A small painting attributed to Spanish artist Remedios Varo is one of the highlights of a 59-lot Impressionist and Modern Art auction coming up at Bonhams in London later this month. Featured alongside works by Salvidor Dalí, Giorgio de Chirico, and Georges Rouault, Varo’s “Composition Surréaliste (tableau collaboratif)” (c. 1935) tells a deeply unsettling story of love, lust, violence, and sexual autonomy with possible contributions from her lovers.
Raised and formally educated as an artist in Spain, Varo moved to Paris and was brought into André Breton’s Surrealist circle in the late 1930s, unofficially separating from her first husband, Gerardo Lizarraga, in pursuit of a polyamorous lifestyle. As a member of the Surrealist circle, Varo’s practice became more collaborative — she was known for playing the “Exquisite Corpse” drawing game with her group members while embarking on her painting practice. Her sexual agency became a hot topic: She was involved with fellow studio mates and group members including a younger Catalan artist named Esteban Francés (who was critical of her multiple partnerships despite his participation) as well as Tenerife-born painter Óscar Domínguez, who rose to her defense during an altercation with Francés at a studio party in Paris.
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During the altercation, Domínguez attempted to strike Francés with a glass but accidentally cut the eye of another artist in attendance, Victor Brauner. This incident and the surrounding dynamic of Varo as a sexually liberated and strong-willed woman navigating a predominantly male sector of the art world largely informs her “Composition Surréaliste (tableau collaboratif),” with ambiguous contributions from both Francés and Domínguez years before the fight happened in 1938.
The painting has no clear narrative, but rather uncomfortably connected vignettes across the composition that are rife with disturbing symbolism. In the work, a nude woman lays on top of metal bars over a deep abyss while a clothed, three-legged male figure holds reins connected to her nipples. A raincloud drips translucent white raindrops over the woman as she is surrounded by figures with horrifically altered bodies. In the bottom right corner, a naked person in a fetal position is encased in a bubble emerging from a seashell.
The only legible signature is that of Domínguez in 1935, but Bonhams specialists declared that the work is indubitably Varo’s per the rendition of Gerardo Lizarraga’s decapitated head in a box serving as her “metaphorical signature.” A closer read shows that Francés’s signature had been removed or covered in two instances across the painting, making the true attributions as well as the painting’s timeline more enigmatic.
“One possible reading is that the painting was started by Francés, but then Domínguez or Varo (or both) reworked the entire composition, thereby erasing his signatures,” the auction house’s essay proposes. “Similarly, Francés could have revisited the painting and saw that his contributions had been changed so irrevocably that he deemed it necessary to scrub away any sign of his authorship. Perhaps he saw his role in the group, or his position as Varo’s lover, as fleeting.”
Shrouded in mystery at the hands of three influential Surrealist artists from early in the movement, the painting is expected to fetch between £50,000 to £70,000 (~$62,000–$87,000) when it goes under the hammer on Monday, April 20.