Women Making Moves: Immigrant Artists in NMWA’s Collection

As life in Europe became increasingly dangerous during World War II, some artists sought new lives abroad. Burgeoning art movements springing from major cities in North America shifted the art world spotlight away from Europe. European-born artists Anni Albers, Eva Hesse, and Remedios Varo became prominent figures in their respective art movements after fleeing Europe for North America.

Anni Albers, Untitled, 1969; Serigraph on paper; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay, NMWA

Anni Albers, Untitled, 1969; Serigraph on paper; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay, NMWA

Anni Albers (1899–1994)

Anni Albers grew up in Germany and met her husband, fellow artist Josef Albers, at the Bauhaus in the 1920s. Albers experimented with textiles, creating abstract woven wall hangings, and became Head of the Weaving Workshop in 1931—a senior position that was rare for a woman. In 1933, the Albers couple moved to the U.S. to escape the pressures of Nazi control. Both taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and exhibited work around the country. In 1949, she became the first weaver to have a solo exhibition at MoMA. Her contributions to both textile and printmaking traditions earned her honorary doctorates, lifetime achievement awards, a gold medal from the American Craft Council, and an induction into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame.

Eva Hesse, Study for Sculpture, 1970; Sculp-Metal, cord, Elmer’s glue, acrylic paint, and varnish on Masonite, 10 x 10 x 1 in.; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © The Estate of Eva Hesse, Hauser & Wirth Zürich, London

Eva Hesse, Study for Sculpture, 1970; Sculp-Metal, cord, Elmer’s glue, acrylic paint, and varnish on Masonite, 10 x 10 x 1 in.; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © The Estate of Eva Hesse, Hauser & Wirth Zürich, London

Eva Hesse (1936–1970)

Eva Hesse was born into a Jewish family in Nazi Germany. When she was 3 years old, her parents moved the family to the U.S. to flee the Nazi regime. Hesse studied under Josef Albers at Yale before working as an artist in New York City in the 1960s. She exhibited watercolors and drawings in 1961, and continued working in this medium during the first half of the decade. In 1965, Hesse moved to Germany for one year, where she experimented with making abstract sculptures. Once back in New York, Hesse continued her sculpture practice and was featured in the exhibition Eccentric Abstraction at Fischbach Gallery. Tragically, Hesse died from cancer in 1969 after only ten years of art making—but her influence on contemporary sculpture continues.

Remedios Varo, Tejido espacio-tiempo (Weaving of Space and Time), 1954; Oil on Masonite, 32 1/2 x 28 x 2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift from Private Collection

Remedios Varo (1908–1963)

Remedios Varo, originally from Spain, was forced to migrate as a result of war—twice. Varo moved to Paris to escape the Spanish Civil War, where she met and worked with the Surrealists who greatly influenced her work. Then, in 1941, the Nazi invasion forced Varo to flee again, this time to Mexico. Once there, she became a part of a community of artists, and continued working in a Surrealist style with her friend Leonora Carrington. After only a few years of having her work featured in solo exhibitions, Varo suffered a fatal heart attack in 1963. Her works have been shown in Mexico City’s Museum of Modern Art and NMWA held a retrospective of more than 50 of her pieces in 2000. To further cement her impact on American culture, her work Los Amantes inspired imagery in Madonna’s 1995 music video for her song “Bedtime Story.”

Experience the legacy of these immigrant artists by visiting the museum in person or online today!

Meghan Masius is the spring 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Friendships: Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo

Inspired by the special exhibition New Ground: The Southwest of Maria Martinez and Laura Gilpin, we are celebrating famous artist friendships. Did you know that Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) and Remedios Varo (1908–1963) met in Paris and became close friends after finding refuge in Mexico City?

Surreal Sisters

Both Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo painted primarily in a Surrealist style, infusing their works with mysticism and otherworldly elements. NMWA owns five works by Carrington, including one print, two paintings, and two sculptures. Although Carrington did not begin producing sculptures until 1990, The Ship of Cranes (2010) is exemplary of Carrington’s interest in mythology and use of animal symbolism.

One of the three paintings by Varo in the collection, La Llamada (The Call) (1961), is on view on the mezzanine level. La Llamada (The Call) provides viewers with signature traits of Varo’s work, including an ethereal being dressed in gold against a darker, castle-like background.

