Remedios Varo: The Surrealist Artist in 7 Works and 7 Facts

Remedios Varo was a pioneering Surrealist artist, a myth-maker, and a practicing occultist.

May 24, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

remedios varo surrealist artist works facts


The great Spanish Surrealist artist Remedios Varo spent most of her productive years in Mexico. There, she was considered one of the most famous artists ever. Although Varo was forgotten for decades, her art is making a comeback. Today’s art historians and enthusiasts explore her work through the lens of female spirituality and self-exploration. Read on to learn more about Remedios Varo.


1. Remedios Varo’s Silent Rebellion 

varo tower painting
To The Tower, by Remedios Varo, 1960. Source: Arthive


The fascinating Remedios Varo was born in 1908 in the small Spanish town of Angles. To her great fortune, her family members were quite liberal and open-minded in their political and religious views. Remedios’ father was one of the first Spanish experts on Esperanto, the artificially constructed universal language. It was created as a means of international communications and it received heavy criticism from the conservatives for the apparent destruction of cultural differences and national identities.


Varo’s father recognized his daughter’s artistic inclinations pretty early on and encouraged her to develop her skills by helping him with his engineering job. As a child, Remedios was able to make precise copies of her father’s technical drawings. However, her family’s appreciation of her skills did not make Varo feel welcome in the world around her. During her years in the Catholic school for girls, she felt oppressed and suffocated, deeply protesting the made-up limitations and restrictions. Her school years would make a comeback in the form of a painting showing identical schoolgirls in blue dresses, guarded by a strict nun-like figure. The girls shown here have no personality and meekly follow orders. However, there is one girl who boldly looks to a viewer outside the canvas, demonstrating her mute resistance.


2. She Never Felt Truly Free 

remedios varo mantle painting
Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle, by Remedios Varo, 1961. Source: Obelisk Art History


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The motif of being a perpetual outsider held in captivity by forces larger than her remained present throughout the complete oeuvre of Remedios Varo. After finishing her studies at the Catholic school (surprisingly, she was not expelled, unlike her future friend Leonora Carrington who also caused trouble in religious institutions), Varo started attending Madrid’s School of Fine Arts. Although the classes there gave Varos a strong basis for future work, they were nonetheless too academic and conservative for her opinions. Soon after her graduation, she married a fellow art student, Gerardo Lizarraga. The union was partially made because of her wish to flee from her family’s social expectations


In the works of Remedios Varo, women are often shown locked in cages, walled up in castles and towers, and tied to strings like puppets. Perhaps this was the way she felt as a woman desperately trying to maneuver the greatest historical tragedies of her time. In the 1930s, she fled her country for good after the Spanish Civil War erupted. Francoist Spain did not welcome its political exiles back, so going home anytime soon was not an option for Varo. Just several years later, Paris was captured by Nazi forces, with Varo briefly imprisoned for her leftist political activity. The details of her release were unclear since Remedios Varo refused to talk about it, but soon, she was fleeing Europe to Mexico, the place where she would spend the rest of her life.


3. She Experimented with Collages and Group Art Practices 

varo corpse collage
Untitled (The Exquisite Corpse), by Remedios Varo, Esteban Frances, Oscar Dominguez, and Marcel Jean, 1935. Source: MoMA, New York


It took years for Remedios Varo to develop her signature painting style fully. Although her Surrealist experiments started early on in her career, she would find her true artistic voice during her exile in Mexico. However, during her stay in Europe, she engaged in various practices that trained her artistic senses.


As a young artist socializing with other Spanish Surrealists, Varo often took part in a game that was particularly popular among the group. Titled The Exquisite Corpse, this game was a group activity during which a person started writing a sentence on a piece of paper, folded it, and passed it to a person next to them. The next person would continue the sentence without knowing its content. After several rounds of this, the paper was unfolded, and the nonsensical text was read out loud and interpreted.


Varo and her colleagues essentially did the same, but instead of writing, they focused on making drawings and collages. The results were astonishing: the absurd compositions of humans, animals, objects, and letters made no conscious sense but tapped deeply into the unexplored corners of the Surrealist mind. The group was so proud of the result that they even sent some of the collages to Parisian artists to prove that the Spanish Surrealism was a force of its own.


