Remedios Varo. Part 5. The productive years.

In 1958, Remedios Varo participated in the First Salon of Women’s Art at the Galerías Excelsior of Mexico, together with Leonora Carrington, Alice Rahon, Bridget Bate Tichenor and other contemporary women painters of her era.   Remedios submitted two of her works, Harmony and Be Brief, and won the first prize of 3,000 pesos.

Her painting Harmony is a fascinating work of art.   According to Luis-Martín Lozano an art historian and curator of modern and contemporary art:

“…Harmony was conceived as a self-portrait, where the author takes on the role of the organizer of the universe, using a sheet music mill to connect with creatures from other dimensions through magical crystals and formulas…”

Harmony by Remedios Varo (1956)

In the painting, sitting in a medieval study,  we see an androgynous figure of a scientist although some believe it to be a self-portrait of the artist.   The figure takes objects from a treasure chest such as geometric solids, jewels, plants, crystals, even a scrap of paper with the mathematical constant, pi, written out to six digits. 

Detail from “Harmony” painting

They are then placed as notes onto a three-dimensional musical staff, which is being used as an arranging tool, and by doing so, creates from a chaos of possibilities, the order that is music.  On the wall behind the staff we see a female figure who also adds items to the strings of the musical staff.  This is the hand of chance, which is a vital ingredient in attaining scientific achievement.

St Jerome in his Study by Antonello da Messina (c.1460-1475)

The depiction has been likened to the Renaissance painting by Antonello da Messina’s work entitled Saint Jerome in his Study, which he completed around 1475.  In both paintings a solitary figure sits in a self-contained space surrounded by thick heavy stone walls,  arched doorways and ceilings and a multi-design floor. 

Trompe l’oeil

The trompe l’oeil technique was used by both artists. Antonella attempts to trick the viewers eye with what looks like a three-dimensional step in the foreground of his painting whilst Varo has presented us with a bird’s nest emerging from a split in the back of the upholstered chair.  Varo wants not only us to be fooled by this aspect but she shows that a bird is also deceived!  Varo’s painting mirrors the Netherlandish style of paintings of the fifteenth and sixteenth century in the way there are so many items within the depiction, each one making you query why it had been inserted.  Do the various items have a certain meaning that we should grasp?  We should also remember that as a teenager her father would take her to the Prado in Madrid and it was here that she fell in love with the works of Hieronymus Bosch which displayed a myriad of objects, figures and weird details.

Centre panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510)

Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych painting Garden of Earthly Delights which hangs in the Prado could well have been remembered by Remedios when she painted her 1959 work entitled Troubador as both have oversized yet identifiable birds depicted. 

Troubadour by Remedios Varo (1959)

Again, in this painting we see a bow being pulled across, not a stringed instrument, but the long strands of hair of a female.  In an earlier blog, we saw a painting depicting the bow being drawn across sunbeams.

The Juggler by Remedios Varo (1956)

Another interesting painting by Varo is one entitled The Juggler.  At the centre of the depiction we see the magician/juggler standing on a table in front of a crowd of onlookers. The table actually forms part of his bizarre-looking vehicle.  The Juggler is dressed in a red robe which covers his brown-patterned outfit and atop his head he wears a witch-like conical hat.  The face of the juggler is painted on a five-sided piece of inlaid mother of pearl. Mother of pearl was often associated with works by Remedios Varo.  For her, it was the idea of enlightenment and of understanding, a sort of hyper-awareness.   The figure is in the act of juggling but instead of using his juggler’s rings which lay at his feet he is juggling balls of light adding to the impression that this is not just an ordinary juggler but one with mystic powers.  Look carefully at his audience.  All look the same with similar hairstyles and yet on closer inspection they all have individual expressions.  However, what is more bizarre are their clothes.  Again, on closer inspection their clothes are made from just one single cloak which is worn by them all.  It is all about unity.  Varo, in a letter, described the audience as:

“… a kind of unenlightened individuals who were awaiting a transference of enlightenment from the magician so that they can wake up…”

  The painting does not just depict the juggler and his audience.  Look closely at the others in the “cast” that add to the depiction.  Varo includes and owl who we see in the part-open chest, a lion that lies obediently at the juggler’s feet and the ever-present birds.  Inside the vehicle is the juggler’s wife and a goat.  It is this type of painting that I find fascinating.  No matter how many times you look at it there is something new to see and it taxes your brain trying to work out what Remedios was thinking when she put brush to masonite.  The painting is housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Star Catcher by Remedios Varo (1956)

The theme of the relationship between mother and child was explored in her 1956 painting, Star Catcher.  Remedios never had children although she did terminate a pregnancy when she was married to Péret saying that motherhood was more than she could handle.  In this painting we see a huntress has captured the moon and carries it in a cage.  The fantastic huntress is adorned in a sumptuous costume with delicately marked butterfly-wing sleeves and holds the butterfly net she has used to capture the crescent moon.  The depiction is both beautiful and disturbing and the iconography is hard to read.  However, the idea of imprisonment and constraint runs through many of Remedios’ paintings.  It is the dichotomy between power (the huntress) and powerlessness (the captured moon) which is another recurring theme in her work.

Breaking the Vicious Circle by Remedios Varo (1962)

The theme of breaking free of constraint and demonstrating female power featured in her 1962 mixed-media painting entitled Breaking the Vicious Circle.  The background is a brown shapeless void   A female figure stands before us.  She summons all of her strength to pull apart the rope that encircles her body.  This severing of the rope circle causes an electrification of her hair which stands on end and at the same time we see her torso open up to reveal a path through a forest.  It symbolises the opening up of the possibilities inside her.   Her subconscious thoughts are revealed which are rich and adventurous.  So, what does it all mean?  The breaking of the rope circle is a metaphor for the breaking free and release of the figure’s power of imagination.  This breaking free from the past and tradition allows the figure to embark on a spiritual journey that had lay dormant in her heart.  Look towards the floor at the hem of her cloak.  In the folds of her cloak, at her feet, there is an over-sized bird, which according to Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and great thinker who made a deep impression on Varo, this was a symbol of transcendence and so the woman has made a spiritual breakthrough. 

L’Ecole Buissonnière by Remedios Varo (1962)

In an earlier blog I talked about how Remedios, as a schoolgirl, was fascinated in the occult.  Later in life, she studied mystic disciplines and immersed herself in metaphysical texts and in the pursuit of meaning and control. It became a passion that dominated her work.  She became interested in the ideas postulated by the likes of Jung, Helena Blavatsky as well as stories about the legends of the Holy Grail, alchemy and the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination text.  It is an influential text read throughout the world, providing inspiration to the worlds of religion, philosophy, literature, and art which Remedios consulted regularly before she made decisions.   She had spurned Catholicism saying:

“…What you grow up with you are given dogmatically, what you find, you conquer yourself…”

It was her search for an alternative to Catholicism featured in the depiction in her 1962 work entitled L’Ecole buissonière (literally, school in the bush but colloquially it means playing hooky).  In the painting we see a youth who has skipped school and gone into the forest in search of answers.  In the conical tower he finds his “friends” – the cunning fox and the wise owl which holds a crystal ball.  These will be his true mentors.

Hermit by Remedios Varo (1956)

An earlier painting completed in 1956 followed a similar theme of knowledge and learning.  In her painting Hermitano (Hermit) we see depicted a magical figure standing alone in the woods.  The body of the figure is formed by a misty six-pointed star, formed by joining together upright and inverted triangles, which symbolises equilibrium and the unification of consciousness with the unconsciousness. 

If you look closely at the chest cavity of the figure you will detect the circle of yin-yang, the Chinese symbol that similarly represents the balance of opposites.  The face of the figure is one of calmness and serenity and suggests inner harmony and balance.

 

When we look closely at Remedios Varo’s depictions, are we taking in every facet of her work?  The American art historian, Whitney Chadwick summed it up saying:

“…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…”

Three Destinies by Remedios Varo

Take for example Varo’s 1956 work entitled Three Destinies.  What is going on?  We see before us three figures in monk-like robes, each sitting in separate towers.  One is writing, one is painting whilst the third is drinking.  Each are oblivious to the presence of the other two. We also see, faintly drawn, a pully and rope systems connecting the towers.  And so, what is happening?

Remedios Varo’s explanation of this depiction is that although the three figures believe they are independent, they are actually and inextricably interconnected.  The fate of the three is permanently interwoven by the complicated pully system which winds around each of the three figures which makes them move, albeit they believe they are moving freely and one day in the future their lives will cross.  Varo was fascinated by what she believed was just an indistinct line separating free will and determinism, the philosophical view that all events are determined completely by previously existing causes.

Still life Reslicitando by Remedios Varo (1963)

Remedios Varo’s last work was completed in 1963 and was entitled Still Life Reviving.  The painting was one of only a few of her works which did not include a human figure.  The painting was all about the cyclical rebirth of nature.  Before us we see a tablecloth, eight dinner plates, various fruits and a candlestick all of which have been swept into a whirlwind by a source of energy which we cannot see.   Soon it looks like a celestial depiction with the fruits acting like planets orbiting the sun, in this case, the candle flame.  Look carefully at the fruit on the outermost ring.  The colliding fruit explode and this then results in the seeds of the fruit being sent back to earth, the floor, where we see them magically germinate, sprouting roots and bearing small delicate green shoots.  Above all this there are the diaphanous blue dragonflies that witness the goings-on and fly off to spread the news.  Look at the background.   Here we see a religious tone to the work with the ogival arches which sit above a chapel-like space. Varo has energised the work by adding a warm glow which also enhances the work, by her inclusion of the reds, golds and oranges of the fruit.

In 1963 Remedios suffered some health problems.  She had complained of a shortage of breath when climbing stairs.  She had a history of chronic gastric problems and was known to drink excessive amounts of coffee as well as being a heavy smoker.  She was checked out for heart problems but was given a clean bill of health.  The state of her mental health was open to doubt.  Some of her friends said she was bubbly and full of life whist others said she had told them that she was depressed and did not know whether she could carry on with life.  Walter Gruen, her husband, remembered the devastating afternoon of October 8th 1963, saying that he and Remedios had lunched with their friend Roger Cossio who had come to buy Varo’s painting, The Lovers.  Gruen said his wife was happily explaining the details of the work to the buyer.  With lunch over Cossio left and Gruen returned to his Sala Margolin shop across from their house to do some work.  Shortly after, their Indian maid rushed into Gruen’s shop to tell him that Remedios was very ill.  Gruen rushed home to find his wife complaining of chest pains.  Gruen was unable to contact a doctor so left Remedios and went into the next room to consult some medical books.  When he returned to his wife, he found that she had died. 

Remedios Varo died two months shy of her fifty-fifth birthday.  She was buried at the Jardin Panteon, a cemetery on the outskirts of the city.  The local newspapers were full of the story of her life and her untimely death.  Margarita Nelken, a close friend and a journalist for the Mexico city newspaper Excelsior wrote:

“…Remedios Varo, one of the greatest artists of modern Mexico, and – without exaggeration – of contemporary painting, on Tuesday evening left us forever.  Unexpectedly.  So discreetly, quietly, just as she had lived among us…”

Alfonso de Neuvillate, the art critic for the Novedades newspaper wrote:

“…Unjust, inexplicable…..on Tuesday, the eighth of October at 7pm, death ended the life of one of the most individual and extraordinary painters of Mexican art, Remedios Varo.   A heart attack.  One asks the questions like, why her?  Why not someone mediocre?…”


Most of the information for this blog, apart from the usual sources, comes from Janet A. Kaplan’s excellent book entitled Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys.  This is a must-read book if you want a fuller version of the life and times of Remedios Varo.

Remedios Varo. Part 4 – A new life in Mexico

Remedios Varo at work in her studio

Varo arrived in Mexico at the end of 1941 having had to flee the oppression of Vichy France and the Nazis.  She had been accepted by the Mexican government and granted the status of a political exile for one year but which could be renewed. She was allowed to find work with the exception of bars, cabarets and restaurants providing she did not displace any Mexican workers.    It is estimated that Mexico accepted more than fifteen thousand refugees into its country.  The majority of them could be termed the “intelligentsia”, who brought with them a much-needed stimulus to both the economic and cultural development of the country.  Many of these exiles believed that one day in the near future they would be able to return to France and Spain and so many of these exiles kept together rather than try to assimilate with Mexicans and their culture.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

These exiled artist from Europe were not loved by everybody and the most popular Mexican artist of the time, Diego Rivera and his partner Freda Kahlo. who held the position of being the reigning leaders of Mexican artistic culture rejected what they deemed as the foreign colonializing influences of the newly arrived European artists.  Kahlo who had been in Paris in 1939 for her own exhibition at the Pierre Colle gallery and who had been a guest of André Breton was surprisingly scathing about the Surrealist painters.  In a letter from Kahlo to Nikolas Murray, a Hungarian-born American photographer and her long-time lover, in the March of that year, she wrote:

“…They make me vomit.  They are so damn ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t stand them anymore……I’d rather sit on the floor in the market at Toluca and sell tortillas, than to have anything to do with those ‘artistic’ bitches of Paris…”

Leonora Carrington

One of Remedios’ closest friends when she arrived in Mexico was the English Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, who like Remedios had to flee from the Vichy and Nazi controlled France and find refuge in Mexico.  Leonora and Remedios, who had first met in France in the late 1930’s, got together nearly every day and the two women formed an intense connection and would talk about their dreams for the future.  

