Remedios Varo came from Andalusian-Basque heritage, which is significant given the vast distinctions both cultures make from each other. From her father’s Andalusian side came the love of art, frivolity and emotionalism. He was pretentious, socially liberal and irreverent to the church. He claimed a noble heritage and his desire for this claim was passed on to Remedios. Needless to say, his imagination stimulated her and he was more encouraging of her artistic development than her mother was.
Varo’s father was a perfectionist when it came to her abilities as a painter, and he painstakingly instructed her in all aspects of the craft. From a carpenter’s and architectural perspective he instilled a “strong foundation of artistic discipline” (15). While she found him very dominating, she valued the technical skills he taught her, and it is because of this that her perspective drawing is so masterful.
Remedios Varo’s mother was quite the opposite. Her Basque cultural heritage was of strict Catholicism, practicality and reservation. Varo was much more like her father, but because of his domineering personality, she valued her mother’s feelings more.
As a child, Varo went to a Catholic convent school run by strict nuns. During this time schools that were considered “free” – that is, independent of the church – were not common and considered to be controversial. Her father wanted her to go to a more up-to-date liberal institution, but being a devout Catholic, her mother insisted on the convent.
The strict codes of the school did not mesh well with her mischievous temperament and she became rebellious, doing things like sprinkling sugar on the floor in front of her bedroom door at the convent to track the footsteps of people who might be spying on her. She sought out novels of adventure by authors like Alexander Dumas and Jules Verne, which was considered very unladylike.
In her adolescent years, she became interested in the occult and indulged in intense fantasies. She had a hard time discerning between reality and dreams, and she began developing this frame of mind by writing fantastical stories that she had to hide from the nuns beneath the stones of her bedroom floor. This action fueled an obsession with a secret life existing “under floors, behind walls and in furniture” (18).
The paintings she made in her later life demonstrate this obsession. They also demonstrate, better than any of her other paintings, how she viewed her childhood. In 1960 and 1961 she did a series of three paintings that she saw as a “triptych” (18). This series mocked the strict convent education into which she was forced.
The first of this series is Toward the Tower, in which she has painted herself as a group of identical girls fleeing from a tower where they have been held captive. It is dark and a little sad, but also whimsical, as you can see by the girls’ bicycles being made from their clothing. All the girls sort of gaze listlessly ahead, but one of them is looking directly at us – a form of rebellion from what Varo called, “the hypnosis” (18).
|Toward the Tower (1960)|
The second in this triptych is Embroidering Earth’s Mantle. It has the same girls trapped in their tower, working away as they embroider “the mantle of the world according to the dictates of a ‘Great Master’” (19). This represents the work done most at the convent, where needlework was considered to be the most appropriate skill for young women of culture. Again we can see indicators of Varo’s rebellious spirit, as one of the girls has embroidered herself in with her lover; this is only barely visible and upside down in the fabric that flows from her table. This tower imprisonment acts as two metaphors – that of her religious confinement, and of her liberation of herself.
|Embroidering Earth's Mantle (1961)|
The third and final painting in her triptych series is The Escape, in which she is seen fleeing with her lover. This surreal and fantastical painting acts as an autobiography representing her marriage to another artist in 1930.
The themes of the paintings of her later years all represent the emotional state of her youth. Confinement and feelings of being scrutinized and smothered permeate these works of art.
The paintings of her youth were much more rooted in fairy-tales and a preoccupation with accuracy. She painted and sketched family members with great detail and tenderness. By the time she was fifteen, she was studying with Salvador Dali at the Academia de San Fernando, which was the most prestigious art school in Madrid.
Even though the academy focused primarily on rigid precision and discipline, Remedios Varo was far more interested in experimenting, and used Surrealism to express herself imaginatively. She took to what is called “the spirit of innovation” that was the life for Spanish bohemians of the 1920s, completely rejecting conformity.
During her academy years, Surrealism exploded in Madrid and out of its conception were born philosophers, writers, architects, composers, filmmakers and poets. When Varo was twenty-one, she married a fellow artist named Gerardo Lizarraga, and it was in marriage that she finally felt free, because she was able to leave home and embrace the bohemian world she had always longed to be a part of.
