Biography Remedios Varo

Remedios Varo Uranga (December 16, 1908 – October 8, 1963) was a Spanish-Mexican, para-surrealist painter and anarchist. She was born María de los Remedios Alicia Rodriga Varo y Uranga in Anglès, a small town in the province of Girona, Spain in 1908. In 1924 she studied at the Academia de San Fernando de Madrid. During the Spanish Civil War she fled to Paris where she was greatly influenced by the surrealist movement. She met her second husband (the first was the painter Gerardo Lizarraga, whom, as was discovered after her death, she never divorced), the French surrealist poet Benjamin Péret in Barcelona. There she was a member of the art group Logicophobiste. They were introduced through a mutual friendship with the Surrealist artist Oscar Dominguez.
Due to her Republican ties, her 1937 move to Paris with Péret ensured that she would never be able to return to Franco’s Spain. She was forced into exile from Paris during the Nazi occupation of France and moved to Mexico City at the end of 1941. She initially considered Mexico a temporary haven, but would remain in Latin America for the rest of her life.
In Mexico, she met native artists such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, but her strongest ties were to other exiles and expatriates, notably the English painter Leonora Carrington and the French pilot and adventurer, Jean Nicolle. Her third, and last, important relationship was to Walter Gruen, an Austrian who had endured concentration camps before escaping Europe. Gruen believed fiercely in Varo, and he gave her the support that allowed her to fully concentrate on her painting.
After 1949 Varo developed her mature style, which remains beautifully enigmatic and instantly recognizable. She often worked in oil on masonite panels she prepared herself. Although her colors have the blended resonance of the oil medium, her brushwork often involved many fine strokes of paint laid closely together – a technique more reminiscent of egg tempera. She died at the height of her career from a heart-attack in Mexico City in 1963.
Her work continues to achieve successful retrospectives at major sites in Mexico and the United States. Currently, the ownership of 39 of her paintings, first loaned and then given by Gruen to Mexico City’s Museum of Modern Art in 1999 is in dispute. Varo’s niece Beatriz Varo Jimenez of Valencia, Spain, claims Gruen had no rights to those works. Gruen, now 91, claims he inherited no works from Varo, who died intestate. Varo never divorced the husband she married in Spain in 1930: a court denied Gruen’s request in 1992 to be given inheritance rights as the artist’s common-law husband. He and his wife, Alexandra, whom he married in 1965, acquired all the paintings given to the museum on the open market after Varo’s death and are therefore his to give. He said he gave the only painting in Varo’s studio at the time of her death, “Still Life Reviving,” to the artist’s mother. The work was auctioned at Sotheby’s New York in 1994 for $574,000.

Career Beginnings

After spending a year in Paris, Varo moved to Barcelona and formed her first artistic circle of friends, which included Josep-Lluis Florit, Oscar Dominguez and Esteban Frances. Varo soon separated from her husband and shared a studio with Frances in a neighborhood filled with young avant-garde artists. The summer of 1935 marked Varo’s formal invitation into Surrealism when French surrealist Marcel Jean arrived in Barcelona. That same year along with Jean and his artist friends, Dominguez and Frances, Varo created a surrealist game that was meant to explore the subconscious association of participants by pairing different images at random. These associations were called cadavres exquis, meaning exquisite corpses, and perfectly illustrated the principle Andre Breton wrote in his Surrealist manifestos. Varo soon joined a collective of artists and writers, called the Logicofobistas, who had an interest in Surrealism and wanted to unite art together with metaphysics while resisting logic and reason. Varo exhibited with this group in 1936 at the Galeria Catalonia although she recognized they were not pure Surrealists.
When the Spanish Civil War began the French Surrealist poet, Benjamin Peret, came to Barcelona to support the anti-Franco cause and met Varo. It was the beginning of an intensely romantic relationship that was recorded in the many letters declaring his love and publications dedicated to Varo. In 1937, Peret moved back to France and Varo followed.

Varo shared a studio in Paris with Benjamin Peret and Esteban Frances. It was through Peret that she met Andre Breton and the Surrealist circle, which included Leonora Carrington, Dora Maar, Roberto Matta and Max Ernst among others. Shortly after arriving in France, Varo took part in the International Surrealist exhibition in Paris and Amsterdam in 1938. She drew vignettes for the Dictionnaire abrege du surrealisme and the magazines Trajectoire du Reve, Visage du Monde and Minotaure featured her work. In late 1938 she participated in a collaborative series, Jeu de dessin communiqué (The Game of Communicated Drawings), of works with Breton and Peret. The series was much like a game. It began with an initial drawing, which was shown to someone for 3 seconds, and then that person tried to recreate what they had been shown. The cycle continued with their drawing and so on. Apparently, this led to very interesting psychological implications that Varo later used in her paintings many times.
The Surrealist Circle fell apart when WWII broke out and Hitler’s troups invaded Paris. Varo was imprisoned but there is no information as to where or for how long because she refused to speak about the experience. On November 20, 1941 Varo, along with Peret and Rubinstein, boarded the Serpa Pinto in Marseilles to flee war-torn Europe and find refuge in Mexico.

