Remedios Varo - Biography and Legacy
Spanish-Mexican Painter and Sculptor
Anglès, Girona, Spain
Mexico City, Mexico
Biography of Remedios Varo
Remedios Varo was born María de los Remedios Alicia Rodriga Varo y Uranga in the small town of Anglès, located in the province of Girona in Spain. Her father, Rodrigo Varo y Zajalvo, was a hydraulic engineer, whose work often necessitated moving his family throughout Spain and North Africa. This disruption had a profound effect on Varo, and, as if longing for 'home', she kept a childhood postcard of Anglès all her life.
Varo's mother, Ignacia Uranga Bergareche was an ardent Catholic. Though she was close to her mother, Varo found Catholicism claustrophobic and gravitated more naturally to the open universalist beliefs of her father. In attempts to maintain her privacy, at the convent school that her mother insisted she attend, she would ritually leave sugar on the floor outside her door so that she could hear if anyone was lurking outside. To escape imaginatively, she read widely, including the fantasy works of Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and Alexandre Dumas, and also delved into mysticism. Varo's early interest in alchemy and magic led her, as art historian Janet A. Kaplan describes, "to have written secretly to a Hindu, asking him to send her some mandrake root because she had heard it had magical properties."
Varo's artistic training began in childhood when her father asked her to copy the technical plans and architectural diagrams of his various projects. A stickler for detail, he often had Varo redo her work thus instilling the lifelong trait of perfectionism. Janet Kaplan writes that, "although Varo described her father as overpowering and demanding, the stories she liked to tell of him suggest that he was...a practical joker." One day passing a crowd gathered alongside the road, her father pretended to be the bishop they were waiting for and blessed the people. As a story which Varo often retold, and which likely influenced her own fondness for performative behavior, such as her choosing a random stranger from a phone book and sending him an invitation to a dinner party at someone else's house.
Early education and work
Varo described how "at the age of 12, I painted my first painting of my grandmother, which met an understanding response from my father." In 1924, a time when few women were allowed into art school, Varo was admitted to Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid. She was only 15 when she moved to the city and it was an experience that she found liberating.
The Academia was known for its strict adherence to the technique of the Old Masters. Resistant to new ideas and troublemakers, the school had expelled Salvador Dalí the same year Varo arrived. She said of her education, "I took advantage of all that I learned, in painting the things that interested me on my own, which could be called, together with technique, the beginning of a personality." Her "personality" felt a strong affinity with Surrealism, which was simultaneously becoming a vital part of the artistic atmosphere in Madrid more generally. Varo also visited the Prado frequently to view the works of Hieronymus Bosch and also saying, "I am basically interested in the primitive painters, and besides them, El Greco and Goya."
In 1930 Varo married Gerardo Lizárraga, a fellow art student and political activist, saying herself that she was drawn to the "life of poor bohemians, confident and carefree". The couple went to Paris in 1931 where Varo insightfully recorded that the many conversations held in the cafés there were at once her "hearth and trampoline." Returning to Spain, the couple settled among the avant-garde in Barcelona, and Varo began collaborating on numerous 'exquisite corpse' works with Oscar Dominguez, Marcel Jean, and Esteban Francés. With extraordinary results, each artist would draw an image or paste a cut-out onto a sheet of paper and then fold it to hide part of the image, before passing it on to the next artist to do the same. In 1936 she appropriately exhibited with the Logicophobists, a group of artists who sought the union of art with metaphysics. As she wrote, "we are doing everything possible to make something fully 'surrealist.'" Indeed, Varo also revolted against conventional norms in her personal life. Whilst still married to Lizárraga, she began a relationship with Esteban Francés, a Spanish Surrealist painter, yet all managed to remain on good terms.
In 1936 Varo met Benjamin Péret, a Surrealist poet who was a close friend of André Breton and a political activist who had come to Spain to support the Spanish Republic. When he returned to Paris in 1937, Varo went with him. Although very much in love, the couple's life was marked by poverty and political uncertainty, and Varo's opinion of the alternative lifestyle had become more mixed when she said "It is not easy to live on painting in Paris...Sometimes I did not have more food in an entire day than a small cup of coffee with milk. I call this 'the heroic epoch'...That bohemian life that is supposed to be necessary for the artist is very bitter."
She was introduced to the inner circle of Surrealism by Péret during this period, but said that she felt somewhat intimidated, revealing that despite feeling great affinity with certain aims and beliefs, that her own, "position was the timid and humble one of a listener". Although her artistic output at this point was relatively small, she did partake in major Surrealist exhibitions, experimented with the same techniques as friends such as Max Ernst, René Magritte, Victor Brauner, and Wolfgang Paalen. Varo also studied science, psychology, sacred geometry, the I Ching, and the mystical works of George Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, and Meister Eckhart.