After she graduated, the threat of civil war erupted in Spain. The Monarchy fell as King Alfonso the XIII fled and reform was in the air – but the romance did not last long. Spain was divided and violent attacks ensued. Varo and her husband escaped the bloodshed by heading to Paris.
Once in Paris, Varo started taking classes at La Grande Chaumiere, a very popular free art school. She quickly dropped out because she didn’t want her learning to come from an academic institution. She and her husband lived the bohemian lifestyle of Paris, but after a year they returned to Spain, settling in liberal Barcelona, as it was the city most like Paris.
In Barcelona, Remedios Varo met Esteban Francés, a young Catalan artist, who helped her to get more involved with the city’s Surrealist movement. Even though she still lived with her husband, Lizarraga, she and Francés became lovers. It was because of this open relationship that she felt she was finally able to sever herself from her strict moral upbringing. From then on she juggled many open sexual relationships that developed into lifelong friendships.
Varo and Francés got into a group game that was popular among the surrealists called The Exquisite Corpse. The game initially began as a collaborative word game, during which each player would write a word or a phrase on a piece of paper – that paper was then passed to the next person who would do the same. This exercise brought about bizarre juxtapositions and associations. The name came about from the first round ever played by the Surrealists – the phrase that came forth was, “the exquisite corpse will drink the young wine” (40). The game evolved and eventually included drawing – where each player would draw a body part until they had created a full figure.
During the summer of 1935, Varo and several of her Surrealist friends spent a lot of time playing The Exquisite Corpse. Varo and Francés developed the game even further to include collage, and eventually she got into creating collages all on her own. While there were several unsigned collages, Catalog of Shadows (1935) is suspected as being hers, as it includes the fixation on furniture design that will show up in her later work.
|Catalog of Shadows (1935)|
Barcelona that summer had erupted in violence – the civil war was escalating. It was a scary time. There was more violence in the street than on the front lines of the war. Not only were there political and religious murders, but you also never knew if someone from the right or left was going to wake you up in the middle of the night to “take a little walk” (45), because one of your friends sold you out. Nobody felt safe, including Varo and her family, especially when they lost Luis, Remedios Varo’s younger brother – a soldier who died from typhoid due to the intense heat, exhaustion and bad food that Franco’s army were forced to endure. His death scarred Varo, who said that it was a “bitter shock that her brother, her beloved playmate, should side with the enemy and die while still so young” (47).
It was during this violent time that Varo met Benjamin Péret, who was a French Surrealist poet and an anarcho-communist who believed in the teachings of Leon Trotsky. He was also an active member of POUM (Worker’s Party of Marxist Unification). In June of 1937 “the POUM was declared illegal, and the secret police began arresting anyone associated with the party” (53). This put not only Péret in danger, but also Varo, being that she was his companion. Still married to Lizarrega and seeing Francés she, in a fit of passion, returned to Paris to live with Péret. Unfortunately, because Generalissimo Franco closed all the Spanish borders that had Republican ties, Remedios Varo was forced to stay in Paris, cut off from her home and her family.
With Péret, Varo was able to live among the Surrealists; however, she felt intimidated and awe-struck by them instead of feeling as if she were one of them. She was so insecure that during her entire adult life she lied about her age – making herself five years younger – because for a woman, age and wisdom was a death sentence. The image of woman in the Surrealist movement was one of naïve innocence, called the woman-child, or the femme-enfant, and she wished to encompass that image. Surrealists felt that this frame of mind brought women closer to the “intuitive realm of the unconscious” (56). Women were considered to be the “prime source of artistic creativity” (56), a concept that was controversial among feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, who felt that it presented “woman as an object of male definition, as Other rather than Self, leaving little place for the real women among the Surrealist group to develop independent creative identities” (57).
