Remedios Varo: Alchemy and Science

Remedios Varo, Creation of the BirdsRemedios Varo, Creation of the Birds, 1957

Remedios Varo’s small, complex paintings portray a world in which alchemy, magic, mysticism and science co-exist. Varo was a relentlessly inquisitive, intelligent woman of great wit, whose slight build and striking features are often echoed in the humans and hybrid creatures who inhabit her paintings. As a girl she dreamed of travel, but after world events forced her twice into relocation and exile she came detest travel and chose instead to journey inward, exploring her creativity and spirituality through her painting. It is instructive to trace how Varo’s interests, talents and personal history, combined with her place in world events, lead to a merging of subject matter and style that was so uniquely her own.

Remedios Varo

Remedios Varo (1908-1963) was born Maria de los Remedios Varo y Uranga in Anglés, a town north of Barcelona. When she was a young child, the family traveled for her father’s work, after several years they settled in Madrid. Her father encouraged her artistic inclinations by teaching her how to make mechanical drawings. She also learned about perspective, a device she used often in her work. Her father also took her  to museums—at the Prado she fell in love with the work of Hieronymus Bosch, Goya and El Greco. Varo was enrolled in a Catholic convent school where she rebelled against the strict religious regimen and longed for freedom. From an early age, she was drawn to magic, fantasy and the language of dreams.

Remedios Varo, RuptureRemedios Varo, Rupture, 1955

At fifteen, Varo entered the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid, where she crossed paths with Salvador Dalí, and pursued a rigorous course of academic art training. In addition to the traditional required subjects, such as still-life, landscape, anatomy, color theory, mixing of pigments, glazing techniques, architectural rendering, decorative painting and ornamentation, Varo elected to study scientific illustration. In the mid 1920s, art students and intellectuals in Madrid looked to the Surrealists in Paris for inspiration—including the plays of Federico García Lorca, the paintings of Salvador Dalí, and the films of Luis Buñuel.

Remedios Varo, 1927Remedios Varo and Josep Lluis Florit, c.1927

Varo’s first marriage to Gerardo Lizarraga in 1930, at the age of 21, allowed her to live away from home and to have the freedom a single young woman of the time would not otherwise enjoy. In 1931, she and Lizarraga went to live in Paris for a year where she loved the bohemian café life of good conversation and the exchange of  socially progressive ideas. When they returned to Spain, they went to Barcelona, at the time a more cosmopolitan and liberal city than Madrid. While still married she began a liason with Esteban Francés—this was the beginning of a lifelong pattern of multiple simultaneous relationships that endured as friendships long after the romances ended.

Remedios Varo—The Useless ScienceRemedios Varo, The Useless Science or The Alchemist, 1955

In Barcelona she met French Surrealist poet Benjamin Perét, one of André Breton‘s closest friends. In 1937, to escape the Spanish Civil War, and while still married to Lizarraga and involved with Francés, Varo moved to Paris with Perét, whom she later married. Thrust into the Surrealist milieu, Varo became somewhat less confident, more reticent. The Surrealists embraced the ideal of youth and beauty and the femme-enfant, claiming that women were the more creative force because they operated more outside reason and logic than men. Of course, in reality, this patronizing attitude left women in the Surrealist movement far outside the inner circle—and there was no place for the mature or aging woman artist.

Remedios Varo—Solar MusicRemedios Varo, Solar Music, 1955

From 1937-39, Varos experimented a great deal, influenced by the work of Max Ernst, Giorgio di Chirico, René Magritte, Wolfgang Paalen and Victor Brauner. In 1939, Franco closed the borders of Spain to anyone with ties to the Republican movement, so Varo could not return to home and family. She was again dislocated by war—in 1940 the Nazis entered Paris, and Varo, along with millions of others, including many of her circle in Paris, became a refugee, eventually ending up in Marseille. At the end of 1941, with Perét in danger, they made a long, arduous journey, ending up in Mexico City, where she lived for the rest of her life and did her mature work.

