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  • Catelyn Kalm

Remedios Varo

Note to readers: Due to copyright, images of Remedios Varo's work could not be included in this article. You can find her art here: https://www.wikiart.org/en/remedios-varo


Have you ever wondered what would happen if a mystical bird had access to alchemy and could harness the powers of the moon? If so, you already have something in common with painter Remedios Varo [1]. And if, surprisingly enough, you have not, let me welcome you to the absurdly cool world of surrealism.


In today’s world of political division, economic insecurity, and a climate crisis, life can already feel, well, surreal [2]. That’s one thing that makes global painters’ fascination with the surrealist movement in the 20th century — and the resulting art from this period — so appealing, even to modern audiences: Their painted dreamscapes appear to be even more unhinged than real life. This sentiment is probably not dissimilar to the ones that inspired Remedios Varo at a time of making art with ~mystical~, witchy, and alchemical subjects.


Surrealism is (in this writer’s humble opinion) one of the most compelling art movements of the 20th century (and maybe, ever). The subjects of these paintings are often very dream-like, and the absurdity of perspective and subject are key to the genre [3]. But not to be reduced only to their manifest appearance, the paintings that fall into this genre tend to have deeper political or psychological meanings that can really make you feel something, or at least can make you wonder WTF the artist was thinking.


While surrealists like Dalí, Breton, and Magritte ran (and are still some of the most revered of) the male-dominated surrealist art scene centered in Paris, the contributions of female painters — especially in one prominent group of Mexican surrealists as the movement spread globally — were as, if not more, impactful and intriguing. One major player in this group of thinkers and artists was Remedios Varo.


Born in Spain in 1908, Varo's interest in art was born from studying the technical work of her engineer father throughout her childhood [4]. Through this training, she was able to explore other ideas later in life, including one other common theme in her work that came from her Catholic upbringing: the celestial imagery and figures that appear in a good number of her paintings [5]. This influence of the Catholic Church, in which she grew up and eventually turned against, is one aspect that gives an ethereal vibe to her paintings, with female figures often featuring golden, flowing hair and dresses. As for political influences, one of Varo’s early experiences with political strife was during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. This radicalized her, pushing her out of her home country and leading her to Paris [6].


This, fortuitously, was where she was exposed to the European avant-garde movement that was already working to push the boundaries of what was art, which would also inspire her later artistic endeavors; although she eventually forfeited her association with this group [7]. Following inspiration from these artists, she started to hone her ideas on dreams and the deeper psyche [8]. But, while she enjoyed the company of some surrealist artists in Paris, she did find it to be a bit stifling for her art, citing the “turmoil” and “uneasiness” in the people as the cause [9].


After the fascist victory in the Civil War, Varo couldn’t return to Spain. So, in 1941, she ended up settling in Mexico in order to ensure her safety and remained here for the rest of her life to pursue her art, which morphed into a style all her own [10]. She depicted things like ghostly figures with important roles in earthly creation and other spiritual beings enclosed in some way to get across themes of instability, displacement, and feminine entrapment that she felt in her real life. She wrote that the tranquility that she was feeling was unmatched to anywhere else she had lived, and this was really reflected in the larger number of physical works she began to produce in addition to the deeper exploration of spiritual ideas that included the occult and spiritualism. Here, in Mexico, her largest impact can be felt as part of a group of artists and thinkers who had a great interest in interpreting surrealist themes, especially in the context of their shared Communist ideals.


The aforementioned Creación de Las Aves (Creation of the Birds) painting is one that was created with a combination of influence from the surrealist movement and her own spiritual journey in Mexico. The depiction of a feminine bird figure using some atmospheric, spiritual effect to create real birds that are free to fly from her alchemical paint while stuck inside a room with little escape goes to show the feeling of imprisonment that Varo felt in her life as well as what she already saw as a woman’s connection to the occult and the universe [11]. Varo’s depiction of the female connection to the divine was also unlike other *ahem* misogynist depictions of women in the surrealist movement, where they were depicted by men as objects of either desire or disgust [12].


As she eventually really defined her own style, that was its own interpretation of mysticism, and rose to some prominence through collaborations with other groups of artists, she created paintings like The Juggler [13]. This was one exploration of self that she was able to do in her later years, with herself depicted as both the figure enclosed inside the green traveling shack and as the performer outside with a pentagram-surrounded head (see, a little witchy) [14]. But, the traveling aspect of these two figures also speaks to the instability in Varo’s early life and her tendency to paint figures in transition. As she got older, and was able to focus fully on her own creative process, she honed in on her ideas about feminine figures and the occult, including the precise lines and fantastical ideas that went in a different direction than the original surrealists that she was aligned with.