Like Varo, most women in Surrealist circles felt as if they floated around the outskirts, and, having allowed the limitations of male ideas about youth, innocence and creativity to permeate their lives, aging left little to be desired. Luckily for Remedios Varo, the Surrealists found merit in her work, and while she was never officially accepted as a member of the Surrealist group, they allowed her work to be shown in “their international exhibitions and reproduced in their major publications” (63).
It was during this time that Remedios Varo struck up an affair with Victor Brauner, another Surrealist painter, while she was living with Péret. Sexual independence was quite common among the Surrealists, and everybody pretty much slept with everybody without much disruption. However, one night at Óscar Dominguez’s studio, when everyone was drinking, things took a turn. It is suggested that Esteban Francés, one of Varo’s boyfriends, yelled at her for all the affairs she was having. Dominguez rose to defend her.
Brauner restrained Francés and Dominguez managed to free himself from whoever was holding him back. He picked up a glass, meaning to hit Francés with it, but instead hit Brauner, “who collapsed to the floor, dazed and covered in blood, only to learn from his horrified friends that the glass had torn out his eye” (67). A weird coincidence that surrounds this incident is the fact that prior to this, Victor Brauner had completed several self-portraits where he depicted himself as either having only one eye, or having one eye being torn from his face. It is as if he prophesized the accident.
In July of 1939, Varo’s life was once again hit by war when the city of Paris was evacuated, but the Surrealists stayed behind. While Hitler invaded the surrounding countries, foreign refugees fled to Paris, and all non-citizens were forced to carry identification. Not only were Jews being persecuted, but also foreigners were being ostracized. It was dangerous for Varo to remain, as she was also associated with Péret, which, as “an outspoken communist, only made things worse” (69). Péret was eventually arrested.
More weird coincidences surrounded Varo and her friends. One day she went to the movies with a Hungarian photojournalist friend, named Emerico (Chiqui) Weisz, to see a project that Weisz had worked on – a documentary about French concentration camps. In the movie, Varo saw Gerardo Lizarraga – the man who was “still legally her husband” (70). He had been an anarchist fleeing Franco rule, escaped into France as a Spanish refugee and was captured like many others. Varo and her friends were able to secure his release.
In 1940, Varo was arrested. She neither left any account of her incarceration, nor did she ever tell anyone where she was or for how long she was there. Her friends indicate that the experience was devastating and “left Varo terribly traumatized and shaken” (71). In June of the same year, following the Nazi occupation of France, Varo fled Paris before she was able to find out where Péret was being held and whether or not he was to be released. She ended up in Canet-Plage, which is a small fishing village on the Mediterranean coast. She lived there with Victor Brauner for a while until she left for Marseilles, where she stayed with a bunch of artists.
Péret joined her after a few months. For a few years they remained there and attempted to revive their Surrealist bohemian lifestyle, but a lack of food and the growing fascist regime forced them to flee France altogether. Péret eventually arranged passage to Mexico, as in June of 1940 “the Mexican government had offered its protection to all Spanish refugees” (81).
Again Varo and her friends attempted to revive their bohemian lifestyle, but while Mexico welcomed refugees, the Mexican art community was less than hospitable. Artists like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo held Mexico’s roots firmly “in the indigenous Indian culture, involved [in the] rejection of foreign ‘colonializing’ influences” (87). Rivera and Kahlo saw the foreign Surrealists as “false artists” who perpetuated “the semi-colonial condition of Mexican culture by imitating European modes” (87). Of the Surrrealists Frida Kahlo said:
“They make me vomit. They are so damn ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t stand them anymore… I’d rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas, than to have anything to do with those ‘artistic’ bitches of Paris” (88).
So the Spanish and French Surrealists who settled in Mexico created their own community where they held on to the European bohemian spirit.