Remedios Varo—Portrait of Dr. Ignacio ChavezRemedios Varo, Portrait of Dr. Ignacio Chavez, 1957

At first, Varo intended to stay for only a short time in Mexico City and remained isolated among her fellow émigrés. At the time, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera ruled the art world in Mexico City, and as Socialists and champions of Mexico’s indigenous culture, they were hostile to foreign influence, decried the Surrealists as decadent, and did not welcome émigré artists into their midst. It was during this time that Varo became very close friends with the English painter Leonora Carrington with whom she shared a strong interest in the occult, alchemy and mysticism. The two met daily and had a tremendous influence on each other’s work.

Leonora CarringtonThe painter Leonora Carrington

Varo was poor and had to turn to various commercial jobs to secure an income. Over the next few years she made dioramas for a British anti-fascist propaganda office, hand-painted furniture and musical instruments for a high-end decorating firm, and designed costumes for theater and ballet (including working with fellow émigré Marc Chagall designing costumes for the Léonide Massine ballet Aleko, in 1942.) Under her mother’s maiden name of Uranga, Varo did illustration for a pharmaceutical company, Casa Bayer. In these illustrations, done in gouache, she was able to explore her long-held interest in science, and they closely mirrored the direction her personal work was taking.

Remedios Varo—ÂicrocosmRemedios Varo, Microcosm, 1959

1947 was an important turning point for Varo. Making a final break with Perét and the Surrealists, her period of sustained mature work began in earnest. With her lover Jean Nicolle she went to Venezuela for a year. There she was hired to do drawings of parasitic insects for the Ministry of Public Health. The miniature universe she discovered under her microscope had a tremendous influence on her work. Back in Mexico City in 1949, she married Walter Gruen, an Austrian exile who started Sala Marjolín, a prominent Mexico City music store. The financial security gave Varo the opportunity to quit commercial work, set up a studio and devote herself to her personal work.

Remedios Varo—Woman Leaving the PsychoanalystRemedios Varo, Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst, 1960

In 1955 Varo was invited to exhibit her work in a group show at the Galería Diana. The four important paintings she showed were harbingers of the work she did for the rest of her life. The very positive critical reaction to these pieces led to the offer of a solo show in 1956, which was very well received by both critics and collectors. Perhaps weary of an art scene long dominated by large scale murals, socialist ideology, nationalistic and indigenous themes, collectors responded very positively to her intricately detailed, delicate and  personal work—and the intimate relationship these paintings established with the viewer. Her work was in great demand, and there was always a long waiting list for her new work. For a time, Varo did some portraits on commission but much preferred doing her own work. As a foreigner in a country with a great muralist tradition, she was honored to be asked to create a series of murals for the Cancer Pavilion at the Medical Center in Mexico City. However, her dread of cancer and illness and the extreme difficulty involved in transferring her intricate, detailed, miniaturist technique to a large-scale format caused her to abandon the project.

Remedios Varo—Revelation or the ClockmakerRemedios Varo, Revelation or The Clockmaker, 1955

Finally, all the various threads of her life had come together. Magic and fantasy meshed with autobiography—images of nature in counterpoint with mechanical invention, alchemy as allegory for psychic transformation, elements of architecture and theater—all melded together in this new work. Varo would begin each new piece with a detailed drawing then transfer the image to board. Her technique of thinly applied varnishes and glazes, combined with drips, blotting and scratches, created enormous depth and surface interest. With her mastery of technique, Varo was able to explore her themes, the intersection of nature and the mechanical, creation and transformation. Her narratives unfolded in architectural spaces reminiscent of stage sets. Her work took on the quality of a spiritual journey, encompassing memory, personal history and moments of transcendence and transformation. Varo believed in a balance of science and nature, science and metaphysics, and that man should strive to live in harmony with nature, not try to conquer or control it. These were the enduring themes of her later work.

Remedios Varo—The Penenomenon of WeightlessnessRemedios Varo, The Phenomenon of Weightlessness, 1963

Varo died suddenly, of a heart attack, at the age of 55. This is the last painting she did. Unlike most of her work, there is no human presence—the painting reflects on the cycles of nature and rebirth.

