Remedios Varo: Alchemy and Science
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 (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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Recommended reading: Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys by Janet Kaplan