Artist: Varo, Remedios
Remedios Varo was a surrealist painter who left an impression on many people in the art community. One of the few women in the surrealist circle, she broke out of the men’s shadow to forge her own path in her own world. Her jewel-like paintings were steeped in humor, fantasy and science with the sensitive touch only a woman could give. She also gives us glimpses into the occult traditions and mystic paths that opened new worlds and shaped her visions. Respected by scientists and engineers as well as painters and sculptors, Varo truly has a broad audience of devotees. She remains obscure to most Americans, even though she is considered one of the greatest artists of the surrealist movement.
Varo was born in Angles, Spain in 1908. Her father, a hydraulic engineer, nurtured his daughter’s love of art and encouraged it throughout her childhood. He went so far as to train Varo in the art of mechanical drawing; showing her the use of a rule, the carpenters square and triangle. This early draftsman training shows in her meticulous and precise use of angles and lines throughout her body of work.
Her father then sent her to art school, which at the time was highly unusual for a young woman. She studied in Madrid at the School of Arts and Crafts and the School of Fine Arts. She enrolled at The Academy of San Fernando at age 15: around the same time of a promising young artist named Dali. At the Academy Varo was exposed to new thoughts and ideas: Sigmund Freud and his broad views on reality, and Andre’ Breton who defined surrealism as a movement. The Academy had many lecturers including: Marie Curie, H.G. Wells, and Albert Einstein. Varo always had a healthy appetite for scientific discovery, but here she would lay the foundation for her scientific thoughts into the realm of art.
After a brief marriage to an art student in Madrid, Varo moved on to Barcelona to immerse herself in an expanding avant-garde atmosphere. There she met the surrealist poet Benjamin Peret. They quickly married and fled to Paris after the Spanish Civil War. Time in Paris was brief because of the Nazi occupation of France. Peret’s leftist political affiliations prevented them from traveling to New York and they were stranded for months in Morocco. Varo sold the few white bed sheets she had to Muslims in Casablanca, remembering that the Muslim dead must be wrapped in white for their final meeting with God. This small sum of money helped the couple voyage across the sea to Mexico.
Mexico was supposed to be a temporary stay, but it became her adopted home. During the last ten years of her life Varo produced many of her most respected works here. However, the first few years in her new home were anything but cozy. This time in Varo’s life was marked by economic hardship and isolation. One would think that being respected artists; the couple would find their way into the modernist circles of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. This was not the case, they found comradery joining groups of exiled painters and writers. Varo would paint furniture and design costumes. She briefly worked for Bayer pharmaceuticals as an illustrator, and even provided scientific drawings for the Venezuelan Ministry of Public Health during a short visit there.
Among the exiled she aligned herself; was the English painter Leonora Carrington. Having gone through similar misfortunes; Carrington quickly became Varo’s soul mate and they would see each other on a daily basis. Varo saw in Carrington someone with the same internal and external conflicts. They would share a love of the occult absorbing themselves in mysticism, sharing stories, dreams, and even magic potions.
After the disintegration of her marriage and Peret’s return to France, Varo found love again. She married Walter Gruen in 1952. Gruen was an Austrian émigré’ and businessman who supported Varo in her artistic endeavors. She never had to work to support her painting again. And because of this new found creative intensity, her painting drifted away from the experimental and sporadic capturing her full potential.
Varo had an uphill battle to gain some footing in the world of surrealism. Being a woman in a den of surrealists was a sort of contradiction. Initially in the surrealist world, women were thought of as novelties: sexual creatures and muses that inspired men to be creative. As real women they were feared as destroyers of freedom and the creative process. Yet however subjugated women were; they were drawn to the devoted commitment to the avant-garde, as well as the sexually charged atmosphere surrounding the movement. Varo borrowed from her male contemporaries and many site Ernst, Dali and Delvaux as visual points of reference. In the end, free from condemnation, she developed her own style using thoughts and techniques inspired by the surrealist group.
This group was not the only thing inspiring Varo. She delved deeply into the world of mysticism. It almost seemed that a higher consciousness was driving what she painted. The teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff theorized about the possibility of new perceptions in time and space through higher states of consciousness. Gurdieff’s pupil, Ouspensky, thought that art could lead to some sort of cosmic awareness. He also theorized that musical relationships order all existence. In many of Varo’s paintings there is some sort of musical entity at the epicenter of the thought. Varo explored many ideas including: medieval alchemy, sacred geometry, the legends of the Holy Grail, and the I Ching. But she never let go of her fascination with science and math as it serves as the foundation for most of her works.
Varo’s appeal to the scientific community made her somewhat unique among artists. Dr. Alan J. Friedman, a physicist and the Director of the New York Hall of Science, asks “How many paintings have the square root of minus one in them? Clearly she’s fascinated by science.” Friedman goes on to talk about how Varo presents the great scientist at the moment of discovery. The imagination at full-throttle and at the height of experimentation, likened to what artists do in the studio. In the “The Phenomenon of Weightlessness” Varo presents a scientist looking frightened as the world is literally shifting under his feet at the same time he acknowledges his great discovery. Varo presents some of the most radical ideas in science through her paintings: including Einstein’s theory of relativity, and Darwin’s theory of evolution. In fact, “The Phenomenon of Weightlessness” was featured on the cover of one of the first textbooks written on general relativity: “The Riddle of Gravitation” by Peter Bergman. “Cosmic Energy”, “Weaving of Space and Time”, and “Discovery of a Mutant Geologist”, are just some of the titles Varo gave to her more notable works, all having themes that relate to science.
Remedio Varo died suddenly in 1963. She had just had her 2nd one-person exhibition. Now nearly 45 years later she is receiving some semblance of international acclaim. We dive into her imagination and see the absurd. Her paintings make one think more about the life that surges underneath life. About the fantastic creatures that become more real every time we step into our collective thoughts. Her dreams become our dreams. Varo shows that the definite is not that different from the ambiguous, and builds a bridge to help us understand. It is truly mystical and unexplained, yet the answer comes from nowhere to make absolute sense. Exiled from her home and surviving countless conflicts along the way, the adopted land that was a temporary location proved to be a creative haven for a magical soul. She died at the height of her career at the age of 54.
[ Written by: bfurman [@] oh.rr.com ]