In 1942, Remedios Varo and Peret were married. It was during this time that Varo and an English woman painter named Leonora Carrington developed a deep friendship. Their relationship was built upon their “shared belief in the mystical and the powers of magic” (93). This belief motivated them to pursue the occult, and it was in the “fertile atmosphere” of Mexico that they studied “witchcraft, alchemy, sorcery, Tarot and magic” (96). They spent more time writing stories than painting – short stories and fairy-tales, and Varo wrote a lot of letters to strangers:
“My dear sir,
I have allowed a prudent amount of time to pass, and now I see – that is – I feel certain that your spirit is in an advantageous state for communicating with me. I am a reincarnation of a girlfriend you had long ago. She was not exceptionally favored, speaking in terms of physical appearance: large nose, freckled skin, red hair, and a bit underweight. Fortunately, my current incarnation has only conserved the red hair as a physical feature. The rest...my friend, hot stuff! Greek nose, seductive curves – without being fat, I benefit from unparalleled abundances and, bottom line...so I have a few wrinkles? An insignificant detail equivalent to the noble patina that all objects of good quality attain.
This reincarnation wasn’t simple. After traveling first through the body of a cat, then through an unknown creature belonging to the world of speed – that is to say, one of those who pass through us at more than 300,000 km/second (which is why we don’t see them), then my spirit poured itself, unexplainably, into the heart of a piece of quartz. Thanks to an abominable storm, the electrical phenomena turned in my favor and lightning struck said piece of quartz, rescuing my spirit, which spiraled out to rest in the body of a woman of ample flesh who happened to be around. I am satisfied with my current circumstance, so I am taking a chance, writing you with the hopes that you haven’t forgotten me” (Reincarnation of Remedios).
For work, Remedios Varo hand-painted items like furniture and toys for children. She also designed “costumes for theatrical productions” and “extraordinary hats” (98). These costumes later showed up in her paintings. In Woman’s Tailor (1957), she “pictured a fashion showroom in which a tailor has his models parade his latest creations before a potential client” (100).
|Woman's Tailor (1957)|
In 1947, Péret returned to France and Varo, traumatized by the war, did not want to leave Mexico – and she could never return to Spain as long as Franco was still in power. She loved Mexico and made it her home.
In 1949, Varo and her long time friend, Walter Gruen, got close. He had been in concentration camps in France and Germany and when he was living in Austria he had been a medical student, “until Hitler put an end to his studies” (119). Living with Gruen, Varo was finally able to fully flourish as an artist. He supported her emotionally and financially until she was able to contribute money from the work she sold. She worked several hours a day, sometimes for months on one painting, and then she would start another one – her style maturing, her technique becoming meticulous.
In 1955, she had her first exhibition in Mexico, and the paintings she showed were indicative of the themes that were to inspire her work for the rest of her life. One of her paintings shown in this exhibit, Sympathy, “explored the relationship between women and cats” (122). Varo explains of the painting:
“This lady’s cat jumps onto the table, producing the sort of disorder that one must learn to tolerate if one likes cats (as I do). Upon caressing it, so many sparks fly that they form a very complicated electrical gadget. Some sparks and electricity go to her head and rapidly make a permanent wave” (123).
Another painting Varo showed in this exhibition is called Solar Music (1955). In the painting, she depicts a woman draped in a grassy robe that comes directly from the ground – she is playing a stream of sunlight as if it were a violin. The face of the woman is like that of Remedios Varo, and it is suggested that, “having so recently experienced the release of her own creative powers, she projected herself onto the persona of the woodland musician in awakening and coloring nature” (125).
|Solar Music (1955)|
This exhibition, which only boasted four paintings by Varo, took Mexican critics by storm. They were so awed by her imaginative and wonderfully technical pieces that she outshone all of the artists at the show. She used decalcomania, which, in Surrealist painting, is a sort of blotting technique – you spread the paint thick on the canvas and then cover it with another material. The material is removed before the paint dries and the left over pattern becomes part of the finished painting. This technique was developed as a method for Surrealist painters to create imagery that arose from the “chance patterns of decalcomania” (128); however, Remedios Varo used it in a predetermined manner – to exercise “artistic control” (128).
This was one of the ways she was distancing herself from the group she once strived so hard to become a part of. She was exerting her independence, and her work exploded in a proliferation of sophistication. The critics loved her, and she received the praise of fellow artists, including Diego Rivera, whose opinion on art seemed to be most important in Mexico at the time and who at one time, along with his wife, denounced all the European artists living in Mexico. After her next show, she had collectors and buyers beating down her door for a chance to purchase one of her works.
