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Pearls from artists* # 418

A Remedios Varo Plate from “Science and Surrealism”

A Remedios Varo Plate from “Science and Surrealism”

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

… both Surrealism’s birth and infancy coincided with probably the most momentous period in the history of physics.  The first Surrealist text, written by Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault and titled Magnetic Fields, deployed the spontaneous technique of ‘automatic writing,’ which supposedly allowed direct access to unconscious material.  It appeared in 1920 but was written in the previous year, coinciding with the expedition led by the English astrophysicist, Arthur Eddington, to observe the solar eclipse from the island of Principe off the west coast of Africa.  It was this journey that proved predictions set out in Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (1916) about the gravitational deflection of light by the sun.  Eddington’s experiment led not only to Einstein’s instant, mythic status as the ‘new Copernicus’ and the swift popularization of Relativity, but more specifically its appearance in the early theoretical writings of Surrealism’s principle spokesman, Breton, which helped lay the foundations of the movement.  Breton’s subsequent manifesto texts of 1924 and 1929, extending his discussion of what he deemed the narrow, restrictive logic of Western though, can be situated within the same historical context that bore the revolutionary discoveries of quantum mechanics, culminating in 1927.       

Sibylline Strangeness:  Surrealism and Modern Physics,” by Gavin Parkinson in Science in Surrealism, published by Gallery Wendy Norris

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Q: When did your love of indigenous artifacts begin? Where have you traveled to collect these focal points of your works and what have those experiences taught you?

Mexico City

Mexico City

A:  As a Christmas present in 1991 my future sister-in-law sent me two brightly painted wooden animal figures from Oaxaca, Mexico. One was a blue polka-dotted winged horse.  The other was a red, white, and black bear-like figure. 

I was enthralled with this gift and the timing was fortuitous because I had been searching for new subject matter to paint. I started asking artist-friends about Oaxaca and learned that it was an important art hub.  Two well-known Mexican painters, Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo, had gotten their start there, as had master photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo.  There was a “Oaxacan School of Painting” (‘school’ meaning a style) and Alvarez Bravo had established a photography school there (the building/institution kind). I began reading everything I could find.  At the time I had only been to Mexico very briefly, in 1975.  

The following autumn, Bryan and I planned a two-week trip to visit Mexico. We timed it to see Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca.  (During my research I had become fascinated with this festival).  We spent one week in Oaxaca followed by one week in Mexico City.  My interest in collecting Mexican folk art was off and running!

Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns for the “Day of the Dead.” The indigenous people tending their ancestors’ graves were so dignified and so gracious, even with so many mostly-American tourists tromping around on a sacred night, that I couldn’t help being taken with these beautiful people and their beliefs. 

From Oaxaca we traveled to Mexico City, where again I was entranced, but this time by the rich and ancient history.  We visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations; the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which the Aztecs discovered as an abandoned city and then occupied as their own; and the Templo Mayor, the historic center of the Aztec empire, infamous as a place of human sacrifice.  I was astounded!  Why had I never learned in school about Mexico, this highly developed cradle of Western civilization in our own hemisphere, when so much time had been devoted to the cultures of Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere? When I returned home to Virginia I began reading everything I could find about ancient Mexican civilizations, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya. The first trip to Mexico opened up a whole new world and was to profoundly influence my future work. I would return there many more times, most recently to study Olmec art and archeology. In subsequent years I have traveled to Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and other countries in search of inspiration and subject matter to depict in my work.

Comments are welcome!

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