In her early days in Mexico, Remedios did few paintings and spent most of her time writing.  She and Leonora Carrington would write fairy tales, collaborated on a play, invented Surrealistic potions and recipes, and influenced each other’s work. The two women, together with another of their friends, the photographer Kati Horna became known as “the three witches”

Women’s Tailor by Remedios Varo (1957)

Once in Mexico, Varo took on a variety of jobs, hand painting furniture and restoring pre-Columbian artifacts. In 1942, she worked with Marc Chagall, a fellow refugee from Air-Bel in Marseilles, designing costumes for Leon Massine’s ballet, Aleko.  Remedios completed a painting in 1957 entitled Women’s Tailor which shows the wild imagination she had when it came to costume designs.  The setting is a showroom in an haute-couture fashion house and we see the dress designer proudly parading his models wearing his dresses in front of a potential client.  She had always loved designing and making clothes and would often design clothes for many of the exiled Surrealist costume parties.

Insomnia by Remedios Varo (c.1947)

Remedios Varo’s main source of income in the late 1940’s was the work she did for Casa Bayer (the Bayer pharmaceutical company).  She was tasked with illustrating their promotional literature.  One example of this was her work, Insomnia, which was incorporated into a pamphlet advertising Bayer’s sleeping pills, which included the words warning of the trauma of insomnia:

“…Sensing that someone has been observing them, they open tired eyelids, searching the nocturnal shadows !   Undefined anxiety fills the solitude of the dark, dry rooms, devoid of warmth…” 

Rheumatism Lumbago Sciatica by Remedios Varo (1947)

Another pamphlet Remedios illustrated was one focusing on back pain which Bayer pharmaceuticals could alleviate.  The horrors of the ailment were summed up by Bayer in their leaflet:

“…As if sharp nails are being driven into flesh…..into the joints, into the bones, into the nerves…..!!!  These are the sensations that one can suffer, Rheumatism….lumbago….sciatica….! !…”

Rheumatic Pain by Remedios Varo (1948)

Remedios Varo’s illustration for the 1947 Bayer pamphlet entitled Rheumatism, lumbago, sciatica, added greater force to the words.  In the work we see a man depicted running through a boulder-strewn field with pointed objects piercing his feet and body.   In the background there is a castle with conical towers and crenelated walls which harks back to the Spanish castles of Varo’s childhood. 

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

It is also believed that Varo drew inspiration for this depiction of spikes and nails entering the man’s body from Freda Kahlo’s 1944 work Broken Column which she painted as a reminder of how her body had been broken and put together again after she was involved in traffic accident whilst riding on an old wooden bus, which collided with a streetcar. Several people were killed, and Kahlo suffered nearly fatal injuries—an iron handrail impaled her through her pelvis, fracturing the bone. She also fractured several ribs, her legs, and her collarbone which was to leave her in pain for the rest of her life.

Allegory of Winter by Remedios Varo (1948)

She also illustrated the Bayer calendar with depictions of the coming of Winter and the coming of Spring. 

Signature of “Uranga” on Bayer painting

It is interesting to note that all the commercial illustrations she did for Bayer and other companies were signed “Uranga”, her mother’s maiden name.  Varo was determined to clearly separate her commercial work from her own art which she was happy to sign in her own name.

Although Remedios was beginning to enjoy life in Mexico, her second husband Benjamin Péret was homesick for France and wanted to return there with Varo but his financial situation would not allow him to purchase a passage on a ship to France.  He wrote to his old friend André Breton, who had been exiled in America and the Caribbean until 1946, when he had managed to return to Paris.  Péret’s letters to Breton were sad and pleading.   In March 1947 he wrote:

“…It’s true I have not written for a long time, but what’s the use of writing to give always discouraging news:  abominable material circumstances, no hope of prompt return…”

In October 1947 he wrote again to Breton telling of his poor financial situation:

“…I still can’t make any arrangements for return, for lack of money.  As soon as this is possible, I’ll let you know…”

Breton and other friends of Péret finally rallied around and staged an exhibition for him at the Paris Galerie Rive Gauche.  Artists, such as Picasso, Miro, Tanguy, Dominguez and Breton contributed works, the sale of which was enough to pay for a single one-way passage and by late 1947 Péret was ensconced once again in his beloved Paris.  Remedios Varo refused to accompany her husband for she had made her home in Mexico and did not or could not return to her homeland which held so many bad memories for her.  Her relationship with Péret had been going downhill for some time.  Varo’s close friend, Kati Horna, a Hungarian photographer, explained why Remedios’ relationship with Péret had run its course:

“…Péret was so intellectual, so distracted, that although he was a kind and generous man, he did not participate actively.  He was always lost in thought, his head in the clouds, thinking weighty thoughts…”

Portrait of Jean Nicole by Remedios Varo

Varo had already started a new relationship before her husband had taken his leave of Mexico.  The new love of her life was a French pilot and adventurer, Jean Nicholl, a fellow refugee whom Péret and Varo had sheltered

Remedios Varo with Jean Nicole in the jungle, Venezuela – 1949

To get over the break with her husband, Remedios travelled with her new friend/lover Jean Nicolle to Venezuela at the end of 1947.  Her brother Rodrigo was living in Venezuela, working as an epidemiologist and had brought with him his family and his mother.  It is quite possible Remedios’ mother was horrified when she met her daughter and her new flamboyant lover who was fourteen years younger than her, and who were now living together.  Her mother’s Catholic sensibility must have taken a big hit, knowing her daughter’s first marriage had ended in divorce, her second partner had left her and gone back to Paris and now she was living with a third man!       Her answer was a plea for her daughter to attend mass with her.  Remedios did accompany her mother to church – but just the once.   Remedios’ stay in Venezuela came to an end at the start of 1949.

Walter Gruen (1952)

Around the time of their return from Venezuela, Remedios and Jean Nicolle’s relationship began to peter out and soon they became separated and eventually their romantic interlude came to an end.  A new man came in to Remedios’ life, an Austrian political refugee Walter Gruen whom she had first met in the early 1940’s.  However, they did not become closer until Péret had left for Paris in 1947, her relationship with Jean Nicolle had been downgraded to just a friendship and Gruen’s first wife, Clari had died in a tragic drowning accident.

Sala Margolin

Gruen had once been a medical student in Austria until Hitler came to power which put and end to his studies.  He decided that his life was in danger and managed to escape Europe and settle in Mexico.  He arrived with no possessions and very little money.  Initially he worked in a tyre shop and persuaded the owner that he could make extra money by selling phonograph records as well as tyres and Gruen and the owner set up a record shop at the front of the store.  Soon Gruen’s finances improved, so much so, he bought the tyre shop owner out and by the early 1950’s Gruen had transformed the tyre store into one of Mexico’s most prestigious music stores.  Gruen named his store Sala Margolín after the tyre store owner who had given him his first chance in Mexico.  Remedios moved in with Gruen in 1951 and lived in an apartment block on calle Alvaro Obregón close to Sala Margolín in a middle-class neighbourhood. 

Remedios Varo on her terrace.

They occupied two apartments on either side of a landing, one of which had a high-ceiling third floor studio which had a door leading out to a small terrace, where Remedios would spend hours on end painting.  Walter and Remedios married in 1952.  Remedios was adamant that despite Gruen having a lucrative business she would contribute equally to their living expenses.  Gruen gave Remedios his unwavering support which allowed her to free herself from her commercial work and devote herself entirely to her own artistic vision.

This was the start of Remedios Varo’s great painting years.

………..to be concluded


Most of the information for this blog, apart from the usual sources, comes from Janet A. Kaplan’s excellent book entitled Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys.  This is a must-read book if you want a fuller version of the life and times of Remedios Varo.

Remedios Varo. Part 3. Escape and flight from oppression.

Remedios Varo

Remedios Varo’s six year old marriage to Gerado Lizarraga was in decline and she started a romantic relationship with the young Spanish surrealist painter Esteban Francés, and a short time later, she left the marital home and she and Esteban went to live together in a room in a small house in the city.  Whilst there, the two lovers produced a number of surrealist works.  Remedios also became friendly with a group of surrealist artists known as the Logicophobists, who wanted to bring about a close connection of art with metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, and although she never became an official member of the group in 1936 she exhibited three of her work with theirs at the Catalonia de Barcelona gallery.

The Spanish Civil War broke out on July 17th 1936 between two political groups.  The Republicans who supported the Second Republic of Spain which had been founded in 1932 following a bloodless coup and the Nationalists, led by General Franco, who opposed it.  Remedios’ young brother, Luis, joined Franco’s army but was killed shortly afterwards.  Remedios was devastated by the death of her brother and could never understand why he decided to fight under the banner of the “enemy”.

Benjamin Péret

In October 1936, Remedios Varo met Benjamin Péret, a French poet, a founder and central member of the French Surrealist movement.  Péret had married the Brazilian singer Elsie Houston in April 1928.  Her brother was Mario Pedrosa, a Trotskyist activist, and the next year, Péret and his brother-in-law founded and hosted the Communist League of Brazil, which was based upon the ideas of Trotsky.  Péret was eventually arrested, imprisoned and expelled from Brazil as a “communist agitator” on December 30th, 1931, a few months after the birth of his son Geyser.  He returned alone to France and carried on with the political struggle as a Trotskyist and participated in the Spanish Civil War as one of the many Trotskyists and anarchists, who claimed to fight for a classless society.   When Remedios and Péret first met she was twenty-seven and he was thirty-seven. 

André Breton

Péret was a close friend of the Surrealist painter, André Breton.  In 1937, Péret returned to Paris and Remedios went with him, breaking off her ties with her husband Gerardo and her lover, Esteban Frances, but the latter later decided to follow the couple to Paris. Remedios and Péret were now lovers but the couple’s life was marked by poverty and political uncertainty.  She described the position she found herself in the French capital:

“…It is not easy to live on painting in Paris…Sometimes I did not have more food in an entire day than a small cup of coffee with milk. I call this ‘the heroic epoch’…That bohemian life that is supposed to be necessary for the artist is very bitter…”

Esteban Francés

It is Spring 1937 and Remedios Varo and Benjamin Péret are safe in Paris having escaped the mayhem in Spain caused by the Civil War.   Remedios, through her close relationship with Péret, was accepted into the heart of the Surrealist group.   She commented on her lowly position within the inner sanctum:

“…My position was the timid and humble one of a listener; I was not old enough nor did I have the aplomb to face up to them, to a Paul Eluard, a Benjamin Péret or an André Breton.  Here was I with my mouth gaping open within this group of brilliant and gifted people…”

The Souls of the Mountains by Remedios Varo (1938)

Whilst living in Paris she shared a Montparnasse studio with Péret and Francés and although this ménage-a-trois caused rivalries Remedios managed to enjoy life in Paris.  In 1938 she completed a painting entitled The Souls of the Mountains. In this work, mountains are portrayed as slim volcanic tubes which are seen rising from a light-impregnated mist. Out from the inside of the tallest pair of these mountains emerge a head of a woman each bearing a resemblance to the artist.  Remedios experimented not just with what she depicted but also how she depicted things.  In this work she has used a Surrealist technique known as fumage.  The technique of fumage was invented by the Austrian surrealist artist Wolfgang Paalen in the late 1930s and is achieved by passing a flame quickly across a surface fresh with oil paint.  Paalen found that the smoke would trace unique marks in the wet surface.  In this work by Varo the fumage technique created clouds swirling around the cylindrical mountains, linking the stony peaks and is suggestive of dreams and apparitions. 

Again, we try and get into the head of the artist and work out what the painting is all about.   The encased females in the painting appear to be imprisoned all alone inside the mountain.  Remedios continually harked back to the past and on her feeling of imprisonment within the family home, the constraints made upon her at her convent school and the feeling of isolation and this depiction reminds us of her struggle to break free.  The mountains have a phallic shape and this could be Remedios’ take that she lives in a male-dominated world and that female artists of the time were not looked upon as real painters but were compartmentalised as being the “spouses of artists”.  The overall dark and depressing palette of the depiction was chosen by Remedios so as to give the work a feeling of isolation and disheartening confinement.  The title of the work gives us a clue that the depiction is about a life force under oppression which is deprived of its freedom and entitlement to be acknowledged.  Remedios believes that the souls in the painting should be released from their incarceration so that they may be able to express themselves fully and without any restrictions from their surroundings.  Likewise, Remedios believes female artists should be freed from the restrictions of a patriarchal society.

Left to right: Victor Serge, Benjamin Péret, Remedios Varo and André Breton in front of the Villa Air-Bel (c.1940-41)

So, what was life like for Remedios Varo and her Surrealist group ?  Maybe the late American art historian, Robert Goldwater summed it up in his publication, Reflections on the New York School, Quadrum 8.  He wrote about the group:

“…international in character, bohemian in a self-confident, intensive fashion….. living as if they had no money worries….[Yet they] existed on the margin of society……As thee latest issue of a long line of romantics, they accepted this situation as a condition of creativity and made it a positive virtue.  They carried with them a warmth of feeling, an intensity and concern for matters aesthetic, a conviction of the rightness of their own judgements and an unconcern for any other…”

This encapsulates Remedios Varo’s lifestyle at the time.  She believed fervently in the importance of art and she was reliant on spontanaity and put her trust in her subconscious instincts. At the time, Péret was working as a proof-reader as the sale of his paintings did not bring in enough money to survive and he would often have to beg for food.  When Remedios joined him, she too had to endure this lifestyle but she didn’t care as she loved this bohemian way of life and revelled in the company of the extraordinary and stimulating group of people with whom she was surrounded.  They too were mesmerised by her and during this time she had a number of love affairs.  However, her joie de vie was to be short lived as politics and war were to change her life once again.  Hitler was on his march towards European domination and with his annexation of the Sudetenland and the takeover of Austria, people in France feared the worst.  By July 1939, the worst had arrived and Parisians were told that if they were able, they should get out of their city which was now paralysed with anxiety.  It was an even more dangerous time for foreigners who lived in the French capital.  They were threatened with deportation back to their own countries.  Remedios, being a former Republican sympathiser, could not return to Spain where the right-wing Nationalists under Franco now ruled with an iron fist and where summary executions of Republican sympathizers were common.   Her former husband, Lizarraga, had fled from Franco’s armies and arrived in France but, as a Spanish refugee, he found himself interred in a French concentration camp. 