VaroStilllLifejpgRemedios Varo, Still Life Reviving, 1963

Her sudden death was a tremendous shock to her friends and admirers. The poet Rosario Castellanos dedicated Metamorphosis of the Sorceress to Varo and poet Octavio Paz wrote Remedios Varo’s Appearances and Disappearances as a tribute. Here is an excerpt from his poem:

In Appearance she paints Disappearance

Roots, fronds, rays, locks of hair, flowing
beards, spirals of sound: threads of death,
of life, of time. The weft is woven and un-
woven: the unreality that we call life, the
unreality that we call death…only the canvas
is real…

Recommended reading: Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys by Janet Kaplan

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10 Responses to “Remedios Varo: Alchemy and Science”

  1. I was in love with Varo’s work when I lived in Mexico. At that time I thought it was part of my immature and fantasy laden adolescence that attracted me to her. Always a somewhat guilty pleasure. It’s so lovely to see your selections and have my admiration for her painting rekindled, free of my former reservations.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      George,
      I understand your earlier reservation—I felt something similar. What at first scared me off, and then drew me back to Varo, was how seamlessly her life and work intersected. There is definitely a lively intellectual content, but the work is also very personal, and I admire her ability to make that all come together. Writing about Varo, and earlier about Florine Stettheimer, I am doing a bit of exorcising of those demons that tell us that art that is too personal or too “feminine”, isn’t important art. Without planning it that way, on reflection it seems my forays on Venetian Red often circle around the same issues: the primacy of being passionate about one’s work, having the confidence to collaborate, and respect for the decorative arts and “women’s work” (and their enormous influence on 20th century (often male) painters—i.e., Kuba cloth, tile, Ottoman textiles, Amish quilts, etc.) As a painter who turned for years to textile design, and is now back to painting and pattern painting, these topics are clearly on my mind…
      Thanks for your comment.

  2. A lovely tribute to a great painter.

    In my youth, I traveled in Mexico and fell in love with a few small Varo paintings. Since that time, when I am bogged down in my own work, I sit for a few minutes with one of her paintings and feel restored. So, for me, Varo has become the miracle elixir of impassioned art, holding me on course over a long, much enjoyed creative journey.

    I am grateful to find her work so luminously presented on your site.

    Do you happen to know the date when the Mexico City exhibit closes? I’d hate to miss it.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Thanks for your comment, a wonderful story. The show at the Museo de Arte Moderno, “‘Remedios Varo y la literatura,” will be up through the end of 2009. Let us know if you get to see it!

  3. I was so surprised to stumble across this blog about Varo! I accidentally discovered her work many years when I was in Ensenada. A trinket shop had several hundred little paintings on the wall, they were all reproduced Varo’s on miniature canvases. I’d never heard of her so enquired with the shop owner who went into this long long story about her. Few of my painting friends or art contemporaries had heard of a female Mexican painter beyond Frieda! Thanks for writing about Remedios and spreading the word further about her art and talents.

  4. I am an art lecturer in Seattle, always going in 2-3 directions at once (lately Whistler/Sargent in Venice & women Surrealists) & I keep landing on Venetian Red. What a terrific resource! But nothing since January – is everything OK? Are you taking a break? I hope you plan to continue. Best wishes and many thanks.

    • Rebecca
      Venetian Red is very much alive, though I wish we could have gotten to more postings over the past year. Blame it on our art practices, which have required time and focus. We are trying to get to shorter posts, and committed to maintaining the value our readers have come to expect.

      Thanks for being a loyal fan! And please stay tuned.

  5. I have been researching Varo for a project in my Spanish class and found this page to be very helpful! This is the most informative article I have come across on the Web; I have been able to learn so much about her and have come to appreciate her unique contribution to the arts. Thank you!

  6. i just saw one painting on a random site and i fell in love with her work, the painting i saw was the hairy locomotion. brilliant stuff, i wish had lived longer :’)

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