Varo’s imagination flourished while living in Mexico City, this resulted in a series of disturbing and puzzling paintings. The work she produced earned her recognition as one of the greatest painters in Mexico during the twentieth century. Varo was soon a part of an artistic circle of European refugees that included Leonora Carrington and Kati Horna who became close friends of Varo. Carrington and Varo read and discussed books on alchemy, witchcraft, magic, mythology, and Kabbalah. They also shared their dreams and discovered their new home together. The collaboration between these two first resulted in two plays, but became more evident in their paintings as they addressed similar concepts.

Artistic influences
Renaissance art inspired harmony, tonal nuances, unity, and narrative structure in Varo’s paintings. The allegorical nature of much of Varo’s work especially recalls the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, and some critics, such as Dean Swinford, have described her art as “postmodern allegory,” much in the tradition of Irrealism.
Varo was also influenced by styles as diverse as those of Francisco Goya, El Greco, Picasso, and Braque. While André Breton was a formative influence in her understanding of Surrealism, some of her paintings bear an uncanny resemblance to the Surrealist creations of the modern Greek-born Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico.
In Mexico, she was influenced by pre-Columbian art.
Varo’s painting The Lovers served as inspiration for some of the images used by Madonna in the music video for her 1995 single “Bedtime Story”.

Philosophical influences
Varo was influenced by a wide range of mystic and hermetic traditions, both Western and non-Western. She turned with equal interest to the ideas of C. G. Jung as to the theories of G. I. Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky, Helena Blavatsky, Meister Eckhart, and the Sufis, and was as fascinated with the legend of the Holy Grail as with sacred geometry, alchemy and the I-Ching. In 1938 and 1939 Varo joined her closest companions Frances, Roberto Matta, and Gordon Onslow Ford in exploring the fourth dimension, basing much of their studies off of Ouspensky’s book Tertium Oganum. The books Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic, and Alchemy by Grillot de Givry and The History of Magic and the Occult by Kurt Seligmann were highly valued in Breton’s Surrealist circle. She saw in each of these an avenue to self-knowledge and the transformation of consciousness.

Interpretations to her body of work
The male surrealists almost never saw their female counterparts as capable artists; therefore, the female surrealists were forced to find ways of working within the restrictions of the surrealist misconceived definition of woman, while still trying to refute it. Varo does this through her images of women in confined spaces.
Later in her career, Varo’s characters developed into her emblematic androgynous figures with heart-shaped faces, large and lonely eyes, and the aquiline noses that mimic her own features. The sense of isolation was achieved again and again as Varo secluded her characters in one environment or another, conveying an extraordinarily powerful message to those who paid attention long enough to notice it. Her use of seemingly autobiographical characters—confined and held captive by forces unknown—could be seen as exposing the dynamic of superiority that is inherent in male surrealist’s misuse of women as muses. It could be interpreted that her paintings are responses to the marginalization of women; portrayals of the characteristic misogynist treatment of women artists by the male surrealists by likening her characters and chimerical figures to prisoners.

Varo’s legacy
When Remedios Varo died of a heart attack in Mexico City in 1963, the art world lamented their loss in her sudden death. Her mature paintings, fraught with arguably feminist meaning, are predominantly from the last few years of her life. Varo’s partner for the last 15 years of her life, Walter Gruen, dedicated his life to cataloguing her work and ensuring her legacy. The paintings of androgynous characters that share Varo’s facial features, mythical creatures, the misty swirls and eerie distortions of perspective are characteristic of Varo’s unique brand of surrealism. Varo has painted images of isolated, androgynous, auto-biographical figures to highlight the captivity of the true woman. While her paintings have been interpreted as more surrealist canvases that are the product of her passion for mysticism and alchemy, or as auto-biographical narratives, her work carries implications far more significant.

Selected list of works

  • 1925 El Tejido de los Sueños
  • 1942 Gruta Magica
  • 1947 Paludismo (Libélula)
  • 1947 El Hombre de la Guadaña (Muerte en el Mercado)
  • 1947 La Batalla
  • 1947 Wahgwah
  • 1947 Amibiasis o los Vegetales
  • 1955 Useless Science or the Alchemist
  • 1955 Ermitaño meditando
  • 1955 La Revelacion o el Relojero
  • 1955 Trasmundo
  • 1955 El Flautista
  • 1956 El Paraíso de los Gatos
  • 1956 To the Happiness of Women
  • 1956 Les Feuilles Mortes
  • 1957 Creation of the Birds
  • 1957 Women’s Tailor
  • 1957 Caminos Tortuosos
  • 1957 Reflejo Lunar
  • 1957 El Gato Helecho
  • 1958 Celestial Pabulum
  • 1959 Exploration of the Source of the Orinoco River
  • 1959 Catedral Vegetal
  • 1959 Encounter
  • 1960 Hacia la torre
  • 1960 Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst
  • 1960 Visit to the Plastic Surgeon’s
  • 1961 Vampiro
  • 1961 Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle
  • 1962 Vampiros Vegetarianos
  • 1962 Fenomeno
  • 1962 Spiral Transit
  • 1963 Naturaleza Muerta Resucitando