 In February 1940, Péret, being an outspoken Communist, was recalled to military service but three months later he had been incarcerated in a military prison in Rennes for his political activities. On June 14th 1940 the Nazis entered Paris.  An independent French government was established in Vichy and the Franco-German armistice was signed.  Included in the treaty was an article which required the Vichy French government to surrender on demand any fugitive wanted by the Third Reich.  Remedios was now in great danger for her connections with Péret.  She knew that because of her left-wing Republican views and past actions, she would not survive if she was deported to Spain and yet to remain in Paris would ultimately mean a journey to an internment camp.  Her friends tried everything to save Remedios from arrest but during the Winter of 1940 she was taken in by the police.  She was eventually released but she knew, despite wanting to stay behind until Péret was released, she had to get out of the French capital.

Oscar Dominguez

She did manage to escape the chaos in June 1940 and through help from her friend, Oscar Dominguez.  She managed to get a ride in a car owned by an American couple who were also escaping from Paris.  She arrived on the south coast at the small fishing village of Canet-Plage which lay close to Perpignan.  It was here she stayed with a number of Surrealist painters who had taken refuge on the Mediterranean coast.  Soon she and a Romanian Jew, Victor Brauner, who had also fled south, paired off and went to live together in Marseilles.  This was yet another of her love affairs.  As a reminder of their time together he gave her a watercolour, probably a portrait of her, and he wrote on it:

“…To my very dear friend Remedios with the memory of an indelible period of my life.  Your admiring friend, Victor Brauner, Marseille, Oct 1941…”

Remedios kept Brauner’s watercolour and a letter from him all her life.

Victor Brauner

Varo and Brauner were now part of a large group of intellectuals, artists and Jews who were trying to escape the Nazis.  They were joined by Péret at the end of the year.  He had managed to bribe the Nazi guards and then made a long and dangerous journey south.  The city of Marseilles was bursting with refugees all desperate to get out of the country.  They were living on little food and the fear of being caught in random but regular police roundups. 

 

Villa Air-Bel

Varo and Péret eventually found refuge at the Villa Air-Bel, a large residence outside the city which was being used by a group calling themselves the Emergency Rescue Committee.  This was a group that officially helped refugees legally obtain visas so they could leave France. The group’s secret agenda was to get those people on the Gestapo’s blacklist – specifically writers, artists and political activists, out of the country, by any means possible,   The organisation was led by an American, Varian Fry.  Fry was one of the founding members and as soon as the Committee was set up, they established a list of people to save in priority, mainly artists and writers, who had fled Germany and Occupied France to hide in the South.

Group of artists posing on the grounds of the Villa Air-Bel near Marseilles (1941)

Remedios Varo, now back with Péret, was in great danger.  Many of their fellow refugees had gained passage to America but Péret had been refused entry to America due to his previous communist activities.  As each month passed in Marseilles the danger of being arrested by the Vichy police became ever greater.  They knew they had to escape.  Their perilous situation was documented in notes in the files of the Emergency Rescue Committee:

“…He [Péret] is in immediate danger as his democratic ideas are opposed to the Vichy government, and he faces persecution.  He and his family [referring to Varo, although Péret did not marry Remedios Varo until 1942, after the death of his first wife] are in danger of starvation, as the problem of the food supply in their region is acute…”

Remedios Varo’s immigration papers (1942)

The Emergency Rescue Committee recognised the couple as “qualified as intellectuals and worthy of attention” and proceeded to try and attain visa for them so as they could leave France.  It was a long and torturous fight to get the documentation and took six months to achieve.  However, it was not just the visas they needed but money, again something they did not have.   Once again it was up to the Emergency Rescue Committee to get them financial help from their American backers.   Their fund-raising pamphlets were quite clear with their message which displayed hard-hitting headlines such as:

“…Wanted by the GESTAPO, Saved by America…”

The pamphlet then asked for contributions of $350, as the price of a life of one escapee.

SS. Serpa Pinto

Remedios and Péret’s thoughts then turned to Mexico as a place of refuge.  They had a number of things going for them with this idea.  Varo spoke Spanish.  The President of Mexico had stated that he would accept all Spanish refugees and to any members of the International Brigade living in France, who had once fought against Franco.  So, the destination for Péret and Varo was decided, now all they needed was to get there and procure a safe sea passage across the Atlantic.  For this to happen they had to travel from Marseilles to Casablanca and then board a ship to Mexico.  They eventually made it to Casablanca and on November 20th 1941, a year after they had arrived in Marseilles, they set sail from Casablanca on the Portuguese freighter Serpa Pinto.  The couple arrived in Mexico at the end of 1941.  They had been battered by the ferocious winter seas of the Atlantic Ocean crossing and also fearful of being attacked by Nazi naval ships.  Remedios remembered the ordeal in a later interview, she said:

“…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 – for me it was impossible to paint amidst such anguish…”

…………..to be continued


Most of the information for this blog, apart from the usual sources, comes from Janet A. Kaplan’s excellent book entitled Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys.  This is a must-read book if you want a fuller version of the life and times of Remedios Varo.

Remedios Varo: Part 2. Lovers and war.

Remedios Varo

Whilst attending the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid Remedios met Gerrado Lizarraga, a fellow student.  He was a Basque from Pamplona, a lanky, long-nosed man, known for his honesty and great sense of humour.  During the time at the Academia she remained living at home and it was during her years at the Academia that she realised she had to break free of the family.  She desperately wanted her independence.  As an unmarried twenty-one-year old woman she was expected to live at home with her family and remain under their tight control.  She realised that marriage was the only way out of this restrictive situation.  

Rupture by Remedios Varo (1955)

This constant battle against a restrictive lifestyle whether it be life at the convent school or life at home whilst attending the Academia must have played on Remedios’ mind for many years.  In 1955 whilst living in Mexico she completed a painting entitled Ruptura (Rupture) which recalled life in “captivity” and the escape.  In this work we see her character in a similar situation that reminded her of her own experience whilst in Madrid.  Before us we see a hooded figure in a brown travelling cloak leaving a building, from which dead leaves and old papers flutter away in the breeze.  Look at the faces in the windows, all staring out at the departing figure.  For Remedios, this was what life was like in her teenage years. – constantly being watched over and spied upon.  She would later write about how she would hide her diaries under a loose stone on the floor of her bedroom and how she had sprinkled sugar on the floor by her door to see if anybody had entered her room while she was absent.   The figure in the painting is going down a long flight of steps.  The setting is a winter’s day, the trees having shed their leaves.  On either side of the steps are high stone walls which are covered in vegetation.  These imposing walls suggest constraint and incarceration, the very feelings which Remedios had during her late teenage years  Climbing up the walls we can see a number of snails carrying their large shells, their “homes”, on their backs and is a memory of the burdens Remedios had to carry through her early years.  Although there would have been parental control and the convent school would have kept an eye on what she was doing, much of Remedios’ perceived spying would be just a figment of her imagination.

I took advantage of all that I learned, in painting the things that interested me on my own, which could be called, together with technique, the beginning of a personality.”

Gerardo Lizarraga and Remedios Varo (1930)

The year she left the Academia, 1930, was also the year she married her boyfriend and fellow student and political activist Gerardo Lizárraga.  They got married in the Basque city of San Sebastian, a place she knew well from her family summer holidays.  He was three years older than Remedios and was a politically committed artist and his bohemian and carefree lifestyle appealed to Remedios.   For Remedios, marriage enabled her to escape the overwhelming control of her parents, especially her mother.  She was fascinated by Surrealism and the surrealist ideas which were beginning to permeate Spanish art from France, especially Paris.   She wanted to fully immerse herself into the world of Surrealism and so in 1931 she and Lizárraga moved to Paris.  Remedios wanted to experience art tuition other than that pedalled by the Academia de San Fernando and signed up for courses at the Accademia de la Grande Chaumiere, a free art school which was legendary throughout Paris. However, she only lasted there a few three weeks.  She felt overwhelmed and under too much pressure and decided that life for her and her husband in Paris should simply be an opportunity to immerse themselves in what Remedios later recalled was a poor bohemian lifestyle, one which allowed them to remain self-assured and untroubled by life. It was a chance to savour an unrestricted life free from her parents.

Academie de la Grande Chaumiere. Paris.

Like her early departure from the teaching at the Accademia de la Grande Chaumiere, she decided that after a year in the French capital it was time to return to Spain.  In 1932 Remedios and her husband went back, not to Madrid, but to Barcelona which had a much more unconventional and innovative feel to it.   Barcelona was the closest to Paris in its avant-garde atmosphere.  It had become the intellectual and artistic centre of Spain and of course it gave a sufficient distancing from her parents. 

Esteban Francés

Another man entered Remedios’s life soon after she and her husband arrived in Barcelona. He was the Catalan artist Esteban (Esteve) Francés who was born in Portbou, a small town close to the French border.  Later he and his family went to live inland to the larger town of Figueras, in North Eastern Spain, also the birthplace of Dali. In 1925, at the age of twelve, he moved to Barcelona where, after a brief period studying law, he enrolled at the art and design school, Escola de la Llotja.  He was nineteen when he first met Remedios Varo, and later they shared a studio in Barcelona in the Plaza de Lesseps.  

Composición surrealista by Esteban Frances (1934)

He, like Varo, had a great interest in the avant-garde world of Surrealism.  Although Remedios lived with her husband, she and Esteban became lovers.  This affair marked the first time Remedios had broken the stern moral code under which she had been raised.  It was to be first of many open relationships she maintained throughout her life.  Being a member of the bohemian set, Varo flouted conventional morals and had few recriminations.

Composition by Remedios Varo (1935)

Remedios Varo completed one of her earliest surrealist compositions in 1935 with her pencil on paper artwork, simply entitled Composition.   It is a strange depiction of a bone-like tree, a flaccid stretched-out figure and insect/human hybrids all of which flow like a dream one into the next.

L´Agent Double (Double Agent) by Remedios Varo (1936)

Remedios had fully engaged herself in the Surrealist movement and had joined the group known as Logicofobista, whose aim was to epitomise the mental state of the internal soul in a Surrealist style. It was during her time spent as a member of this group that Remedios Varo produced her painting L´Agent Double (Double Agent).  Trouble had been brewing in Spain since the early 1930’s which, in 1936 culminated in an almost three-year very bloody civil war.  In 1936 Remedios Varo completed this work which reflected the political tensions in Spain at that time.  The setting is a small enclosed room which has a separate image on each of the walls and the floor.  The back wall is covered with full fleshy female breasts and a small bushy tree, suggesting a hairy pubic triangle.  To the right, coming through the window an elongated red arm holding a ball-like object, from which a sperm-like tail is attached which wriggles away into a small dark opening low down on the far wall.  On the opposite wall we see a large-handed figure, part heavy-limbed male, part curvaceous female standing up, nose pressed hard against the surface of the wall.  It seems to be trapped within the confines of the room.  Climbing up the back of this figure is a giant bumblebee.  Looking at the floor we see a woman’s head rising out of a crack in the floor surface.  It is the first self-portrait of Varo to appear in one of her paintings.  Many more would follow over the years.  She cautiously looks out and on either side of her head we see vapour or roots rising.  This part of the painting is also a reminder that as a child and a teenager Remedios used to hide things, such as her writings and diary, from her family under a stone, part of the floor in her bedroom. 

It is easy to describe what we see before us but a little more difficult to make sense of what we see.  The year 1936 was the start of the Spanish Civil War, a war which was to see about 200,000 people die as the result of systematic killings, mob violence, torture, or other brutalities.  Fighting and killings however, had preceded that date in the struggles between the left-wing sympathisers of the Republican Government also known as the Loyalists who supported the Spanish government and the right-wing Nationalists led by General Franco.  Spies and secret agents for both sides were ever present.  In the painting entitled Double Agent we are posed the question as to who the double agent is.  Is it the figure appearing from out of the floor and who has the perfect vantage point to see what is going on.  Has she trapped the part man, part woman? Or is it the figure with its nose pressed to the wall that has trapped her.  Or are they both trapped by the creature with the long far-reaching hand?  It is all about entrapment and of the fear of treachery and double agents at a time in Spain when one did not know who your ally was and who was your enemy.  It was a painting which juxtaposes eroticism with distorted unreal and unrelated objects.  Welcome to Surrealism !

