WASHINGTON -- Remedios Varo, considered one of the greatest surrealist painters of the 20th century, is so obscure to most Americans that when Dr. Alan J. Friedman, a physicist and director of the New York Hall of Science, first came across mention of her in a Thomas Pynchon novel years ago, a colleague assured him that Pynchon had made her up.
But as Friedman eventually discovered, Varo's work is no pigment, if you will, of anybody's imagination. Her extravagantly meticulous and multivalent paintings have long been celebrated in Mexico, her adopted home, side-by-side with the work of her more name-brand compatriot and friend, Frida Kahlo.
And now, 37 years after her death, Varo is at last beginning to receive international acclaim, including the admiration of a cadre not always known for its arthouse savvy: the scientific community.
In a symposium here this month at the National Museum for Women in the Arts, where Varo's first major retrospective in the United States is on view through May 29, Friedman discussed the appeal Varo holds for scientists and engineers.
He described how the artist metaphorically conveyed in her paintings some of the most revolutionary and complex scientific theories of the age, from Einstein's special theory of relativity and Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection to the premise that humans are the stuff of stars, their bodies built of elements baked in solar bellies millions or billions of years ago.
"How many paintings have the square root of minus one in them?" he asked rhetorically in an interview.
One of the first textbooks about general relativity, he said, "The Riddle of Gravitation," by Peter Bergmann (1968), displayed one of Varo's paintings, "The Phenomenon of Weightlessness," on its cover.
As Friedman sees it, Varo sought in particular to convey the most profound and creative moments in a scientist's life, when the researcher first dares to imagine an alternate universe, a model of how things work that differs radically from the models preceding it.
Born in Spain in 1908, Varo came by her interest in science patrilineally. Her father was a hydraulic engineer who encouraged his daughter's early display of artistic talent but drilled her in the rigors of draftsmanship and the correct use of the rule, carpenter's square and triangle. She studied art in Spain and France and became immersed in the Surrealism movement.
Fleeing the Fascists and the Nazis, she found her way to Mexico, where she married Walter Gruen, an Austrian emigre who made a small fortune and told her, "If you want, all you have to do is paint."
Paint is what she did, creating large, intricate canvases using a brush with only three bristles.