In February 1940, Péret was recalled to military service and a few months later he was arrested and imprisoned for political activity. Under suspicion as his partner, Varo was also arrested in the winter of 1940 and imprisoned for several months. Whilst little is known of what happened to her during this time, one friend described that Varo was extremely distraught following her release. Living in hiding, she joined the flight of refugees when the Germans invaded Paris. Péret, now also released, joined her in Marseille. They found themselves in familiar company, among other Surrealist artists, and spent anxious months, trying to alleviate their worn out spirits with escapades that included Varo, Francés, and Péret, dressing up for a photo session as matadors. In 1941, Varo and Péret finally received the documents that enabled them to flee to Mexico.
Once in Mexico, Varo took on a variety of jobs hand painting furniture, restoring pre-Columbian artifacts, and working in commercial design. In 1942, she worked with Marc Chagall, designing costumes for a ballet, Aleko, and in 1947 she went to Venezuela and worked on an advertising campaign for the Bayer pharmaceutical company. She also became friends with European artists and expatriates including Leonora Carrington, Kati Horna, and Gunther Gerzso. Her friendship with Leonora Carrington was of particular importance, as the two wrote fairy tales, collaborated on a play, invented Surrealistic potions and recipes, and mutually influenced each other's work. The two women, along with the photographer Kati Horna became known as "the three witches" and engaged sometimes in elaborate pranks, such as putting ink in tapioca pearls to serve as caviar at parties to guests like the noted poet, Octavio Paz. Along with a sense of peace newly found in Mexico, friendship provided security for Varo, who was often anxious and superstitious, smoking heavily. At home, she surrounded herself with small objects, quartz crystals and oddly shaped pieces of wood, all of which to her held magical powers and great significance.
In 1950, Varo married a friend, Walter Gruen, an Austrian refugee, who had become a successful businessman in Mexico. Gruen's emotional and economic support allowed Varo for the first time to devote herself utterly and without restriction only to her art. As a result, she worked arduously and became prolific, making the paintings created during the last 13 years of her life amongst the most accomplished and well known. Her first solo exhibition was held in Mexico City in 1955 and although she showed only four paintings, the event met with critical acclaim and financial success. The newspaper Excelsior noted her "spiritual and technical courage...so superior to what is ordinarily seen," and described "her fervent meticulousness, worthy of a Flemish primitive, at the service of an imagination bathed in the most exquisite poetry." Suddenly there were waiting lists for buyers of Varo's work, and she held a second individual exhibition at the Salón de la Arte de Mujer in 1958. Her representative, Juan Martin, opened his own gallery in 1960 and showed her work almost exclusively. The gallery was so successful that Martin opened a second gallery in 1962. In 1963, at the height of her career, sadly and unexpectedly Varo died of a heart attack.
The Legacy of Remedios Varo
Varo and her work quickly became legendary in Mexico. Following her death, the art critics of Novedades called her "one of the most individual and extraordinary painters of Mexican art." Solo retrospectives of her work opened in 1964, 1971, and 1983 in Mexico. A major book, Obras de Remedios Varo, was published following the first retrospective and sold out all of its three subsequent printings to become a highly valued collector's item. In the decades that followed it became clear that Varo's 'Surrealist' work would have an enduring influence on subsequent generations of artists, and in particular on female practitioners. Post-WWII female artists resolutely shifted their role from that of passive muse to active maker.
At the forefront of this change and as pioneers of a new artistic language centered on interior reality, Varo and her contemporaries provided younger female artists necessary role models to look towards, emulate and surpass. Kiki Smith is a perfect example of an artist working today who quotes Frida Kahlo and the other Surrealist women artists as "the beginning of contemporary art because they use the self and their own image to make art". Louise Bourgeois, Mona Hatoum, and Tracey Emin are all notable examples of artists whose work, like that of Varo's is focused around the slippage between fantasy and reality, and on making invisible emotions visible.
Varo's relationship with Leonora Carrington was so important in that it reflects an inherent need in female artists to create supportive networks. Such was also the case for Swedish painter, Hilma af Klint who established 'The Five, and Birgit Jürgenssen who referred to 'The Ladies', her female artist friends, as her best critics and supporters.
Reflecting her popularity beyond the art world and among the general public, Varo's work has taken on an extensive cultural life. The well-known Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos wrote a poetic eulogy dedicated to the artist, and Octavio Paz, the Nobel Prize winning poet, also wrote poems to her. In Thomas Pynchon's novel The Crying of Lot 49 (1965), Varo's Embroidering the Earth's Mantle (1961) is a primary inspiration. While Varo's The Lovers (1963) (along with art by Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, and René Magritte) is the inspiration for the pop singer, Madonna's 1995 video, "Bedtime Story".