Benjamin Péret

Enter the life of Remedios Varo of a man who was to play an important part of her life.  He was Benjamin Péret, a French poet, Parisian Dadaist and a founder and central member of the French Surrealist movement and a close friend of André Breton.  Péret had met Varo in October 1936, through her friendship with Oscar Dominguez, an artist from the Spanish Canary Islands who had close connections with Gaceta de arte, a Tenerife journal devoted to all Surrealist activities.  Péret had come to Spain in 1936, a month before the civil war had begun, along with many other left-wing foreigners who wanted to fight for the Republicans against Franco’s Nationalists.  He was a Communist activist and had been jailed in Brazil for his subversive activities.  Soon a love affair between Varo and Péret began.  Péret was nine years older than Varo but was in love with her.  In a letter, dated October 15th 1936 to André Breton, the French writer and poet, who was concerned for the safety of his friend in Barcelona and wondered when he would return to the safety of France.  Péret repiled in a letter:

“…I am involved in a love story that holds me here until the young person can accompany me to Paris, so I can say nothing of my return…”

Remedios Varo and Benjamin Péret (1936)

Péret wrote love notes in his books which he gave to Remedios.  He was absolutely besotted with her and in his book of love poems, Je sublime, there was a dedication “to Remedios Lizarraga” and part of one of the poems, Source, Péret wrote:

“… It’s Rosa weather with a real Rosa sun

And I’m going to drink Rosa with a Rosa meal

Until I fall into a Rosa sleep

Dressed in Rosa dreams

And the Rosa dawn will wake me like a Rosa

Mushroom

In which Rosa’s image will be surrounded

By a Rosa halo…”

Remedios was equally in love with Péret.  So what was the thing that forged this love affair between the two ?  For Varo it was probably the fact that Péret was a published poet, a French Surrealist and a close friend of Breton.  He was a romantic who had dedicated poems to her.  He had left France to fight as a revolutionary defending her country.  For Péret she was an attractive younger woman who doted on him.  What more could he ask for ? Péret moved back to Paris in early 1937 and in the Spring of that year, Remedios Varo decided to join him, leaving her homeland, her husband and also her one-time lover Estéban Francés, who would later follow her to Paris.

Eyes on the table, by Remedios Varo (1938)

Remedios Varo had escaped the chaos and blood-letting of the Spanish Civil War which had taken the life of her younger brother and moved to the safety of the French capital.  However, unknown to her at the time, Paris and France was to be almost the death of her………….

………………………….to be continued.


Most of the information for this blog, apart from the usual sources, comes from Janet A. Kaplan’s excellent book entitled Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys.  This is a must-read book if you want a fuller version of the life and times of Remedios Varo.

Remedios Varo. Part 1: Surrealism, the early days, family life and schooling.

Remedios Varo

We all have our favourite art genre and within that genre we also probably have our favourite artists.  For me, I like the Golden Age painters of The Netherlands and the Scandinavian artists who were known as the Skagen painters.  For some people narrative paintings are their favourites for others they prefer paintings that have various symbols depicted, each conveying a hidden meaning.  Today I am going to look at an artist who is famous for her painting genre, a genre which is both equally strange and yet somewhat fascinating.  Let me introduce you to the Spanish surrealist painter Remedios Varo who was born María de los Remedios Varo y Uranga.

André Breton (photo by Henri Manuel) 1927

Before I look at the life and works of Varo, first let us try to understand Surrealism.  Surrealism was founded in Paris by the French writer and poet André Breton in 1924.  Breton had been a leading light in the Dadaist movement, an artistic movement which was practiced by a group of European writers, artists, and intellectuals in protest against what they saw as a senseless war, World War I, which had claimed an estimated 37.5 million lives.  Out of Dadaism was born Surrealism, which was an artistic and literary movement.  The Surrealists wanted to put an end to the overbearing dictates of modern society by destroying its mainstay, that of rational thought.  Surrealism was preoccupied with spiritualism, the thoughts of Sigmund Freud with regards psychoanalysis and the political thoughts surrounding Marxism.  Surrealists wanted to achieve the creation of art which came from the artist’s unconscious mind and that lacked any reasoned thoughts.  Surrealism was a forerunner of Automatism which is the avoidance of conscious intention in producing works of art, especially by using mechanical techniques or subconscious associations.  Breton maintained that Surrealism was pure psychic automatism.

Varo family
Back: Remedios and older brother Rodrigo Jnr
Front: Mother, paternal grandmother, younger brother Luis and father

In a series of blogs, I will be looking at the life and work of Remedios Varo.  María de los Remedios Alicia Rodriga Varo y Uranga was born on December 16th 1908 in the small walled village of Anglès which lies ten kilometres west of Girona and eighty kilometres north-east of Barcelona. The village is situated in a Pyrenees valley close to the River Ter.  Remedios was the daughter of Rodrigo Varo-i-Zayalvo who hailed from Cordoba in Andalucía and his wife Ignasia Uranga Bergareche, a large woman of strong character, who came from a Basque family but was actually born in Argentina.  Remedios was the middle child of three, having an older brother Rodrigo Jnr., who would later become a doctor and a younger brother, Luis, who would sadly die in the Spanish Civil War.  Her mother gave her daughter the name Remedios in dedication to La Virgen de los Remedios as a remedy to help her forget the sadness associated with the death of her older daughter who died when she was very young.  Remedios’ connection with her two brothers was very different.  Probably because her older brother, Rodrigo, looked in horror at her life as a bohemian artist, their relationship was not a close one.  On the other hand, Remedios was very close to her younger brother Luis.

Postcard

Remedios’ father was a hydraulic engineer and it was his work on the nearby canal and lock systems which had brought the family to Anglès.  In his line of work, he had to travel all around the country as well as to North Africa.  His wife did not want to be left at home during her husband’s frequent business trips so she and the children would travel with him.  The constant “wanderings” of the family and the disruption it caused had an overpowering effect on Remedios.  She missed her home, and so, as she should did not want to forget her home life in Anglès, all her life, no matter where she went, she always kept with her a childhood postcard of the street in Anglès where she lived.

Father, older brother and Remedios (1912)

Remedios Varo’s religious upbringing was a tale of two parental beliefs.  Her mother, Ignasia, was a devout Catholic whereas her father, Rodrigo, was more receptive to religious beliefs of different faiths.  Remedios was very close to her mother but did not believe in her narrow Catholic beliefs favouring her father’s more varied and less dogmatic religious viewpoint. Varo’s father wanted his daughter to attend a “free” school which was independent from both the State and the Church and which many believed gave a more rounded education and were educationally superior to Catholic schools, but her mother demanded Remedios attended a Catholic school.  Her mother’s will must have been acceded to as Remedios attended a Roman Catholic convent school run by nuns.  A strict belief in Catholicism was demanded of the pupils and to counter this Remedios would immerse herself in books by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas, which spun stories of fantasy worlds.  She also liked to read about mysticism and alchemy.  It was the strict regimented existence at the Catholic convent school which led, in 1931, to her painting the triptych in which she ridiculed the restraints of convent schooling.

Toward the Tower by Remedios Varo (1961)

The three paintings formed the autobiographical triptych entitled Embroidering Earth’s Mantle.  The first of the three works was entitled Towards the Tower and Varo depicts a pack of identical girls following their leader in a trance-like state, bicycling away from a beehive tower in which they were once held captive.  All the girls face the same way, except one, Varo’s inclusion of herself as the heroine.  She depicts herself as the independently minded rebellious one.  Leading the pack of schoolgirls is the Mother Superior and a strange looking man who has a sack over his shoulder from which we see flocks of blue-coloured birds escaping and hovering over the party of cyclists.  Look at the bicycles.  They are fabricated, in part, from the stiffened fabrics of their own clothes. 

Embroidering Earth’s Mantle by Remedios Varo (1961)

In the central panel of the triptych, Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle, we observe the same young women.  This time the setting is a room in the tower where the convent girls are made to work.  The setting is what could be termed a medieval scriptorium, a room devoted to the writing, copying and illuminating of manuscripts commonly handled by monastic scribes.  It is a cramped and isolated space in which the young women are weaving out the surface of the earth under the intense supervision from the Great Master who reads from the book of instructions whilst at the same time, stirring a boiling broth in the same alchemical vessel from which the women draw their embroidery thread.  Behind him a veiled figure sits playing a flute.  Each and every young woman works alone embroidering images of the landscape onto a continuous fabric which tumbles 0ut from table-height battlements around the sides of the tower.  This act of embroidering and needlework was considered to be a skill suitable for cultured young women

Hidden image of the lovers

Varo has added an ironic twist to the painting although it may not be very clear in the main picture.  Remedios’ rebellious heroine in this triptych has embroidered an upside-down image of her and her lover within the folds of the cloth that emerge from her table.

The Escape by Remedios Varo (1962)

In the final panel, Varo reveals The Escape; Varo’s heroine has successfully fled with her lover on a fantastical furry inverted umbrella which floats on a foggy mist.  Both the clothes of the girl and her lover billow behind them in the wind and act as sails.  For Varo the triptych is all about imprisonment and the chance to liberate herself from the strict academic confines of convent school life and her determination to free herself from the facelessness of being one among a homogenous many.  It was her determination to escape isolation and be free.  Her freedom was to come in 1930 when she was twenty-one and left home after marrying Gerrado Lizaraga a fellow art student.

Portrait of Grandmother Doña Josefa Zejalvo by Remedios Varo (1926)

In order to keep his daughter, Remedios, amused on his business trips he would allow her to redraw his blueprints, and at the same time explain the function of the various systems. Remedios’s knowledge grew as did her inquisitiveness.    This was the start of her artistic tuition.  Her father was a hard taskmaster and would make his daughter repeat technical drawings until they were right.  Over time her draughtsmanship  constantly improved and her pencil lines gradually became more accurate as she became self-assured.  This infused in her the lifelong characteristic of meticulousness.  She had started to become a perfectionist.    Besides his training of Remedios in draughtsmanship, her father encouraged her love of art, by taking her to museums and art galleries.

Mother and daughter – Pencil sketches by Remedios Varo (1923)

By 1924 the family had relocated to an apartment on calle Segovia, one of Madrid’s main streets and because fifteen year old Remedios had shown a love of art the family arranged for her to attend the city’s Escuela de Artes y Oficios (School of Arts and Crafts) and later the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, where she became one of the first female students of the academy.  Like all the major art Academies of Europe, the Academia was known for its strict observance of the methodology of the Old Masters.  They would not compromise and those who became disruptive were expelled.  The year Remedios started at the Academy was the same year that fellow student, Salvador Dali, returned from his one-year expulsion for leading a student protest over a professional appointment at the Academia.  Two years later he was permanently expelled.  Despite this strict observance of academic art Remedios became interested in Surrealism.  Of her education at the Academy, she said:

“…”I took advantage of all that I learned, in painting the things that interested me on my own, which could be called, together with technique, the beginning of a personality…”

In Janet A. Kaplan’s book, Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys she quotes a story from Remedios teenage years, an erotic fantasy she had endured in a dream:

“…One night, a strange being entered through the window and threw itself on top of me; it was like the devil.  I resisted, but his eat was immense.  The following day and with out having said anything at the table my grandmother said to me ‘Remedios, what has happened to you?  Your hair is burned’…”

All her life Remedios would believe in the power of such dream images and in her mind, there was little to differentiate between reality and dreams.

Pencil sketches of Paternal grandmother by Remedios Vara (1925 and 1923)

Her “personality” was her strong attraction to Surrealism, which had gained a foothold in the Madrid art culture.  Whilst studying at the Academia she would make many visits to the Prado and became fascinated with the works of Primitive painters, including tribal art from Africa, the South Pacific and Indonesia, as well as prehistoric and very early European art, and European folk art.  She also loved the works of Hieronymus Bosch and also the mainstream art of El Greco and Goya.  In 1930, she graduated from the Academia with a drawing teacher diploma.

…………………………….. to be continued.


Most of the information for this blog, apart from the usual sources, comes from Janet A. Kaplan’s excellent book entitled Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys.  This is a must-read book if you want a fuller version of the life and times of Remedios Varo.

Agnès Boulloche and her surrealist world.

Agnès Boulloche

My last blog was about the painter Alfred Robert Quinton and his artwork which was perceived to be “chocolate-boxy” and kitsch and yet, I believe was a charming window on beautifully tranquil bye-gone days of rural life.

The artwork today could not be more different. It is Surrealism. Surrealism, which means “beyond reality”, was a movement, principally in literature and the visual arts. It thrived in Europe between the First and Second World Wars. The Surrealists rejected rationalism and held the belief that the rational mind repressed the power of the imagination. Surrealists instead tried to channel the unconscious mind and by so doing, reveal the power of the imagination.

The founder of the Surrealist movement was the French poet and critic André Breton who launched the movement by publishing the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 and led the group till his death in 1966. Surrealist artists find magical enchantment and enigmatic beauty in the unexpected and the strange, the overlooked and the eccentric. In a way, it is a belligerent dismissal of conservative, if somewhat conformist, artistic values. The depictions in the Surrealist paintings are startling often colourful. In some ways they are mesmerising and one wonders what was going through the mind of the painter when they put their ideas on canvas or wood. My featured artist today is French and she was considered to be one of the leading twentieth century French Surrealist painters. Let me introduce you to Agnès Boulloche.

Le Jeu de la Chausse-Trappe (The Trap-Door Game) by Agnès Boulloche

Agnès Boulloche was born in Paris in 1951. She was the daughter of André Boulloche, who in 1940 joined the Resistance movement He was captured and deported by the Nazis. In 1959 he was made Minister of National Education under the mandate of General de Gaulle. He was known as a politician of integrity and conviction. Sadly he died in a plane crash, barely 62 years old. Agnès spent much of early childhood in Rabat, Morocco where André was head of the Road Bureau. As a child she loved to paint and draw. Her mother, Anne, once said that she was born with brushes in her mouth, where others have a pacifier! From a young age Agnès was also fascinated by myths and mythical lands and loved to hear about the adventurous tales of the Arabian Nights. Her other interest, and maybe it came from living in an Arab country, was the world of jinn. Jinn being defined in Islamic mythology as a class of spirits, lower than the angels, capable of appearing in human and animal forms and influencing humankind for either good or evil.