A Match Made in Mexico

Carrington and Varo met in Paris during the Surrealist movement, and were seen as the “femmes-enfants” to the famous and much older male artists in their lives. Varo had left Spain with poet Benjamin Péret and Carrington was in a relationship with Max Ernst. Their friendship then moved overseas to Mexico City as the outbreak of World War II in Europe caused them to move. In their new home, the two saw each other almost daily, of which Carrington said, “Remedios’s presence in Mexico changed my life.”

Though they painted separately, they did spent time together cooking, writing spells, and looking for ways to prank guests. Their mutual interest in alchemy is evident in their works. Both artists often depicted magical, alternate realities that are characteristic of Surrealism. While Carrington and Varo shared subject matter based on the universe, the supernatural, alchemy, and astrology, they interpret these topics differently in their works. In the book Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Kati Horna, Stefan van Raay writes, “Carrington’s work is about tone and color and Varo’s is about line and form.”

In Carrington’s book The Healing Trumpet, she modeled the two main characters after much older versions of herself and Varo, revealing how important she felt the friendship was to her and her wish that it would last well into their old age. Varo also included their friendship in stories she wrote, creating characters just as outlandish as Carrington’s.

Learn about the friendship between potter Maria Martinez (ca. 1887–1980) and photographer Laura Gilpin (1891–1979), whose works are on view in New Ground through May 14, 2017.

—Meghan Masius is the spring 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Remedios Varo

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Surrealist painter Remedios Varo (1908–1963), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

varo the call

Remedios Varo, La llamada (The Call), 1961; Oil on masonite, 39 1/2 x 26 3/5 in.; NMWA, Gift from Private Collection

Remedios Varo (1908–1963)

1. Stranger in a Strange Land

Varo spent the majority of her adulthood as a political refugee. She left her native Spain for Paris during the Spanish Civil War and could not return due to her political ties. She then fled Paris after Germany’s 1940 occupation. She escaped to Mexico, where she lived for the rest of her life.

 2. Hanging with the In-Crowd

Varo’s relationship with French Surrealist poet Benjamin Péret introduced her to other Parisian Surrealists. While outwardly accepting, the male-dominated movement placed limitations on women artists by portraying them as innocent and child-like. This view often created obstacles for female Surrealists trying to gain credibility and develop their own creative identities.

3. Paying the Bills

After moving to Mexico, Varo supported herself through various odd jobs, including sewing, restoring ceramics, creating advertisements for pharmaceuticals, and creating technical drawings for the Ministry of Public Health. Although commercial, this work helped her develop a style that was uniquely her own.

varo weaving

Remedios Varo, Tejido espacio-tiempo (Weaving of Space and Time), 1954; Oil on masonite, 32 x 28 in.; NMWA, Gift from Private Collection

4. Fashionista

Although she is renowned as a painter, Varo also designed costumes for theatrical productions. She even made her own clothing, believing that tailors had no knowledge of a woman’s anatomy and figure. Her sewing machine held a place of honor at the 1983 retrospective of her work in Mexico City.

5. Best Friends Forever

Varo was close friends with fellow Surrealist Leonora Carrington. The two often discussed philosophy and collaborated on stories, games, and plays. One of their favorite pastimes was creating recipes that promised to chase away problems like, “inopportune dreams, insomnia, and deserts of quicksand under the bed.”

—Hannah Page was the 2016 summer education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Subconscious Reality: Women Surrealists in Mexico

NMWA’s third-floor galleries feature works by European artists Remedios Varo (1908–1963) and Leonora Carrington (1917–2011). In 20th-century Europe, critics often dismissed women artists working within the male-dominated Surrealist movement. World War II later forced many artists into self-exile, effectively ending the movement in Europe. Hailing from Spain and England, respectively, Varo and Carrington moved to Mexico, where they became involved in a thriving artistic community with fellow refugees from their European Surrealist circles.

varo the call

Remedios Varo, La llamada (The Call), 1961; Oil on masonite, 39 1/2 x 26 3/4 in.; NMWA, Gift from Private Collection

Both artists examined themes of fantasy, magic, and mysticism in their creations. While in Mexico, Varo and Carrington became close friends and collaborators. They explored the occult and alchemical practices—evidence of which can be detected in their works. Although they shared similar interests and inspirations, they developed their own distinctive styles. Abstract and cubist elements played a strong role in Varo’s paintings while fantastical creatures and animal hybrids populated Carrington’s works.

