Varo, Harmony (1956)
Friends and readers,
Hers is a story of three women artists who formed strong bonds of friendship in Mexico during World War Two and flourished afterwards: her art has women at the center of pictures, fairytale like, archetypal, sometimes charming and comic, telling psychoanalytic & occult & melancholy tales …
Of the women surreal artists of the 20th century, Remedios Varo stands out for drawing full-bodied complete women more frequently than any of the others (sometimes in groups!):
She is further unusual because many of her pictures can be characterized as pretty and pleasant to look at. One can even apply the word charming to her pictures, a word not appropriate for most of 20th century surreal school:
She catches attention because her pictures have a strong fairy tale or archetypal element which would at first seem susceptible to today well-known and once common Jungian or Freudian symbolic analysis (and for those of her paintings where you can find an explanation, you discover that after having recourse to Joseph Campbell’s allegoresis in Hero with a Thousand Faces, this is what the critic is doing). She stands out because she seriously read mystic, magical, astronomical and alchemical treatises:
Joanna Moorhead and Teresa Arq have come to the conclusion that also unlike most of the women surreal artists, together with Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), and the photographer and Hungarian artist, Kati Horna (1912-2000), her two close friends, Varo was able to escape the misogynistic grip of the male repertoire of images, because the three women formed such close bonds in Mexica after 1943, and supported, companioned, and inspirited one another to carry on (see Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Kati Horna: Essays by Stefan van Raay and Nicola Johnson; Joanna Moorhead, Teresa Arq, Michelle Suderman, Antonio Rodriguez-Rivera. London: Ashgate: Pallant House Gallery, 2010). All three had unusually supportive spouses or partners (most of the surreal women artists took a very much secondary place to the surreal male artists they lived with or married); they found themselves with a group of male supportive friends. All married (defying the surreal idea that marriage must destroy a woman’s creativity), two had children (Carrington and Hora), and the three women spent hours together in their homes. They would spend time together talking (often of political issues), in the kitchen, reading, and then paint scenes reflecting their lives together, as in this semi-comic scene:
When you look to see how Remedios Varo’s pictures are understood, you find a variety of allegoresis all of which cohere or come together to form a single encompassing vision. In a fascinating article bringing together Varo’s pictures with the writing of Alejo Carpentier, Elizabeth Sanchez finds that after both made a journey down the Orinooko in Venezuela (separately, they did not know one another), both positive analogous stories of self-discovery, creativity, and spiritual rebirth. Sanchez organizes a number of Varo’s paintings to follow a heroine’s successful happy adventures into the unknown in realms of art; the quest makes the artist become one with the natural world. It must be admitted the imagery is fantastical:
Dino Comisarenco Mirkin finds that the paintings trace a maturation process, telling stories of rupture, process, journeys, escapes, wondrous acceptance:
By contrast, Janet Kaplan explains Varo’s paintings in a feminist vein (which allies them more to the work of Kay Sage and Frida Kahlo): this one reminds me of Bemelman’s Madeline books
This is said to be a reverse Rapunzel:
Still, Kaplan finds on the whole a progressive journey with different moments of insight.
Maria de Los Remedios Alicia Rodriga Varo y Urango was born on 16 December 1908, in a small town in Girona, Spain. Her parents were middle class, educated, worked for liberal causes; her father, Rodrigo, worked as a hydraulic engineer, her mother a devout Catholic. Both influenced her but the father more: he encouraged her to read, to independent thinking, provided her with science and adventure books (including Edgar Allen Poe). His successful career (including working directly for the Spanish king) took the family to Cadiz and then Madrid. She studied for a BA in a college of arts and crafts and a Madrid Fine Arts Academy whose students included other later respected painters (and Kati Horna’s husband, Jose). She began to paint under the influence of modernist poets (Lorca) and surreal artists. She married a schoolmate, moved with him to Paris, but a year later returned to Barcelona on her own where she became a member of the artistic avant-gard. The Spanish civil war had begun, which changed her (and everyone else’s) life. Her brother, Luis, was killed.
She had fallen in love with the anti-Franco activist, Benjamin Peret, and the pair moved to France where they shared studios with others; she exhibited, collaborated, experimented. She went to the Louvre, other museums and began to read mystic treatises (occult, about Tarot cards), but the Nazis were closing in and Peret and Varo were both imprisoned, experienced traumatizing abuse, and somehow escaping, with the help of a New York rescue committee, managed to flee to Mexico.
I offer only an abbreviated general account (I list articles and books in the comments). There are numerous sites on the Net which recount the phases of her career (this from Spanish artists), some with more details. The central biography is Unexpected Journeys: The life and art of Remedios Varo by Janet Kaplan.. Surreal Friends is especially rich in citations of the books and artists’ work Varo studied,and of course are included many reproductions of Carrington and Horna’s work. All who have followed Varo’s life and work seem to be agreed that her art began to flourish when she moved to Mexico and formed her friendships with Carrington and Horna (see Guardian article). The patronage of Edward James, a rich Englishman who collected their works, and built a house in Mexico where they and other artists (not all surrealists) were welcomed. His close relationship was with Carrington and there are extant revealing letters.
The three women frequented meetings of the followers of German mystics Peter Ouspensky and George Gurdjieff (who also influenced P.L. Travers, known today for her Mary Poppins stories, but also a poet). They were interested in the evolution of consciousness. The two painters read art history, and studied Renaissance artists, especially Paolo Ucello’s strange allegorical secular paintings. They followed his use of natural color. These two paintings show Varo combining some of the older surreal imagery with her new occult preoccupations:
They were as a group outsiders, Europeans, both marginalized and privileged. One might say the three women had the best of all worlds: their apartness gave them time to be together, and to make art, and their experience of war made them hold together. Varo did however divorce Peret, and by 1948 married a comparatively wealthy man, Walter Gruen, who respected her work and encouraged her to paint. The personalities of the three special women friends were quite different (as is their art); Varo was known as “sharp as a knife, quick-witted, always ready to pick up on new ideas and trends. With Gruen by her side, she became the most ambitious of the three. When she died, apparently unexpectedly, of a heart attack in 1963 (in the same year Kati Horna’s husband died), Gruen dedicated part of his life to cataloguing her works (some 400) and administering a legacy she had inherited from her parents.
All who write of Varo emphasize the studied, careful and academic vigor of her approach. Early on she had supported herself working for Bayer Laboratories this way. Doubtless some of this came from her training by her father. She would visualize her idea, make precise sketches, trace them onto a panel, and then proceed to use oils. She preferred a limited range of color, linked to the natural world: earth tones, “raw umber,” blues, a monochromatic palette. Joanna Moorhead suggests the viewer remember Leonardo da Vini’s Virgin of the Rocks. Yet it seems to me that what engages us are the sudden splashes of playful orange, red, yellows, in starry landscapes much blurred, with these child-like machines:
My favorite of her paintings combine the marvelous with a style evocative of literary history —
At her best she is tender, shows kindness, and her images seem could be fit into Shakespeare’s later romances