Les Marmitons by Agnès Boulloche

From an early age Agnès had always been immersed in a world populated by fabulous beasts, countless chimeras, gorgons and genies. She experiences life in a fantasy world inhabited by humanimal creatures who she depicts in her artwork dancing, riding on each other and even spinning their horned feet around chessboards in stone-paved gardens. This was her fantasy world which she once described:

“…I’ve always had that taste for escape and freedom. Already a child I escaped, taking the side roads to find my close friends, a whole people of fabulous beasts, chimeras and other geniuses. And my left hand lent itself to my dreams and allowed me to evolve in this magnificent dimension that is painting…”

She always had an affinity towards animals, once saying:

“…I do not see so many differences between humans and animals. On the contrary, I see a lot of interference. However, I hate bestiality on one side or the other. What I disliked was the fact that animals are considered objects, which fortunately is no longer the case since the recent vote of the deputies on April 15, 2014…”

The Garden of Earthly Delights in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, by Hieronymus Bosch (1495 – 1505)

Agnes Boulloche paints in oil on wood panels and uses the ancient technique of “glaze”, a superposition of thin transparent layers of colours. She also uses many chemical recipes to create her pigments and varnishes.
When she was a teenager, she and the family left Morocco and returned to Paris where she enrolled at the École des arts décoratifs, a school which had a major role in the development of the Art Deco design movement in the 1920s and in the creation of new design concepts. Agnès focused on oil-on-wood painting. Except for a short period at art school Agnès was self-taught. One of her main artistic influences is the artist Hieronymus Bosch, whose works are often populated with strange and exotic animals.

Le renard dans le bestiaire médiéval

Agnès also liked to look at the illustrated bestiaries, which must have inspired her works. A bestiary was a compendium of beasts. A bestiary means a manuscript of the Middle Ages gathering fables and morals on the “beasts”, real or imaginary animals, mystical animals. They originate in the ancient world and were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals. She would study works by Philippe de Thaon, Guillaume le Clerc, Gervaise de Fontenay and Richard de Fournival in a modern version. The themes of her inspiration were creatures, half-men, half-beasts, but according to her, they were “more than human”.

Agnès Boulloche – Self Portrait  entitled We Two (2013)

Her painting technique followed traditional methods. Agnes used her own different alchemical formulas for her colours and mixed her own colours, pigments and varnishes. She would then use these oils and paint on wood panels in “glazing technique” used by the Old Masters, in a way in which many transparent layers of colours are laid on top of each other in several passes. This made it possible to work out very fine details and attain delicate, bright colours. Agnès Boulloche paintings are often set in landscapes, which appear similar to those we see in Renaissance compositions.

Danse avec la Lune by Agnès Boulloche

Besides her paintings, she would spend time in the production of sculptures, which were mainly cast in bronze in wax castings and hand chased and then patinated.

Agnès Boulloche in 2014 creating one of her favourite animals -an owl

In the photograph above, taken by her daughter, Julie Lipinski we see her working on one of her favourite animals, the owl.

Oiseau Au by Agnès Boulloche

Soon after completing her studies, she opened her first exhibition in Paris. She was invited by friends to visit them on the Ile de Ré but for Agnès it was not love at first sight. She recalled that at first she deemed it to be ugly and flat. However, she returned the following year and, had a change of heart:

“…When I came back the following summer, I noticed the lack of bars on the ground floor windows and the houses that were not necessarily closed twice when we were away, etc….. I said to myself, this is a place where the notion of freedom must still have a meaning…”

Le Rat de Bibliothèque by Agnèes Boulloche

She used to live and work alternately in Paris and in the town of Foix on the Île de Ré, which lies on the southern French Atlantic coast. In 1994 she finally made Loix her permanent home. She knew it was her destiny to live in Loix saying:

“…Convinced that it was there that I had to be, I first rented a house in Loix, then quickly bought a first home, still in Loix, my village for 18 years. Even though I have always been painting and if I’ve been living for about forty years, in Loix, when I leave home, I am not permanently stamped “painter”. No, I am a Loidaise [term for people of Loix] full, I participate in a real village life and I feel adopted. So to honour this shared friendship, I contribute artistically, and of course voluntarily, to the daily life of the village by making street signs and various other things such as the cemetery or the children’s kitchen garden of the school…”

Le chien tiroir (The Drawer Dog)  by Agnès Boulloche

She bought her first house, but it had no garden and she missed that aspect of living. Then she met Michel Héraudeau, a local builder and in 1996 they joined forces and bought some land in the heart of Loix. He then built Agnès’ house first, then his own, but by this time they had fallen in love and he moved in with Agnès. Soon their common garden was full of flowers and their life became a great love story, which lasted until her death.

Le Bal des Masques by Agnès Boulloche

In 2011, her daughter, Julie Lipinski, also moved to Loix with her partner, Thibault Chenaille, and their 13-year-old son Swan. Then, in 2013, Agnès Boulloche became a grandmother for a second time with the arrival of Julie’s second child, a son, Marlow. Now, Agnès’ life could not be bettered. She was a very successful artist who was now surrounded by her daughter and her grandchildren. Julie described her mother as being a passionate lover of life, a very sensitive person but for all that, one who has a natural authority.

L’Atelier de la Lune by Agnès Boulloche

Sadly in June 2018 she was diagnosed with having cancer. Her daughter said that she accepted the news and never complained as she was a woman of great strength of character. Agnès Boulloche died on April 7th 2019. On that Sunday afternoon, her daughter announced her passing in Facebook, simply writing:

“…My mom joined her fantasy world this morning…”

A tribute was held together with the dispersion of her ashes at the port of Loix Saturday, on April 20th. The local newspaper, Ré à la Hune, recorded the news of her death writing:

“…Since her death, there has been a shower of tributes that sweeps over the social network, on the island of Ré, and more precisely to Loix. For twenty-five years, Agnès Boulloche had put her baggage in this village she loved so much, because in the middle of the salt marshes, the land, the sea and the sky were her horizons and especially her anchors. In her suitcases, she had first brought back her brushes and paintings, and of course, all this universe of her own, populated by animals like the rhinoceros, the cat, the owl, the unicorns, but also angels and little girls or young women with bare breasts, but with ruffles and pointed hats…”

La Licorne de Troie (The Trojan Unicorn) by Agnès Boulloche

Agnes Boulloche had her paintings exhibited in Paris, as well as several other European countries. Her Surrealist works of art have also been seen in the United States, and in Africa. Her work brings out the energy of the colour she uses and seemed well suited in her imaginary world, a world where dreams prevail over reality. An art critic once wrote:

“…Agnes is a ghost who dreams with her eyes wide open …”.

L’Ecuyère (The Rider) by Agnés Boulloche

At the start of this blog I talked about the meaning of Surrealism paintings and pondered on what went through the artist’s mind when they formulated their depictions. Are there hidden meanings or were the depictions just amusing fantasies? In the case of Agnès Boulloche we may get closer to her reasoning for she decided to put her ideas on paper with her Dictionary of Symbols. I am not sure they help but here are some of the examples from her dictionary:

Cochon; animal très pieux et avenant toujours prêt à se faire atteler ou chevaucher par n’importe qui
Pig; a very pious animal, always ready to be hitched or ridden by anyone.

Chien: ne laissez jamais un chien nu sinon il fugue. Vêtissez le plutôt d’un chapeau de lune et d’une fraise empresée de dentelles
Dog: never leave a dog naked otherwise he runs away. Wear a moon hat and a strawberry with lace

Hibou: à tiroirs, il garde nos secrets
Owl: with drawers, he keeps our secrets

Licorne: sa corne telle celle du narval, son sosie marin, peut empaler les mérous, trépaner les dés ou décrocher la lune                                                                      Unicorn: its horn, like that of the narwhal, its marine look-alike, can impale the groupers, skewer the dice or catch the moon

Nef: folle, elle navigue bondée de créatures insensées qui se jouent de sa ligne de flottaison
Ship or boat: crazy, it sails full of crazy creatures who play with her waterline

I am not sure they help you decode the paintings but they do give you a further insight into the mind of the artist

Le Retable du Poisson Rouge (The Red Fish Altarpiece)  by Agnès Boulloche

Agnès seemed to have lived a happy life surrounded by her family on the Ile de Ré and yet she also loved to escape that land and journey to her imaginary world which brought her equal happiness.  She will be sadly missed.

Sally Moore

Catnapping by Sally Moore

When I decide on a subject for my blog I look for three criteria to be met.  Firstly, and on a personal note, I need to be interested in the person or their art.  Secondly, I need to be able to find enough information with regards the life of the artist and their family upbringing and lastly, I need to have enough copies of their works to be able to populate the blog.  Without all three criteria, I tend to reluctantly disregard the artist as the subject of my blogs.  Having said all that, the next two blogs feature artists who did not meet with all the criteria – the missing criterium in both cases was the limited information I had about their lives, but because I liked their work so much I decided to feature them albeit in much shorter blogs.

All at Sea by Sally Moore

In this blog, I am looking at the work of a living surrealist artist and as I told you in an earlier blog about another living artist, Neil Simone (My Daily Art Display – May 24th 2017), who coincidently could also be classed as a surrealist, I try and avoid blogging about painters who are still alive, for fear of upsetting them!!!  My featured artist today is the Welsh-born surrealist painter Sally Moore.

Still Waters by Sally Moore

Although my favourite art tends to be landscapes, seascapes, and genre paintings I am fascinated by surrealist art and I am mesmerised by the thought process which goes into the depictions.  The Tate’s short description of the term surrealism encapsulates the very essence of the art form:

“…A twentieth-century literary, philosophical and artistic movement that explored the workings of the mind, championing the irrational, the poetic and the revolutionary…”

One of the most famous surrealist artists was the twentieth century Italian artist, Giorgio de Chirico and his take on surrealism was:

“…Although the dream is a very strange phenomenon and an inexplicable mystery, far more inexplicable is the mystery and aspect our minds confer on certain objects and aspects of life…”

Bittersweet Offerings by Sally Moore

Sometimes it is a mistake to compartmentalise art or the works of an artist and maybe Sally Moore would not want her art to be categorised as Surrealism and perhaps she would be unhappy that I am typecasting her as a Surrealist painter.  If so, I apologise in advance and just say that her exquisite depictions are quirky, amusing and cleverly thought out.

 Sally Moore was born in Barry, South Wales in 1962. She studied art at the Ruskin School of Art, in Oxford.  The Ruskin School of Art dates to 1871, when John Ruskin, the leading English art critic of the Victorian era, as well as an art patron, draughtsman, and watercolourist, first opened his School of Drawing. Sally subsequently won a scholarship to study at the British School in Rome.

Head with Bees by Sally Moore (1996)

Her paintings from the very start of her career were popular with both the critics and public alike and, early on, she won awards at the National Eisteddfod.  More awards soon followed including one for her painting Head with Bees at the 1996 Discerning Eye Exhibition in London.  The Discerning Eye Exhibition differs from many other exhibitions as six selectors (judges) make their choice of small works as their interpretation of the best of contemporary British art and each selected section is hung separately so that there may be a distinct identity with its combination of established and less established or even unknown artists.  The Discerning Eye has one limitation and that is the paintings must be small in size giving more artists a chance to exhibit and also allowing the works to be small enough to be bought, carried back under arm and hung in any home or office space. Each judge was asked to pick over half of his selection from less established names.  Her painting was selected as winner by artist and art critic, William Packer, one of the six judges/selectors.

This Charming Man by Sally Moore

In 2005, she won the Welsh Artist of the Year Award.

Her artworks are painstaking in style and much time is spent on the detail and this of course limits her output and thus the number of solo exhibitions she has held.  She says she often has a umber of works on the go at the same time.   I was fortunate to go to her exhibition the other week at the Martin Tinney Gallery in Cardiff, which contained sixteen of herpaintings.  Although small in quantity, the quality of the work was excellent and the subjects fascinating.

Fishy Business by Sally Moore

The one aspect of her work you will soon notice is that she includes herself in most of her paintings!

Home Histrionics by Sally Moore

Not all her paintings feature humour and in two of her works she looks at the state of people’s minds and behaviour when they are experiencing a personal trauma.  In two of her works, Beneath Suspicion and Home Histrionics, she looks at the behaviour of people, who we have all come across at some time, people who seem to revel in their catastrophes, to such an extent they almost seem to flourish on it. In a way Home Histrionics ridicules such characters.

Beneath Suspicion by Sally Moore

When asked whether she based the depictions on somebody she knew, she answered:

“…They are loosely based on a friend of mine who enjoys complex relationships with men and follows a specific pattern of destructive behaviour.  She gets herself in these ludicrous situations and seems to relish the drama it creates, when it’s all driven by fake emotion…”

Captive by Sally Moore

My favourite work by Sally Moore is the quirky painting entitled Captive.

Her work is probably best summed up by her fellow Welshman and Visual Artist, Keith Bayliss, who commented:

“…Sally’s paintings are intriguing, there is a drama being enacted, a story unfolding. Sometimes the stage set is a domestic one, or an everyday scene, a seemingly familiar and therefore reassuring picture. We are drawn in as eager observers, only to realise that we have become participants in the story.

