“The more you look, the more you see,” says Anne Umland, The Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture, of Remedios Varo’s painting The Juggler. The Juggler is this month’s New to MoMA feature, which highlights recent additions to the collection. Umland and Associate Curator Cara Manes worked on the acquisition of this painting after traveling to Mexico City to research paintings by Varo. Here they discuss the power of observation, Varo’s contribution to the Surrealist movement, and why they hope this piece will shake up the conversation in the galleries.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
So first tell us a little bit about Remedios Varo: what do you love about her?
Anne Umland: What do we love about Remedios Varo? Everything! For starters, she's one of the most important women artists associated with the Surrealist movement even though she rejected that label. She creates a magical, mystical world through her paintings unlike that found in anyone else's work from those years and that movement.
Cara Manes: And she looks backward and forward at the same time—to art history but to a mystical otherworld as well.
What is Varo’s relationship to Surrealism?
Umland: Varo met many of the French Surrealists during her time in Paris in the late 1930s. At one point she was married to the Surrealist poet Benjamin Péret. And early on, although they didn’t overlap, she attended the same fine arts academy in Madrid as Salvador Dalí. So there are points of connection: She and Dalí, for example, share a very meticulous style that is indebted to the study of old masters.
But among the things that make Varo unique is that she juxtaposes old master techniques with up-to-the-moment automatism strategies—ways of provoking accident in her paint surfaces, creating unusual textures—along with working with inlays and creating uncanny juxtapositions. Her imagery is absolutely singular in the sense that it’s inspired by magic, alchemy, transformation, and the desire to heighten self-awareness and human consciousness.
If you look at a Varo painting, something that connects it to Surrealism, very generally speaking, is its theatrical stage-like setting. She creates this reality that declares itself to be an artifice, to be natural yet unnatural at the same time.
Would you talk a bit about the scene we see in this work? What do you think it means? Why is it called The Juggler?
Manes: Varo was interested in the writings of the Russian mystics Georgii Giurdzhiev and Piotr Ouspenskii, who developed a theory of enlightenment that posited that people are born “asleep” and go through life as hypnotic automatons unless they activate their consciousnesses by becoming enlightened.
At the center of the composition is the magician who, instead of juggling the more conventional circus rings that you can see at the bottom of the cart, is juggling these balls of light, giving an indication that he has magical powers. And he's performing his magic for a mass of figures who, at first, look like they're all identical. You can see that they're all wearing one giant cloak that unites them. But, if you look closely, you begin to see that they do, in fact, have individual features. Varo described them in a letter as a kind of undifferentiated mass of unenlightened figures. They are subjects waiting for a transference of enlightenment from the magician so that they can “wake up.”
Umland: That she's placed them all under this unifying device of the cloak, I think, is at once hilarious, it's definitely what might be called Surrealistic, and it certainly is an effective way of exaggerating the subjects’ status as a mass or group. And yet, when you get up close to the painting, they each, as Cara was saying, have carefully individualized features.
I think that's another feature of Varo’s work: the degree of detail, of almost linear precision. I hope in the galleries people want to spend hours in front of The Juggler because the more you look, the more you see. As you get up close, you can see her technical mastery is quite extraordinary, and it's of a different sort than you often see on our walls. One of the things that's particularly special about this painting is that the face of the magician or juggler is painted on a five-sided piece of inlaid mother of pearl. Mother of pearl, as a material, was associated by Varo with the idea of enlightenment and of awareness, a sort of hyper-awareness.
Lions and goats are kind of mystical creatures too, right?
Umland: I guess they could be, right, not to mention whatever is in the little casket behind the magician with the eyes peering out.
Manes: One reading is that the figures in the painting are coded self-portraits in various stages of enlightenment. We know that the standing female figure inside the cart is not yet enlightened because her eyes are closed. But in this mystical context, you might see the magician as almost an aspirational self-portrait—a depiction of the enlightened artist.
So are there ways that this painting, made over six decades ago, might resonate with a contemporary audience?
Umland: One of the exercises that Varo practiced was staring at a single object for eight hours—not your phone—and seeing what you could notice. If you stare at something long enough, that intense power of observation makes the world become strange or magical or dreamlike. So I hope her painting might inspire people to think about how to look at the world and discover its poetic potential anew and to marvel again.
Manes: In terms of contemporary resonance, Varo paints this while living in Mexico, but she is born in Spain. She lived in Paris and Barcelona during the '30s. She had to leave Europe because of the Spanish Civil War. So she is living and practicing in exile. Being displaced is on a lot of our minds today, and that was the fact of her reality when she made this work.
Why were you interested in acquiring The Juggler for the Museum?
Manes: It's a masterwork!
Umland: There's Frida Kahlo, there's Remedios Varo, and there is Leonora Carrington. They are the three great women artists associated with Surrealism in Mexico City. Currently, in our collection, we only have Kahlo represented, and the way we tell the story of Surrealism in exile is largely confined to New York City. Varo is part of that larger story. She's a significant modern woman artist and an important historical figure. Gender inequity in terms of our pre-1970s holdings is much more pronounced than when you get closer to the present.
What stands out in your own experience of her work?
Manes: Well, there are only a few in American collections. So prior to this project I had seen very few of them in person and what really struck me was just how completely mind-blowingly complex they are and how much there is to discover in them. Being able to travel to Mexico City and to really just stare at these works has been incredibly instructive for me personally.
Umland: As I’ve said before, one of the exercises Varo practiced was looking at an object for eight hours, and that to me is what looking at her work feels like. Everything in this painting and in other works of comparable quality by her, somehow convey that sense of sustained attention to an object. I don't know quite what it is, but to me, there is time built into the experience of looking at this work.
I can't wait to see how it shakes up the conversation in the galleries because it's definitely a storytelling picture. You could say that in modernism or modernist narratives, storytelling is excluded in certain ways. Of course, it's not, and you can look back in history and it's there all the time. This painting really foregrounds that.