4. She Admired the Old Masters 

Microcosmos (Determinism), by Remedios Varo, 1959. Source: Sotheby’s


One of the unique features of Remedios Varo’s style was her deep admiration of medieval art and the Old Masters. The mythical creatures in her paintings often remind us of figures by Hieronymus Bosch, whom she admired during her years at the Madrid School of Fine Arts. In many ways, her works continued the tradition of great Spanish artists, occasionally referencing El Greco’s dramatic compositions or Francisco Goya’s nightmarish scenes.


Remedios Varo was certainly not fond of realism and excessive ties with the physical world. As a young artist in Barcelona, she joined the collective of painters known as Grupo Logicofobista, meaning Group of Logic-Phobes, which included Joan Miro and Salvador Dali, among others. The group despised artists like Gustave Courbet, who dived too deep into realism to retain the magic of artistic expression.


5. She Challenged the Gender Bias of Surrealism 

remedios varo surgeon painting
Plastic Surgeon Visit, by Remedios Varo, 1960. Source: Arthive


During her years in Spain and France, Varo mostly communicated with other Surrealist artists. However, despite her obvious talent and her correspondence to the general line of the movement, they never accepted her as an equal. Her name never appeared under their manifestos and she hardly had any room for her artistic voice. In the group of eccentric and self-centered male artists, she was too young and too feminine to be considered an important part of the group.


The worst years of her career happened in Paris, where Varo was hiding from the bloodshed of the Spanish Civil War. Despite the enormous inspiration that came to her from the most progressive artists in the capital of the world avant-garde, she barely had any time to create. To make ends meet, she had to paint copies of famous paintings or sometimes even sell forgeries. Nonetheless, the Parisian period was formative to her. There, she developed her own feminine approach to Surrealism, contrary to the sexualized and violent imagery of her male counterparts. The principal characters of her art are almost exclusively women who explore the depths of their psyche and the limitations of conventional femininity. Instead of phallic symbols abundant in male Surrealist art, she often uses shapes and forms reminiscent of female reproductive organs, celebrating spiritual rebirth and transformation.


6. She Practiced Witchcraft and Alchemy 

varo birds painting
Creation of Birds, by Remedios Varo, 1957. Source: Historia Arte


Initially, Remedios Varo believed Mexico was only a temporary shelter for her. In the early 1940s, it was a popular refuge spot for war-affected left-wing artists who were denied American visas due to their political views. The famous Mexican artist Frida Kahlo played a significant role in their escape, arranging passages and communicating with Mexican officials. In Mexico, Remedios Varo met two other expatriate artists—a British artist, Leonora Carrington, and a Hungarian artist, Kati Horna. Together, the three women soon became known as the Three Witches.


They were three surrealist artists deeply immersed in the exploration of the spiritual. All of them were crafting their own worlds amidst chaos and violence, resorting to ancient practices of witchcraft, alchemy, and tarot. Remedios Varo never called herself a practicing witch, but she expressed interest in the Indigenous Mexican practices that were still thriving in remote villages. These practices, blended with Western traditions and symbols, have found their way into Varo’s compositions on rebirth, transformation, and spiritual awakening.


7. Remedios Varo Achieved Commercial Success 

remedios varo pain painting
Rheumatic Pain II, by Remedios Varo, 1948. Source: Remedios Varo Website


Despite the image of an outsider artist fully immersed in the explorations of other realms, Remedios Varo had a commercially successful career, apart from her relatively short period in Paris. During her first solo exhibition, her works were sold out in just three days. The demand was so high Varo had to form a waitlist of future customers who were ready to pay for paintings that were yet to be made.


In the late 1940s, she painted several images for the pharmaceutical company Bayer, advertising their pain remedy in her signature dramatic style. It is necessary to mention, however, that at the time of signing a contract with Varo, part of the Bayer officials were on trial for collaboration with Nazis and conducting medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners. Nonetheless, we cannot be sure that Varo was aware of these accusations. Generally, Surrealist artists had a straightforward and unapologetic relationship with advertisements and product design. Groundbreaking photographer Dora Maar created collages and photographic compositions for fashion magazines, while Meret Oppenheim designed jewelry for Elsa Schiaparelli.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.