Her work displays an interest in, and a deep knowledge of, three visual art traditions, the Narrative, the Surreal and the Symbolic, marrying all together through her use of highly personal imagery. Her paintings are painstakingly crafted, taking months to produce one glowingly detailed art work. The paintings are icons of magical realism, the known with the mysterious. In making art she is making sense of the world and we, in viewing the work become part of that process, part of the drama…”

But maybe I should leave the last word to the artist herself when she describes what she wants to achieve through her work:

“…Each painting is a mini psychological drama, often absurd, sometimes surreal and invariably humorous. I hope that my paintings may both unsettle and amuse the viewer…”

To find out more about Sally Moore and her art have a look at her website:

https://sallymoorepainter.co.uk

and in the “About” page there is a video which she made in 2013 in collaboration with film-maker Mark Latimer entitled The Domestic Surrealist which documents Sally’s thought processes which goes into each of her works of art.

 

 

 

Neil Simone. The Visual Surrealist

Neil Simone

My blog today is quite different to most of my others for two reasons.  My love of art is quite traditional, some would say boringly middle-ground. If you imagine visual art as a spectrum, at one end of which we have Abstract Expressionism and at the other end there is Hyperrealism, then my predilection would be much closer to the hyperrealism end of the spectrum.  I like to look at the beauty of a painting.  I like to be amazed by the skill of the artist and marvel at the time they must have spent in completing a work.  Mere splashes of colour do not impress me, whether it be stripes or dots.  However, as I have said before I was told that to appreciate visual art one needs to embrace all types !  So, the first reason for this blog being different is that it focuses on the art genre of Surrealism and the works of a Surrealist painter.

Surrealism is a 20th-century form of art in which an artist brings together unrelated images or events in a very strange and often dreamlike way.  It stresses the subconscious significance of imagery.  Through their works of art, the Surrealist artists wanted to revolutionise our experience.  They want us to cast-off our coherent and balanced visualisation of life and, in its place, value the power of the unconscious and dreams. The artists want us to look at their works and share their feeling of mysterious enchantment and discover the perplexing beauty in the bewildering depictions which totally disregarded convention.

Alternative Path by Neil Simone

The second difference with my blog today, and this is more of a concern to me, is that my subject today is a living artist !  Why should that matter?  I suppose the answer is that I am delving into the life of somebody who has not given me permission to do so and secondly when one looks back and writes about somebody it is extremely important to have the correct facts.  You would be surprised at the number of times when I am researching a painter that I am finding differing facts, differing dates, differing names of family members and I never want to just guess at the correct information and so these inaccuracies drive me mad !!!  However, the deceased painter cannot complain at a mistaken fact quoted about them (albeit on some occasions I do get quizzed/censured regarding the authenticity/accuracy of what I have written by knowledgeable relatives or art historians).  With a living artist, they may take umbrage with my factual accuracy.

Having said all that let me introduce you to the English Surrealist painter Neil Simone.  The reason for this entry was that last week I was in the picturesque Yorkshire town of Harrogate and I visited Suttcliffes Contemporary Gallery, in the Montpellier Quarter of Harrogate and came across his works  and actually bought one of his prints, The Retreat,  as I was so fascinated by it. The one thing I like about some works of Surrealism, and I am a great fan of René Magritte, is that they are thought-provoking and quirky and I wonder how the artist ever came up with the ideas they put on canvas.

Nightfall by Neil Simone

Neil Simone was born in London in 1947. His parents rented rooms in a property in Burrows Road close to Kensall Green Underground station.  He was an only child and lived here for the first eleven years of his life.  In 1958, his parents bought their first property in Harrow, Middlesex.  This move to their own house finally gave their son his own room which as a teenager, was a godsend.

His progress in school was limited to success in graphic art and design in which he gained his “A” level and buoyed by that success he applied to enrol at the Harrow School of Art but was turned down due to not having achieved any academic qualifications in other subjects, in particular, the lack of “O” level English.  Like many setbacks in life one often find they were for the best and Neil Simone considered it was a narrow escape for him not to have gained admission to the art school as he believed that his erstwhile colleagues and friends who did attend the school were stymied as far as to their choice of a future artistic road map as their artistic path was dictated to them by the tutors, whereas Neil made all his own artistic life choices.

The Ocean Floor by Neil Simone

With no art college to attend, Simone had to both occupy his time, as well as finding a way of earning money.  Over the next few years he became a trainee lady’s hairdresser, helped a van driver deliver laundry, a petrol pump attendant and the nearest he got to the art world was a short spell as a layout artist for Moss Enterprises and a messenger for a commercial art studio, during which time he was attacked and robbed whilst carrying staff wages.  However the job which was to change his life the most was as a display artist at Sopers department store in Harrow for his immediate boss and team leader was Linda  who would in April 1968, become his wife.  The couple moved into a flat into a house owned by Peter Hale, the head of department at the Road Transport industry Training Board which made training films and artwork for use in lectures and promotions.  Peter had seen some of Simone’s work and offered him a job as creator of an exhibition to commemorate the opening of M.O.T.E.C. (multi-occupational training centre) which was held in Shrewsbury.  M.O.T.E.C. was the training centre for apprentices in the Road Transport Industry. The training unit was designed to provide realistic working conditions in which apprentices could have experience of all aspects of the trade.  The commission Peter gave Simone was so big that he needed help and so he took on his wife on a freelance basis to help him with the task.

Island in the Sky by Neil Simone

The August Bank Holiday of 1969 proved a turning point in Neil and Linda Simone’s lives.  Their landlord and Neil’s employer invited the couple to visit his other home, The Priory, in the picturesque town of Harrogate in the heart of the Yorkshire countryside.  For Neil this was the first time out of London but he was immediately taken by the beauty of the area.  Peter and his wife Elizabeth persuaded Neil that Harrogate and the surrounding countryside would be a perfect base for him to carry on with his painting and they offered to rent Neil and Linda the basement of their house.  It must have been a big decision for Neil and Linda to have to make, whether they should give up their jobs and move two hundred miles away from their home and families in London and for Neil to take up painting professionally.  It was probably Linda’s belief in her husband that he could succeed and the fact that it was just the two of them that Neil decided to take the plunge and start a new life in Yorkshire with his wife.

As Autumn Leaves by Neil Simone

Once the decision was made and the couple had moved to Harrogate Neil reckoned that to survive financially he needed to sell a minimum of two paintings per week.  He started to build up a collection of his work so that he could show his work at the 1970 Valley Gardens exhibition in Harrogate.  The exhibition went well and he sold twenty of his paintings.  However with every success comes failure and after the exhibition the sale of his paintings dried up and during the winter months of 1970 he was forced to go door to door with them to try to get a sale.

In the Spring of 1971 he exhibited at the Lounge Hall, Royal Baths, Harrogate and it was during this show that he met a fellow artist Judy Pyrah.  The two of them talked about the dream she had of opening her own gallery and suggested a joint venture when they had sufficient money.  Neil’s financial situation was improved by another person, Mr Rivlin, whom he also met at the exhibition.  Mr Rivlin liked Simone’s artwork and offered him employment at his company as the resident artist in charge of packaging designs and corporate identity material for his company, Endura Lamps of Horsforth.  In October 1971 Neil Simone started working for Mr Rivlin and in November Neil and Judy Pyrah opened their gallery, the Eye-Glass Gallery, in John Street, Harrogate.  The gallery remained open for just twelve months and this coincided with his work for Mr Rivlin being terminating in January 1973.

Exploring the Alternatives by Neil Simone

Neil and Linda’s stay in the basement of The Priory came to a sudden end in the autumn of 1974 when Harrogate was subjected to a series of storms and their basement flat was flooded and so the couple moved to another flat in Harrogate which also had room for a studio and a workshop for framing and was both light and airy.  During the next two years the sale of Simone’s paintings did well and he exhibited at galleries as far north as Edinburgh.  When Neil and Linda had taken the decision to permanently leave London and take a chance with life in Harrogate there was just the two of them and so if the venture failed then it would just hurt them as they had no children to support.  However seven years on, with their finances at a reasonable position, they believed they should start a family and in July 1976 their son, Lee, was born.

Within six months things turned for the worse for the family with galleries not wanting his paintings and with sales tumbling, they were in trouble. For Neil, it was a time of introspection, a time to figure out why things had gone wrong and more importantly work out what people wanted from art.  He needed time to reassess his art and, to give himself a chance to do this, Linda took their son and went back to live with her mother.  He realised the most important question he had to answer was what did he want from his art for he realised his mistake of suffocating his own imagination which once set ablaze his passion for art.  Neil thought long and hard and eventually hit on the idea that people may like to view works which would transport them into an alternative vision of reality.  He wanted observers of his work to question what were they actually looking at.  This was of course a form of surrealism, which he had dabbled with eight years earlier but had abandoned believing that he must paint what the public wanted and not what he wanted.

The Dropleaf Table by Neil Simone (2006)

His new style of artwork soon became an art with a sense of humour, as Neil put it “they would be paintings with an element of realism that invite conjecture”  It was quirky but would it sell?  He decided that he had nothing to lose and so in 1977, Neil Simone’s art became different.  It was a new direction.  In August 1979, the Harrogate Advertiser described it as

“…a fusion of fact and fantasy…”

It was the start of an exciting journey.  With the mental turmoil dissipated on having finally decided on the future of his art, he asked Linda to return to Harrogate.

The public and art critics both liked and were excited by this new style and his works of art were in great demand at exhibitions and sales rocketed.  His gamble on changing his artistic style had paid off and his paintings were in great demand.  Neil struggled to keep up a collection of his work due to all the sales.  His brain was awash with new ideas and his artwork was in great demand.  With all this came a healthy bank balance and in July 1978 Neil bought and moved into a house with Linda and two-year-old Lee in Grasmere Crescent, Harrogate.  This was the first home they had purchased and was an ideal place for an artist with a bright studio in the loft conversion.

Realms of the Imagination by Neil Simone (1992)

Neil decided to launch his first set of limited editions prints but to do this he needed some financial backing which he got from family and friends and this proved a financial success and soon he could pay back his friends and from then on, he was able to fund any subsequent print editions, the second of which was launched in February 1980.  With all these print runs space at home became critical and it was soon obvious to Neil that the family needed a larger house.  In June 1980, they moved into a large house on Harlow Hill, one of the highest points around Harrogate, which he had bought when it was only partially constructed which allowed him to agree to some design alterations with the builder.

Another break came in March 1981 when a Dutch art dealer called at Simone’s studio. The dealer, Kees De Jong, had been told about the success Simone was having with his new style work and came to offer him a chance to exhibit some of it at the prestigious London Department store, Harrods.  Simone accepted the invite and in May his works were being showed in the windows of the prestigious department store.  More invites rolled in for Simone to exhibit works at various exhibitions and he now had to continually produce works.  Although this was time consuming and tiring Simone was very aware that the popularity of one’s artwork is ephemeral and that he had to make the most of his popularity.  The downside to this success was Neil had less time to spend with his wife and son.

The Sea Bed by Neil Simone (2000)

In 1983 Neil Simone met Barbara Dutton who had come to look at his paintings.  She was just about to open her own gallery at Pately Bridge, a village some four miles from Harrogate, and wanted some of Neil’s prints and originals but had a limited budget.  Neil and Barbara came to an agreement that she could take all his works on a sale or return basis.  The gallery opened in May and later that year there was an exhibition of Neil’s latest works.

In June 1984, Neil and Linda had an addition to the family with the birth of a daughter, Gemma.  Over the next ten years Neil was inundated with work to satisfy exhibitions he had committed to.  Life was hectic but profitable.  He had taken his son to Paris for his eighteenth birthday in 1994 and in 1996 his son had gone to university and his daughter was about to start secondary school.  Everything was going so well and yet around this time, Neil sensed all was not well.  He had a foreboding that things were going to change.  This sense he had of imminent change in his life was converted into two paintings he completed entitled The Ephemeral Nature of Beauty and the Persistence of Art and Our Thoughts Stray Constantly Without Boundary, both hinted at Neil’s concern that things in his life and marriage were about to change and not necessarily for the better.

The House of Glass by Neil Simone (1991)

In 1997 Neil struggled with the effort to have to paint more pictures and became physically and mentally run down. He had to continually paint to satisfy clients and fulfil exhibition commitments but found it difficult to achieve sufficient work during a day at the studio so would leave home in the evening, returning to the studio to continue working through part of the night.  He began to worry about all the pressure to keep people happy but would not talk about it to his wife. He admitted that he became morose and withdrawn but he just hoped the problem would be short term. The strain on his marriage got so bad that in January 1998, in a hope that things may improve, he and Linda decided to separate and he left the family home and went to live in his rented studio.

The Retreat by Neil Simone (1999)

Some years earlier, Neil became very friendly with a lady called Heather who worked at an art materials shop where he bought most of his supplies.  Although she worked in Centagraph, an art supply shop, she had never painted and she was pleased to accept Neil’s offer of artistic tuition.  They became great friends and Heather proved to be the support Neil Simone needed to get him through life.  Living in his studio where he stored his artwork was proving to be untenable and so he decided he needed to buy somewhere larger.  The time also coincided with Heather and her young son Ben wanting to move out of rented premises and contemplate owning somewhere and so Neil and Heather, for financial reasons, decided to jointly buy somewhere and to fund his part of the purchase, Neil reluctantly sold some of his original paintings he had been keeping for himself.  In May 1999, the couple moved into a first-floor apartment in Langcliffe Avenue, Harrogate.  It was ideal for these two artists as it had a hexagonal sun room and a private roof terrace.

