the enclosed space of heavy walls, arched doorways and ceilings, lantern windows, and rich parquet floors. And in each [the author] has given meticulous attention to detail,” Kaplan notes. – In Varo and Antonello this attention comes from one source – the early style of encyclopedic descriptions in Flemish painting of the XV and XVI centuries”.
In Varo’s Harmony, she draws on the structural principles of music, which served as an important symbol of organization in the creation of her pictorial stories. “Music [for Varo] is a deliberately structured structure, and so it acts as an agent in organizing life in several works,” writes art historian Alan Friedman.
Meditative, peaceful energy surrounds a lonely figure (Varo himself), while around her a strange, supernatural chaos occurs: floorboards open and release ghostly sheets of paper, boxes and chest open, opening strange natural ephemerals, birds try to fly away, but fall into the trap of optical illusions, from the walls appear ghostly creatures. “Although there is confusion in this monastic cell, we feel that the advent of harmonious order here is only a matter of time,” said Whitney Chadwick.