Scotland secures Surrealist painting: The Skinny

National Galleries Scotland

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Visitors to National Galleries Scotland: Modern One will discover a spellbinding new painting on show, a piece which joins Scotland’s world-class collection of Surrealist art to coincide with the centenary of the Paris publication of Andre Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism. Painted in 1959, Encounter is a major work by the Surrealist painter Remedios Varo (1908-63) – this is the first painting by Varo to enter a public collection in the UK, and its acquisition means it is now owned by the people of Scotland. We talk to Tor Scott, Curatorial Assistant (Modern & Contemporary) at the National Galleries of Scotland, to learn more about the work.

Scott is clearly enamoured of Encounter. “There’s so much to love about this painting! It’s gem-like, and highly detailed, demonstrating several of the techniques and motifs that Varo would become famous for. My favourite thing about Encounter is the beautiful clothing worn by the strange figure at the centre of the canvas. They wear a pair of brown stockings which are covered in tiny stripes, and an incredible, enchanted cloak in blue and white. Varo has blown through a straw or some other device to create ripples in the wet paint, so the cloak looks like it’s made from frothy ocean waves.”

The acquisition is part of the National Galleries of Scotland’s mission to expand on the representation of women artists within the national collection. Says Scott, “In recent years, we’ve made a concerted effort to acquire works by female artists: over the last decade we have acquired paintings and drawings by important proponents of Surrealism such as Edith Rimmington, Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning.” This piece joining the national collection is of particular significance. “It’s the first work by the artist to enter a public collection in the UK. Varo’s paintings are incredibly rare – she only completed about 100 oil paintings during her lifetime and many of them are in museum collections in Mexico.”

Remedios Varo was a Surrealist painter and poet, born in Girona, Catalonia, and one of the first female students at the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid, where she enrolled aged 15 after exhibiting prodigious talent as a child. She moved to Paris in 1935, where she was exposed to Surrealist concepts and introduced to Andre Breton, before fleeing the Nazi occupation in 1941. This led her to Mexico, where she became one of a small group of Surrealist poets, painters and photographers, and forged lifelong friendships with artists including Kati Horna and Leonora Carrington.

Says Scott, “This period in Mexico was one of great artistic potential and radical thought, where some of the most significant works of Surrealist art were produced. Varo’s practice speaks to the wealth of creative, esoteric, philosophical and psychological concepts she encountered there, and to the importance of Surrealist groups and practices that were blossoming beyond Europe in the mid 20th century.”

Encounter by Remedios Varo.
Encounter (1959) by Remedios Varo © Estate of Remedios Varo, All Rights Reserved. ARS, New York and DACS, London 2023

Encounter reflects a popular theme in Surrealist work. “The concept of the encounter – especially the chance encounter – was a subject favoured by the Surrealists for its mysterious potential,” Scott continues. “In this striking composition, a seated figure carefully lifts the lid on a tiny casket to find her own eyes staring back at her. Several similar boxes sit on the shelves in the background, suggesting that there are more ‘selves’ to be discovered. Many of the figures that Varo painted resemble the artist herself, and this work is believed to be a self-portrait.”

Encounter is a mesmerising painting, which you can visit for free in Modern One. Scott is excited about the work, and the opportunity for the people of Scotland to experience it. “I would encourage anyone interested in the eerie, the uncanny, the surreal and the supernatural to visit Encounter at Modern One. Varo’s paintings are full of folklore and adventure – everyone who looks at it sees something different.” 

To find out more visit
National Galleries Scotland: Portrait, National and Modern
Open daily 10am-5pm, Free

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