Rock Formation by Neil Simone (1999)

In late 2000, fifty-three-year-old, Neil Simone suffered a heart attack and was forced to rest and in January 2001 he underwent a triple bypass operation.  After a long period of rehabilitation under the watchful eye of Heather, Neil resumed painting.  Although they loved their apartment there was just not enough wall space to hang their work and so decided to search the property market for something larger and room for a gallery and workshop. Their search proved fruitful in September 2003 when they found the ideal home in the village of Whixley.  A month later Neil and Heather moved in to their new home and were able to hold exhibitions in their own gallery.  Heather and Neil are now married and still live in their Whixley home.

 Of his painting style which he termed visual surrealism, Neil wrote:

“…I paint the way that I do because I see the world as a dimension of shadows, shapes, contradictions and ever changing fragile boundaries…”

———————————————————————-

The majority of the information for this blog came from Neil’s own autobiography, Neil Simone.  The Memoirs of an Artist.  How long does it take? which is an excellent book with many reproductions of his work.

Neal and Heather’s gallery is at 2a High Street Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire which I look forward to visiting in the summer.  The website is   http://www.simonegalleries.com/.

Balthus. Part 3 – Antoinette de Watteville and exile

Antoinette de Watteville and Balthus (1935)
Antoinette de Watteville and Balthus (1935)

This is the third part of my blog, looking at the life of Balthazar Klossowski (Balthus) and I want to look at his first true love, his first wife Antoinette de Watteville and his time in exile  during the Second World War.

The financial situation of the Klossowski family in the mid 1920’s was perilous, so much so, Balthus and his brother Pierre had to suspend their studies due to lack of money.  In 1924 Balthus joined his brother in Paris and a few months later their mother, Baladine, moved to the French capital where they lived in an apartment close to the Pantheon.    In 1926, aged eighteen years of age, Balthus journeyed to Italy and spent part of the summer in Florence where he set about copying some of the works of the Italian Masters.

As far as romance was concerned, Balthus’ great love was for a young girl, Rose Alice Antoinette de Watteville.  She was born in 1912 and was the sister of Robert de Watteville, who was a close friend of Balthus.  Balthus and Antoinette first met in 1924 when she was twelve years of age and he was nineteen.  Antoinette’s upbringing was one of opulence as the de Wattevilles family were descendents of one of the most established aristocratic families in Switzerland.   Balthus fell in love with this young girl but it was an unrequited love, but despite this, she and Balthus carried on exchanging many letters.  Antoinette’s family were unimpressed with Balthus, not just because he was a struggling artist but also because his family lineage was nothing compared to that of the de Watteville family.

The Bernese Hat by Balthus (1938)
The Bernese Hat by Balthus (1938)

In the 1930’s Balthus was concentrating on society portraits and in an attempt to win over Antoinette’s parents he completed a portrait of Antoinette, entitled The Bernese Hat.  The painting was devoid of any accoutrements that would imply Antoinette’s social and financial standing and the setting for the work was described as “severe”.

Much to the horror of Balthus, Antoinette married a diplomat in 1934 and so as not to upset her husband she asked Balthus to stop writing to her.  This was too much to take in for Balthus.  He was devastated and suffered what was termed an emotional breakdown, and he attempted suicide.  He was so depressed that he virtually gave up painting for a year. His mood only lightened when she started to write to him again and in Bern on April 2nd 1937 she married Balthus.  They went on to have two sons, Stanislaus, born in October 1942 and Thadée, born in February 1944 who co-authored a biography of their father which included many of the letters between Antoinette and Balthus.

The White Skirt by Balthus (1937)
The White Skirt by Balthus (1937)

One of the first painting Balthus did of his wife was The White Skirt which he painted in late 1937, some months after they were married and the story of the painting has an unusual twist to it.  What we see in this provocative painting is Antoinette lounging in a chair.  She is dressed in a full length white tennis skirt that used to belong to her mother.  The jacket has fallen open and we cannot help but notice her semi-transparent bra which allows us to see her nipples which strain against the silky material.   There is an aristocratic self-confident grace about her pose and in some way this appealed to Balthus to know that he had married into the aristocracy, although he still believed himself to be of the de Rola aristocracy.  Balthus sold the painting to his friend the Paris art dealer Pierre Colle, who had introduced him to Derrain.  It is obvious that Balthus regretted that decision for he had now lost a painting which portrayed his aristocratic trophy, Antoinette.  Pierre Colle died in 1948 and Balthus approached his widow to have back The White Skirt painting.

Three Sisters by Balthus (1954)
Three Sisters by Balthus (1954)

She agreed but on one condition – that Balthus completed a painting featuring her three daughters, Marie-Pierre, Béatrice and Sylvia and she would then exchange it for the portrait of Antoinette which Balthus desperately wanted.  Balthus agreed to the exchange and completed one of the versions of the painting, The Three Sisters in 1954.

Champrovent
Champrovent

When the Second World War broke out in 1939 Balthus was called up to the French army and was sent into battle near the town of Saarbrucken in the Alsace region.  His time in the army lasted only a few months as he was invalided out with a leg injury and had also suffered a nervous breakdown.  He went to the Savoie region of France and Switzerland to recuperate and in March 1940 he returns to Paris and is demobilised.  In June 1940, the Germans occupied Paris and so Balthus and his wife Antoinette left the French capital and relocated in a seventeenth century manor house Champrovent  in the village of Vernatel close to the town of Chambery in the Savoie.  Here they shared a farmhouse manor with another family, the Coslins.

Still Life with a Figure by Balthus ( 1940)
Still Life with a Figure by Balthus ( 1940)

The Coslin’s twelve year old daughter, Gertrude, appeared in the first painting completed by Balthus whilst they were in exile.  The painting, which was entitled Still Life with a Figure, is essentially a still life on a table composition.  We see the young girl in profile whose figure is cut off at the right hand side border and all we see of her is her head, her wavy reddish- blonde hair, and the yellow-green sleeve of her blouse.  She leans forward to look at the table.  Her left hand rests on the table whilst her right hand seems to draw back the red and gold brocade curtain.  She has a glowering facial expression as she stares at the meagre food that has been set aside for lunch.  At the far end of the table from her is an ornate stemmed Victorian silver fruit bowl which holds several green and red apples all of which still retain their stalks. A wine glass can be seen which may be half-filled with cider.  On the table, close to the girl, we see a chunk of home-baked bread, through which a black-handled knife has been thrust.   The setting for this painting was one of the rooms of the farmhouse, in which Balthus and Antoinette were staying, but not the parlour, which appeared in later paintings by Balthus (Salon I and Salon II).  The colourful wall and brocade curtain along with the deep claret of the tablecloth are in stark contrast to the plain dull walls of his Paris studio which was the background for many of Balthus’ paintings.  The painting can be seen in the Tate Gallery in London

Girl in Green and Red by Balthus (1944)
Girl in Green and Red by Balthus (1944)

Balthus completed many paintings featuring Antoinette.  One unusual one, which he completed in 1944 was entitled Girl in Green and Red.   At the time of this painting Antoinette was thirty-two years of age but Balthus’ depiction of her makes her look as if she is a teenager.  We see Antoinette wearing a green and red tricot with a brown cape over her right shoulder.  She said in a later interview that she had specially bought the tricot for the sitting.  Antoinette had blonde hair but in the painting Balthus had changed it to brown so it could match the colour of the cape.  As well as the two colours of the tricot, of which the red is highlighted, her face is made to look two toned by the same light source which emanates from the left of the painting.  Antoinette sits at a table.  On the table, which is covered by a white tablecloth, are a silver cup, half a loaf of bread, which has a black handled knife pushed into it, and a candlestick which she is grasping.   The bread and the protruding knife also appeared in his Still Life with a Figure painting of the same year.    The way Antoinette is portrayed in this painting has often been likened to that of a fortune teller about to read the tarot cards.  Balthus completed this work when he was living at 164 Place Notre Dame in the Swiss town of Fribourg where he and Antoinette had taken up residence from May 1942 and remained there until October 1945.  This painting was hailed by the Surrealists.  The picture marked one of Balthus’ closest approaches to Surrealism, a movement whose leaders admired and courted him. He rebuffed them,

To avoid the harsh Savoie winter conditions and the oncoming German armies Balthus and Antoinette left Vernatel in late 1941 and moved to Switzerland to be with her parents who were living in Bern.

Paysage de Champrovent by Balthus (1942-1945)
Paysage de Champrovent by Balthus (1942-1945)

During Balthus’ eighteen month stay in Champrovent he set to work on two large landscape paintings which were companion pieces and which actually formed a continuous panorama of the countryside which Balthus would have looked out upon when he stepped out of his farmhouse residence.   Paysage de Champrovent  (Landscape of Champrovent) is a topographically correct view of the scene.  If we look carefully at the centre mid-ground we can make out the Chateau de la Petite Forêt and the Bois de Leyière.  Further back over the crest of the hill, but out of sight, is the Rhone valley.  In the distant background are the blue grey of the Colombier mountain range.  The setting is a late sunny summer afternoon and a girl lies in the field taking in the last of the sun.  The model for this painting was Georgette Coslin, the farmer’s daughter.

Vernatel Landscape with Oxen by Balthus (1942)
Vernatel Landscape with Oxen by Balthus (1942)

The companion piece is entitled Vernatel, Paysage aux Boeufs (Vernatel Landscape with Oxen).  The mountain range on the right is the Vacherie de la Balme and it overshadows the village of Vernatel in the valley.  The girl, now a grandmother, Geogette Varnaz (née Coslin) who was the model for the previous painting lives with her husband in this village.  This landscape is not topographically correct as the space behind Balthus’ large tree at the left of the painting there would have been another village, Monthoux.  This time, the setting is not a summer’s day but a November day and winter is fast approaching and the farmer needs to gather up his wood for the winter fires.  In the field in the foreground we see the farmer with his pair of oxen struggling to drag a tree trunk across the field.

The Salon II by Balthus (1942)
The Salon II by Balthus (1942)

Also whilst living at Champrovent he completed two paintings Salon I and Salon II both of which harked back to his 1937 work The Blanchard Children.  However instead of the plain, dull background setting of his Paris studio in that work, these two paintings have a more colourful backdrop of one of the rooms at Champrovent.  He started painting Salon I in 1941 but before its completion he worked on the second version which he completed in 1942.  The first version, Salon I, was not completed until 1943 when he and Antoinette were residing in Fribourg.

The Mountain by Balthus (1937)
The Mountain by Balthus (1937)

The Mountain is one of Balthus’s most important early works. It was completed by him in 1937, when he was twenty eight years of age and three years after his first one-man exhibition.    The finished work was not exhibited until 1939 under the title Summer.  This had meant to have been one in a set of four which featured the seasons of the year but Balthus never completed the other three paintings.  This work once again had Balthus labelled as a Surrealist painter.  There are seven figures in the painting all of whom are located on an imaginary plateau near the top of the Niederhorn, a peak of the Emmental Alps in the Bernese Oberland near Beatenberg, where Balthus lived in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.  Look at the seven figures.  There is something very strange about them.  There appears to be no connection between them and yet they are supposed to be a hiking party.  Look at the different poses of the figures, some are walking, some are kneeling whilst the woman in the foreground looks as if she is lying on the ground asleep.  This portrayal of mixed activities makes them even more disconnected.   If anything this painting is a form of escapism for Balthus who hankered to be back in Beatenberg where he had many happy memories

The Game of Patience by Balthus (1943)
The Game of Patience by Balthus (1943)

In 1943, Balthus was living in Switzerland avoiding the horrors of war and it was in that year that he completed his painting entitled The Game of Patience.  Balthus had discovered a new model for his work.  She was Janette Aldry and was a little older than the models Balthus had once used whilst living in Paris.  However Balthus liked using her as he reckoned she had the same melancholy demeanour of Thérèse Blanchard, his favoured model in the 1930’s.  In the painting we see the girl, with her right knee resting on a stool, bent over the elegant highly polished Louis Quinze table carefully studying the playing cards which are spread on it.   Her back is straight and she seems somewhat tense.  The girl is dressed in an red vest and dark green skirt similar to one which Thérèse wore in his 1938 portrait of her.  Behind the table on the left of the picture is a high backed Louis Quinze chair on which is an open box.  Under the table is a stool on top of which are some books,  The haphazard way the box lies on the chair and the pile of books which lie askew on the stool as well as the candlestick holder and cup which have been pushed to the extremities of the table are a sign of disarray caused by the young girl brought on by a sudden desire to play cards.  I read somewhere that some art historians have interpreted the painting and the tense and restlessness of the girl a s a metaphor for the restless people that were forced to leave places like France to the safe haven of Switzerland but just want to get back home.

In the final part of my look at the life and artwork of Balthus I will look at some of the paintings he completed in his latter years.

—————————————————————

Besides information about Balthus and his art gleaned from the internet I have relied heavily on two excellent books which I can highly recommend.

First there is the book Balthus Cats and Girls by the foremost expert on Balthus, Sabine Rewald.

Secondly, a very thick tome by Nicholas Fox Weber entitled Balthus, A Biography.