One of these was her piece Vampiros Vegetarianos, which leaned into her well-formed color palette including lots of gold with sharp lines that add contrast with the background. This painting is definitely imaginative, with more abstract interpretations that speak to her exploration of self that she had been on for many years, along with a playful spirit that almost builds upon previous surrealist ideals as well as speaks to her sense of peace at her home in Mexico. This is also one of her most fun pieces, with mutant chicken-rabbits on leashes of “vampires” who are feasting on red fruits, that still has a glow surrounding the figures that suggests some higher state of consciousness that she sought and a dream-like quality that might even trigger some introspection whilst trying to gain meaning from the piece.


While she did reach some fame in her life, her contributions to the surrealist movement, art, and beyond are often devastatingly overshadowed by more popular artists we know today. She did rub shoulders with the surrealist artists well-known for the period, which, granted, include some great names, like André Breton, a well-known surrealist who wrote a work memorializing her after her untimely death at 54 years old in 1963 [15]. But, she is better known in the context of Mexican art in particular than globally [16].


As Varo has prominently said, “I do not wish to talk about myself because I hold very deeply the belief that what is important is the work, not the person” [17]. So, in that spirit, I will say this: Not only for her own success as a female in the male-dominated art space at the time, but also because of her adamant opposition of the typical male artist’s depiction of a woman, Varo deserves her recognition today for her role in the feminist movement, in addition to her beautiful art.


Notes

[1] I’m only partly kidding - As seen in her painting, Creación de Las Aves (Creation of the Birds), real birds lift right off the page as the owl-artist paints them. Find the painting here: https://www.wikiart.org/en/remedios-varo/creation-of-the-birds


[2] Or at least mine does.


[3] Which is mirrored by their interest in Freud’s theories on dreaming, which were popularized in Europe in the early 1900s.


[4] Bozzone, Julia. “Overlooked No More: Remedios Varo, Spanish Painter of Magic, Mysticism and Science.” Article, 2021.


[5] Ibid.


[6] Ibid.


[7] Solomon, Tessa, “Remedios Varo's Mystical, Surreal Paintings Continue to Captivate.” Article, 2020.


[8] José González Madrid, María, “El ‘Arte Mágico Surrealista’ En La Obra De Remedios Varo,” Article, 2018.


[9] ... in addition to a little imprisonment because of her political refugee status in World War II; Kaplan, Janet A., “Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varo,” Article, 1988.; “Remedios Varo Quotes,” Website, 2023.


[10] Kaplan, Janet A., “Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varo,” Article, 1988.


[11] Ibid.


[12] White, Jacquelyn Yvonne, "The Surrealist Woman: The Art of Remedios Varo," Capstone Project, 2014.


[13] Bozzone, Julia. “Overlooked No More: Remedios Varo, Spanish Painter of Magic, Mysticism and Science.” Article, 2021.


[14] Umland, Anne, and Cara Manes, “Remedios Varo's The Juggler (The Magician),” Website, 2019.


[15] Kaplan, Janet A., “Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varo,” Article, 1988.


[16] If you’re ever able to see her work in person, it would be very worthwhile; pieces of hers are on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., and the Tate Modern in London.


[17] “Remedios Varo Quotes,” Website, 2023.


References

Bozzone, Julia. “Overlooked No More: Remedios Varo, Spanish Painter of Magic, Mysticism and Science.” The New York Times, September 24, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/24/obituaries/remedios-varo-overlooked.html.


José González Madrid, María. “El ‘Arte Mágico Surrealista’ En La Obra De Remedios Varo.” Bulletin of Spanish Studies95, no. 5 (2018): 511–32. https://doi.org/10.1080/14753820.2018.1497343.


Kaplan, Janet A. “Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varo.” Woman's Art Journal 1, no. 27 (1988): 13. https://doi.org/10.2307/1358078.


“Remedios Varo Quotes.” Goodreads. Goodreads, 2023. https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/136563.Remedios_Varo.


Solomon, Tessa. “Remedios Varo's Mystical, Surreal Paintings Continue to Captivate.” ARTnews, October 30, 2020. https://www.artnews.com/feature/who-is-remedios-varo-and-why-is-she-important-1234574762/.


Umland, Anne, and Cara Manes. “Remedios Varo's The Juggler (The Magician).” The Museum of Modern Art, January 18, 2019. https://www.moma.org/magazine/articles/27.


White, Jacquelyn Yvonne, "The Surrealist Woman: The Art of Remedios Varo" Syracuse University Honors Program Capstone Projects. (2014): 744.https://surface.syr.edu/honors_capstone/744





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