Like many of Varo’s paintings, La Llamada (The Call) (1961) illustrates an ambiguous narrative. Depicted with large eyes and a long straight nose, the central figure may reference Varo’s own distinct facial features. The figure seems to walk fearlessly through a mysterious courtyard as though halfway through a momentous quest. Surrounded by otherworldly creatures, the glowing figure carries alchemical instruments containing precious liquids—symbols that allude to Varo’s belief in mystical forces. Uncanny perceptual distortions and her characteristic combination of vibrant and tarnished colors shape the dreamlike scene.

Leonora Carrington, The Ship of Cranes, 2010; Bronze, 26 x 14 x 42 1/2 in.; NMWA, Gift of Paul Weisz-Carrington, M.D.

Installation view of Leonora Carrington’s The Ship of Cranes (2010) in NMWA’s galleries

Carrington also developed a personal symbolism that she chose not to explain to others. She intended her complex, densely layered images to be pondered—but not necessarily decoded—by the curious viewer. Primarily a painter, Carrington did not begin sculpting until the 1990s. Her sculpture The Ship of Cranes (2010) represents her adaptation of the Mayan belief that all humans have specific animal companions or guides. A ship fashioned after a crane carries four other anthropomorphic bird-like creatures in the midst of what may be a spiritual journey. This sculpture in NMWA’s collection emphasizes Carrington’s belief in—and use of—animal symbolism.

Both Varo and Carrington channeled the subconscious in their work. They employed recurring motifs that develop from their imaginations. The beings they created represent their influences and dreams. Their mystical and eerie works provide viewers with a glimpse into their minds—where personal, subconscious reality dominates. By communicating the incommunicable, Varo’s and Carrington’s works transcend the esoteric.

—Francisca Rudolph is the fall 2016 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Surrealist Spotlight: Remedios Varo

Within fraught and mysterious settings, Remedios Varo’s fantastical protagonists seem to undertake quests through time or space, as in two recent additions to NMWA’s collection, La llamada (The Call) (1961) and Tejido espacio-tiempo (Weaving of Space and Time) (1954), gifts from a private collection.

varo weaving

Remedios Varo, Tejido espacia-tiempo (Weaving of Space and Time), 1954; Oil on Masonite, 26 x 21 1/4 in.; Gift from Private Collection

Varo (1908–1963) was born María de los Remedios Varo y Uranga in Anglès, Spain, and her life was profoundly shaped by the political and artistic movements of her time. Varo lived an artistic, nontraditional life of creativity and romantic liaisons—during the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War, she spent time in Paris and Barcelona allying herself with Surrealists and creating experimental art. As World War II threatened Paris, Varo fled the city, making her way to Marseilles, and by late 1941 she had secured passage to Mexico.

In Mexico, Varo’s group of friends comprised many refugees from her European Surrealist circle, including artist Leonora Carrington, who became her closest friend and creative collaborator.

In the late 1940s, as she supported herself through commercial illustration work, Varo began to develop the mature personal style for which she is best known.

Weaving of Space and Time shows a couple in a spare domestic setting. Beneath their robes, the figures’ bodies appear to be constructed of turning wheels and gears. In The Call, a woman in flowing robes, who seems to derive energy from a celestial source, traverses a castle courtyard carrying alchemical tools, including a mortar and pestle at her collar.

These paintings exemplify Varo’s characteristic color palette—figures illuminated in fiery orange-gold tones are set against shadowy blue-green-brown surroundings. Precise lines reveal unexpected details, such as those of the castle walls in The Call, which seem to entomb figures in tree bark. The woven-reed surroundings of Weaving of Space and Time contain ghostly echoes of the central image, such as the flowers that appear along the strand intersecting the flower held by the man.

varo the call

Remedios Varo, La llamada (The Call), 1961; Oil on Masonite, 39 1/2 x 26 3/4 in.; Gift from Private Collection

Scholars have noted that Varo’s own features, particularly her large eyes and long, straight nose, reappear in the faces of her protagonists, emphasizing the importance she placed on her perspective as a woman. However, they are not direct self-portraits—they are frequently androgynous or not-quite-human alter egos, with witty and delicate features of fauna or otherworldly creatures.

Varo’s characters share a sense of solemn preoccupation, as though in the midst of momentous adventures or visions. With a life philosophy of non-conformity and a personal story marked by dislocation and tumult, Varo continued her quest through her art. Her immediate and personal work reveals a universe where dreams reign and power is shared between science and magic.

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.