Balthus – Part 2 – Young girls and controversy

Self Portrait by Balthus (1940)
Self Portrait by Balthus (1940)

In my second part of my look at the life and works of Balthus I am going concentrate on his depiction of pubescent girls which were to shock both the public and critics alike when they first exhibited in 1934 at the Galerie Pierre in Paris.  I have in some earlier blogs discussed what is, to some, termed as beautiful erotic art whilst others look upon the depictions as unacceptable and pornographic.  Those paintings by the likes of Egon Schiele and Lucien Freud were depictions of adult female models but in the case of Balthus’ paintings the models he was using were pre-pubescent girls.  I leave it to each person to decide whether the depiction of these young girls was simply the work of an artist and therefore as art, was acceptable or whether there was something very offensive and disturbing about the paintings.  Everybody is entitled to their own opinion.

I need to remind you that the depiction of young girls naked or semi-naked in paintings is not just something that interested Balthus.  Many other well known artists used young girls as models and portrayed them in their works of art.

Little Girl by Otto Dix
Little Girl by Otto Dix

There was Otto Dix, the German painter, and often talked about as the most important painter of the Neue Sachlichkeit, which was an artistic style in Germany in the 1920 which set out to confront Expressionism.  It was looked on as being a return to unsentimental reality and one which concentrated on the objective world, unlike Expressionism which was more abstract, romantic, and idealistic.  His 1922 painting Little Girl in front of Curtain, which can now be seen at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, was judged to have flown in the face of morality.  This painting of a young naked girl is portrayed in a realistic style, maybe too realistic as it details the blue veins of her body.  She looks emaciated and she stares past us with a haunted expression. Her childhood is probably a thing of the past as, sadly, is her innocence.  A pink flower clings to the curtain behind her, and in her hair we see a bright red bow.   The artist himself once said:

“…I will either become notorious or famous…”

This painting probably allowed Otto Dix to achieve his first goal.

Puberty by Edvard Munch (1894)
Puberty by Edvard Munch (1894)

The great Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch, who is best known for his paintings entitled Scream, also produced a painting in 1894 featuring a pre-teen naked girl.  The painting which was entitled Puberty depicts a young pubescent girl, nude, sitting with her legs together.  There is an air of shyness about her and this could be that at her age she is starting to become aware of the changes to her body.

Standing nude young girl 2 by Egon Schiele (c.1911)
Standing nude young girl 2 by Egon Schiele (c.1911)

The celebrated Austrian Expressionist artist Egon Schiele who, at the time,  was living with his lover, Valerie Neuzil, in the small country town of Neulengbach, close to Vienna.  This was a quiet suburban setting full of retired officers and snooping neighbours.  Schiele was arrested in April 1912 on suspicion of showing erotic drawings to young children who posed for him, of touching the children while he drew them and of kidnapping one of the young girls who frequented his studio.  Some of the charges were dropped and he spent three days in jail.  A year earlier he produced the work entitled Standing Nude Young Girl 2.

The reason that I featured these three paintings was not that I considered them any sort of justification for Bathus’ portrayal of young girls but simply to point out that many artists have painted scantily-clad or naked young girls.

Balthus had been earning money with his portraiture, mainly of older society women, and he was very discontented with this.  He actually hated this type of work calling his finished portraits, “his monsters”.  In October 1935 Balthus moves to a new and larger studio at 3 cour de Rohan.  Just three blocks away was the rue de Seine and it was at No. 34 that the Blanchard family lived, mother, father who worked as a waiter in a nearby bistro, daughter Thérèse and son Hubert who was two years older than his sister.  When Balthus first caught sight of Thérèse she was just eleven years of age and having approached the family Thérèse agreed to model for him.  She was not a beautiful girl but she appealed to Balthus.

Thérèse by Balthus (1936)
Thérèse by Balthus (1936)

The first painting Balthus completed of Thérèse Blanchard was in 1936 and was simply entitled Thérèse.  Balthus would go on to use her as a model more than any other person.  In this work, Balthus has captured her moody and serious look and it was that aspect of her that attracted Balthus to his young model.  Her dark dress seems to go hand in hand with her mood and it is just the bright red piping on the collar of the dress which manages to liven up the portrait

Brother and Sister by Balthus (1936)
Brother and Sister by Balthus (1936)

In that same year Balthus completed a painting of Thérèse and Hubert entitled Brother and Sister.  Once again Balthus has portrayed Thérèse’s expression as moody and sullen in contrast to the smiling happy face of her brother.  Thérèse’s arms are wrapped round the waist of her brother, not as a sign of sibling affection, but as she was trying to make him stand still for Balthus.  Their clothes are very plain.  Hubert seems to be wearing the attire of a schoolboy whilst his sister is wearing a simple plaid skirt and a red sweater with a green collar.

The Blanchard children by Balthus (1937)
The Blanchard children by Balthus (1937)

In 1937 the two Blanchard siblings appear in a painting by Balthus entitled The Blanchard Children.  Thérèse is now twelve years old and her brother is fourteen years of age.  The setting is Balthus’ studio and one notices there are no childlike accoutrements such as toys, pens or books.  It is a very stark depiction.  This was not an oversight by Balthus but his belief that the starkness would intensify the dramatic effect of the picture.  If we look under the table, we can see a bag of coal sat in the corner. Why would Balthus add this?  The answer maybe that Balthus, whilst living in Germany, remembered what happened on the eve of the Feast of St Nicholas on December 5th when children put their shoes out in the hopes of some sweets in the morning.  The story goes that, St. Nicholas does not travel on his own but with his companion, Black Peter, who places coal in the shoes of the children who had been naughty !

Wuthering Heights illustration by Balthus
Wuthering Heights illustration by Balthus

The strange posture of the two children is probably based on an illustration Balthus produced for Emily Bronte’s 1847 novel Wuthering Heights.  The illustration relates to Heathcliffe, partly kneeling on the chair, turning towards Cathy who is on her hands and knees partly under the table, writing her diary.  The painting was given to Balthus’ friend Picasso.

Thérèse with Cat by Balthus (1937)
Thérèse with Cat by Balthus (1937)

The first controversial painting Balthus did with Thérèse as his model was completed in 1937 and entitled Thérèse with Cat.  It was a small work measuring 88 x 77cms (34 x 31 in).  Here once again we see the un-smiling Thérèse seeming to look at something behind us.  She looks slightly dishevelled with one sock down to her ankle and one sleeve pushed up her arm.  The red and the turquoise colour of her clothes stand out against the dark background.   Her left leg is raised and her foot rests on a stool and this pose means that her white underpants are visible to the viewer.  She has been asked to pose in a certain way and by the look of her expression she is well aware of how the artist looks at her.  A large cat lies on the floor next to Thérèse.  It appears to be the same cat that appeared with Balthus in the painting King of the Cats (see previous blog).  The painting is now housed in The Art Institute of Chicago.

The Victim by Balthus (1939 - 1946)
The Victim by Balthus (1939 – 1946)

One of his best known works is one he started just before the onset of World War II but was not completed until March 1946.  It was entitled The Victim. It was one of his largest paintings measuring 132 x 218 cms (52 x 86in) and it was because of that size of it that he had to leave it in his Paris studio when he and his wife, Antoinette, at the onset of war, moved to Champrovent in Savoie which had not been occupied by the Germans.  They later moved to Switzerland to live with Antoinette’s parents and did not return to his Paris studio until March 1946.  We see a life-sized ashen body of a naked woman lying on a white sheet which covers a low bedstead.  Is she merely asleep or is she dead?  Does the title answer the question?  The title comes from a novella written by Balthus’ friend, the writer Pierre Jean Jouve.  His 1935 book La Scène capitale contained two novellas, La Victime and Dans les années profondes.

Below the bedstead and in the right foreground of the painting we can just make out a knife lying on the dark floor, the blade of which points directly to her heart.  Although, through the painting’s title we gather that the girl is dead, there is no sign of a wound on her body and neither blood on her body nor on the knife.  Was she strangled?  So it is up to us to decide whether the girl is dead or simply in a trance but we must remember that Balthus started to paint this before war broke out and only concluded it a year after the end of the war and the atrocities of war would be fresh in the artist’s mind.  Another question is, who sat for this painting and the answer is in some doubt.  The shape of the girls face and the cut of her hair leads many to believe it is Thérèse Blanchard, the only doubt being that she had never before posed nude for Balthus

Thérèse Dreaming by Balthus (1938)
Thérèse Dreaming by Balthus (1938)

A year later (1938) Balthus completed Thérèse Dreaming, another but similar painting to to Thérèse and the Cat, again featuring the now thirteen year old Thérèse.  The setting is once again his studio and we see her sitting before us in a similar pose.  This is a much bigger painting, measuring 150 x 130cms (59 x 51 in).  This time he added a striped wallpaper (which did not exist in his studio) as a background and this time we can see the additional still life of a vase and a canister on a table.  The cat is once again part of the picture and we see it at the side of Thérèse lapping up some of its milk.  In the previous painting Thérèse was looking almost towards us but in this painting but in this work she has looked away, with her eyes closed, as if enjoying a daydream.  Thérèse’s clothes are unadorned and unfussy.  As Sabine Rewald wrote in her book Balthus Cats and Girls :

“…she appears the epitome of dormant sexuality.  Her white lace-trimmed slip surrounds her legs like a paper cornucopia wrapped around a bunch of flowers.  The cat lapping milk from a saucer serves as another tongue in cheek erotic metaphor…”

Since 1998 the painting has been housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as part of the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection.

The Guitar Lesson by Balthus (1934)
The Guitar Lesson by Balthus (1934)

By far the most controversial and notorious painting by Balthus was one he completed in 1934 entitled The Guitar Lesson.  It is a merging of sex and violence which shocked those who saw it.  It is an encounter between a dominating and tyrannical women, who is the music teacher, in her early twenties, and a young girl, her student, thought to be about twelve years old. The music lesson has been halted.  A guitar lies on the floor and the woman has thrown the girl across her lap and pulled her black dress up over her waist.  The fingers of the teacher’s left hand dig into the upper part of the girl’s inner thigh.  It is as if the teacher is strumming a human guitar.  The girl lies there, naked from her navel to her knees.  The lower parts of her legs are covered by white socks.  The music teacher has grabbed a chunk of the young girl’s long hair and is yanking her head downwards.   To save herself from falling and in an attempt to alleviate the pain caused by her hair being pulled, the girl has grabbed the collar of the music teacher’s grey dress which uncovers the woman’s full right breast.  Her nipple juts out which indicates to us that the teacher is sexually aroused by what she is doing.

Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon by Enguerrand Quarton (c.1860)
Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon by Enguerrand Quarton (c.1860)

The positioning of the girl lying across the thighs of the teacher has often been likened to the 1455 painting Balthus must have seen in the Louvre, Pietà of Villeneuve-les-Avignon by  Enguerrand Quarton.

Portrait der Schwester des Künstlers (Baladine Klossowski) by Eugen Spiro (1902)
Portrait der Schwester des Künstlers (Baladine Klossowski) by Eugen Spiro (1902)

The girl who posed for The Guitar Lesson was Laurence Bataille, the daughter of a concierge.  She would come to Balthus’ studio with her mother who acted as her chaperone.  The striped wallpaper background and the grey dress of the music teacher were the same as we see in Baladine Klossowski 1902 portrait by her older brother Eugen Spiro.  It was first shown at  Balthus’ one man exhibition in April 1934 at the Galerie Pierre in Paris.   The gallery owner, Pierre Loeb, and Balthus decided that the painting should be placed in the back room of the gallery, but covered up, so that it, in fact, became a “peep show” for a select “priveleged” number of visitors.  The provenance of the painting is quite interesting. It was bought by James Thrall Soby, an American author, critic and patron of the arts, in 1938.  He had intended to exhibit along with his other paintings at the Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut but because of the controversial nature of the painting it remained unseen in the museum vaults.  Soby realised that there was no point in owning a painting that could never be exhibited and so, in 1945, he exchanged it with the Chilean surrealist artist, Roberto Matta Echaurren, for one of his paintings.  Roberto Matta Echaurren’ wife Patricia left him and married Pierre Matisse but one of the things she took with her was this painting.  Pierre Matisse, the youngest child of  Henri Matisse owned a gallery in New York and the painting remained hidden away in the vaults.  In 1977, it appeared for a month at Pierre Matisse’s 57th Street gallery in New York. It was a sensation and the press reviews referred to the painting and the art critics of the various newspapers and magazines wrote about it but said that they could not show the painting as it would shock the readers.   After the one month long show it was never exhibited again.

When the 1977 exhibition closed the gallery offered it to New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  It was accepted by the museum but it was not put on show instead it was kept hidden away for five years in the basement.  In 1982 the Chairman of the Board of the MOMA, Blanchette Rockefeller, the wife of John D Rockefeller III, saw it at a small presentation of the works of art given to the MOMA by Pierre Matisse.  She was horrified by Balthus’ depiction terming it sacrilegious and obscene and demanded that it was returned to the Pierre Matisse Gallery immediately.  The Pierre Matisse gallery took it back and then sold it in 1984 to the film director, Mike Nichols. In the late 1980’s he sold it to the Thomas Ammann Gallery in Zurich.  They sold it on to an unknown wealthy private collector who I saw in one newspaper report, was the late Stavros Niarchos.  On his death in 1996 the painting became the property of his heirs.

In my next blog I will take a last look at the life of Balthus and share with you some more of his artworkwork.

—————————————————————————

Besides information about the life of Balthus and his art gleaned from the internet I have relied heavily on two books which I can highly recommend.

Firstly,  there is an excellent book  entitled Balthus Cats and Girls by the foremost expert on Balthus, Sabine Rewald.

Secondly, a very thick tome by Nicholas Fox Weber entitled Balthus, A Biography.