For the rest of her career, Varo had regular exhibitions and won awards. She was commissioned for paintings of the children from prominent families, which she “profoundly disliked” (136) because of the pressure to complete her work in a timely fashion – something she found difficult to do, as her meticulous technique required her to paint quite slowly.
The last ten years of her life were spent traveling through her own psyche, exploring “the possibilities of metamorphosis, growth, and change” (147). She grew to despise physical travel, but turned this journey into a metaphor, which emerged in the narrative of her work to touch on “the constraints of tradition, memory, fear and isolation to seek power, creativity, spirituality and magic” (148). In a sense, Remedios Varo was continuing her everlasting search for personal freedom.
Her paintings are small, intimate and personal, and, “grounding the extraordinary in the ordinary, she chose the most mundane objects and environments… as the locus for transcendent moments and miraculous discoveries” (148). In Visit to the Past (1957), Varo paints a simple room, sparsely furnished, in which her “self-portrait character stands at the entrance” (148). It is a room from her past, a room that has been lived in by many, but as a visitor, “she finds it haunted by her own presence” (148). She sees these ghosts of herself in the wall, in the table, in the chair. Visit to the Past was painted after visiting a dying Péret in Paris.
|A Visit to the Past (1957)|
This piece shows how heavy the weight of the past laid on her. In her search for
independence, Remedios Varo had to abandon a lot – her family, the role that had been cast for her as a woman (and as the daughter of a devout Catholic) – and, while her paintings depict her as someone who is scrutinized, the faces of those looking back at her are in fact her own, which “suggests that the scrutiny has been internalized. She may turn her back on the house of her past, but she is haunted by her own disapproval” (149). Ultimately, she came to the conclusion that true independence is an illusion, and she depicts this epiphany in Vagabond (1957), a painting in which a man wears an elaborate outfit that is also a vehicle of sorts. He thinks he is autonomous because of all that he carries with him. Of this she says:
“…The man is not liberated: on one side of the outfit there is a nook which acts as a living room. Here there is a portrait hanging and three books. On his breast he wears a flowerpot with a rose growing in it, a finer and more delicate plant than those he finds in these woods. But he needs the portrait, the rose (nostalgia for a little garden in a house) and his cat; he is not truly free” (151).
This painting can be seen as a self-portrait of sorts, as even though Varo fled to Mexico with “only what she could carry, she, too, found it difficult to free herself from the past” (151).
Varo felt that it was important to embark on this painful journey because the alternative would be worse. “She feared even more the paralysis that apathy would invite” (158). In her painting, Mimesis (1960), her self-portrait character is an unmoving woman sitting alone in a room, who is surrounded by anthropomorphized furniture. Varo describes the woman in the painting as having “remained motionless for so long that she is turning into the armchair…” (159). The painting seems silly (the chair in the background is perusing through a drawer), but it “conveys desperation” (159). The animation of the furniture outshines the woman, who sits in submission and her “apathy surprises even her pet cat,” who watches in shock from a hole in the floor (159). Varo wanted to raise the issue of how women lose themselves in “domestic isolation” (160).
In the height of her career, and before the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City was able to tell her that they were thinking of doing a massive exhibition in her honor, Remedios Varo died suddenly of a heart attack. Her work has touched many, including other artists like Thomas Pynchon, who “included a description of Varo’s Embroidering Earth’s Mantle in his 1966 novel, The Crying of Lot 49” (230). He used the painting as a symbol for the emotional state of his main character, “who is moved to tears on confronting those ‘frail girls prisoner in their tower’ who embroider their voluminous tapestry ‘seeking hopelessly to fill the void’” (230), a void Remedios Varo spent her whole life seeking to escape.
Kaplan, Janet A. Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys. Abbeville Press, New York. 2000. Print.
Zoe in Wonderland. The Reincarnation of Remedios, 2014. Web. April 10, 2014.