Remedios Varo Uranga was born in the small Spanish town of Anglès, Girona in 1908. Her Basque mother named her after the Virgen de Los Remedios (the Virgin of Remedies) in honor of her older sister who had passed away around the time of her birth. Here is an exploration of her tumultuous experience as a refugee, her solace in the surrealism movement, and her paintings that expressed her spiritual beliefs.
Remedios Varo as a Refugee
Remedios Varo’s Andalusian father was a hydraulic engineer, which required the family to often move throughout Spain and North Africa. He encouraged his daughter to pursue her notable artistic talents and introduced her to authors like Jules Verne and written works on mysticism and philosophy. In contrast, Varo’s mother was a devout Catholic, and her strict religious beliefs tended to make Varo feel isolated and guilty. She attended a convent school, which fed her distaste for the religious ideology preached by her mother. The drastic differences in opinions between her mother and father would influence her throughout her life and career as an artist.
In 1924, the family moved to Madrid, and she was accepted at the highly renowned art academy, Escuela de Bellas Artes, at 15 years old. She got married in 1930 to Gerardo Lizárraga, an artist she met at school. The couple moved to Barcelona where they both worked at the Thompson Advertising Firm and Varo’s drawings were showcased in exhibitions.
In 1937, she met the surrealist painter and political activist Esteban Francés and decided to move to Paris with him and surrealist poet Benjamin Péret. She was forced to escape from the stormy climate arising due to the Spanish Civil War while her husband stayed to fight. They never divorced but were never a romantic couple again.
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Varo lived in poverty in Paris. She was imprisoned by the French government at the start of World War II due to her romantic association with Péret, the one they were targeting for his political beliefs. Although, it’s unclear if the true reason for her detainment was protecting a traitor of the French army. Quickly after being released, she and many other refugees had to flee because of the German invasion. The couple escaped to Mexico and became Mexican citizens. This is where Varo would live for the remainder of her life, exploring esotericism and dedicating her time to painting with her eventual financial stability after marrying Walter Gruen, an Austrian political refugee.
Varo’s Artistic Influences
Varo’s early artistic influences included Bosch, Goya, and Picasso. Many of her paintings are compared to the Greek-born Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico. Beyond taking inspiration from art, her work often included religious imagery, reminiscent of her Catholic upbringing. She looked to Western and non-Western mysticism and magic-based faiths as well as the scientific bonds between living things to motivate her work. Witchcraft and alchemy were fascinating to her along with Carl Jung’s dream theory. She was constantly consuming knowledge and this is evident in her paintings.
In addition to Francés, Varo also befriended Spanish surrealists Josep-Lluis Forit, and Óscar M. Domínguez in Barcelona. In 1935, she met the French surrealist Marcel Jean. This ignited a deeper connection to surrealism. She participated in activities like cadavres exquis, a collaborative game inspired by the movement’s co-founder André Breton’s Surrealist manifestos.
Varo joined the artist collective Grupo Logicofobista, which strived to integrate metaphysics into their creativity. Through her relationships, she became connected to well-known surrealists like Roberto Matta and Max Ernst. Her work was shown in International Surrealist exhibitions in Paris and Amsterdam. The years she spent in Mexico grew her circle of surrealist friends to include artists like Wolfgang Paalen and Leona Carrington, a fellow refugee.
The Souls of the Mountain (1938)
One of Varo’s earlier paintings The Souls of the Mountain was created in Paris during the city’s occupation by the Nazis. The artwork is a commentary on how women, specifically women artists, were portrayed at that time. Two women are depicted, with only their faces visible as the rest of their body is encased by rocks. A wind blows from the deep below, indicating a strong force surrounding the seemingly slumbering characters. Varo expressed her frustration with the patriarchal society through this illustration of confinement.
The creative decision to choose rock-hard mountains as the cages trapping the figures aligns with the symbolism of masculinity that was required in order to be successful in the art world. The title of the piece represents the brilliant minds and souls of women who couldn’t free themselves from the overpowering presence of men. The moody color scheme and the dark shadows evoke a dismal feeling, one of despair with a glimmer of hope as the women’s faces aren’t completely covered yet.
Varo utilized the Surrealist technique of fumage, developed by Wolfgang Paalen, to create the illusion of mist and clouds. The method is defined by the use of a candle flame, leading to the interaction between smoke and paper. Beyond the mystical visual effect, the physical presence of light to effectively employ it was meaningful to Varo as well. Her fascination with alchemy and the foundational union of opposites that it’s built on motivated her choice to integrate fumage. The light of the candle balanced out the darkness of the image, creating a powerful statement of the need for femininity in a male-dominated industry.
Star Catcher (1956)
Varo’s paintings often focus on one female figure. Star Catcher is a prime example of this defining element in her work. The character exists in a cramped, dimly lit space with the illusion that the walls are closing in around her. She’s clothed in an undefinable garment that appears to be a billowing cloak and a Spanish soldier’s helmet with the same texture that covers the entirety of her body. In her hands, she holds a trapping net and a caged, glowing moon. She is symmetrical, mimicking a butterfly perhaps. Her regal presence and glow that surrounds her are heavenly and reminiscent of the Egyptian goddess Isis of the moon and magic.
Similar to The Souls of the Mountain, this piece evokes suffering tied to her identity as a woman. The labia-like opening of her cloak reveals a black hole and the imprisonment of the moon may refer to her struggles with fertility. Again showing her belief in the power of opposites, the checkered floor represents balance. However, the muted tones take the emphasis away from the pattern, symbolizing a dark mood that is apparent.
The line techniques Varo utilized evoke the sensation of movement even though the figure is stationary and her surroundings are still. The dark to light tones of browns and yellows express a range of deep shadows to piercing light. The fringes of her cloak are illuminated in the same way the moon is as if its power is beginning to infuse her.
Creation of the Birds (1958) by Remedios Varo
In Creation of the Birds, a surreal owl-woman creature sits at a desk, drawing birds to life with a violin string hanging from her neck. The other hand holds a prism or magnifying glass that harnesses energy from the stars to awaken her creations. An odd-looking machine with two spherical shapes and tubing that extends out the window pumps out primary-colored paints for the woman to use. Two hanging receptacles exchange gold liquid or dust on the back wall. The owl-woman has a pleased and focused look on her face as she plays god in a study similar to a monk’s cell.
The painting illustrates a unique creation story that Varo conceived, evoking similarities to iconic artworks like the Creation of Adam, but reinventing her own mythology. It’s also a portrait of the power artists have to build their own worlds. She makes the comparison between a god breathing life into humans and a painter injecting creative energy into their expressions. Varo explores the concept of making something out of nothing, which is the control artists wield in their practice.
The decision to utilize the objects of a stringed instrument created to make music and the magnifying glass with the ability to capture light was quite intentional. By combining image with sound and light, the owl-woman has found balance and harmony. Unlike many of her other paintings that dive deep into the hardships of being a woman, this painting examines Varo’s identity as a whole. Her roles as an artist, thinker, and individual are glued together in an isolated space showing a productive member of society.
Although women weren’t really accepted in the surrealist movement when it was established, Remedios Varo is now considered one of the most talented surrealist women artists. She created 384 works of art throughout her career. Her inclusion of religious imagery, spirituality, mysticism, and feminism all defined her as an artist who fearlessly expressed herself. She helped pave the way for many women surrealists who followed.