Biography of Remedios Varo, Spanish Surrealist Artist

A woman looks at a painting of two figures inside an upturned umbrella as they ride a gold cloud into a mountain
La Huida (1961) by Remedios Varo.

Ronaldo Schemidt / Getty Image

Surrealist painter Remedios Varo is best known for her canvases depicting spindly-limbed, heart-faced figures with wide eyes and wild hair. Born in Spain, Varo spent much of her young adulthood in France and eventually settled in Mexico City after fleeing there during World War II. Although never officially a member of the surrealist group, she moved in the close circle around its founder, André Breton. 

Fast Facts: Remedios Varo

  • Known For: Spanish-Mexican surrealist artist who blended the imagery of surrealism with a classical artist's education
  • Born: December 16, 1908 in Angles, Spain
  • Parents: Rodrigo Varo y Zajalvo and Ignacia Uranga Bergareche
  • Died: October 8, 1963 in Mexico City, Mexico
  • Education: Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando
  • Mediums: Painting and sculpture
  • Art Movement: Surrealism
  • Selected Works: Revelation or The Watchmaker (1955), Exploration of the Source of the Orinoco River (1959), Vegetarian Vampires (1962), Insomnia (1947), Allegory of Winter (1948), Embroidering the Earth's Mantle (1961)
  • Spouses: Gerardo Lizarraga, Benjamin Péret (romantic partner), Walter Gruen
  • Notable Quote: "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."

Early Life

Remedios Varo was born María de los Remedios Varo y Uranga in 1908 in the Girona region of Spain. As her father was an engineer, the family travelled often and never lived in one city for very long. In addition to traveling across Spain, the family spent time in Northern Africa. This exposure to world culture would eventually find its way into Varo’s art. 

Raised within a strict Catholic country, Varo always found ways to rebel against the nuns who taught her in school. The spirit of rebellion against imposing authority and conformity is a theme seen throughout much of Varo’s work. 

Varo’s father taught his young daughter to draw with the instruments of his trade and instilled in her an interest in rendering with precision and focus on detail, something that she would draw on throughout her life as an artist. From an early age she exhibited an unnatural talent for creating figures with personality, an aspect of her character that her parents encouraged, despite the relative lack of prospects for female artists at the time. 

She entered the prestigious Academia de San Fernando in Madrid in 1923 at the age of 15. It was around the same time that the surrealist movement, founded in Paris by André Breton in 1924, made its way to Spain, where it captivated the young art student. Varo made trips to the Prado Museum and was drawn into the work of proto-surrealists like Hieronymous Bosch and Spain’s own Francisco de Goya. 

Image of Remedios Varo framed in pink sitting behind a lit candle
An image of Spanish painter Remedios Varo, honored on an altar during the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations. OMAR TORRES / Getty Images

While at school she met Gerardo Lizarraga, whom she married in 1930 at the age of 21, partially to escape her parents’ household. In 1932, the Second Republic of Spain was founded, the result of a bloodless coup, which deposed King Alfonso VIII. The young couple left for Paris, where they stayed a year, captivated by the city’s artistic avant-garde. When they eventually moved back to Spain, it was to the bohemian Barcelona, where they were a part of its burgeoning art scene. She would return to France a few years later. 

Life in France

The situation in Spain reached new heights while Varo was living in France. As a result, General Franco closed the borders to all nationals with Republican sympathies. Varo was effectively barred from returning to her family under threat of capture and torture due to her political leanings. The reality of her situation was devastating to the artist, as she began life as a political exile, a status which would define her until she died. 

Though still married to Lizarraga, Varo began a relationship with the much older surrealist poet Benjamin Péret, a fixture in the surrealist circle. Varo was briefly imprisoned by the French government due to her association with the communist-leaning Péret, a ghastly experience she would never forget. Péret’s status as one of the elder surrealists (and a good friend of Breton’s), however, ensured their relationship would withstand such trials.

Though never officially accepted by Breton, Varo was deeply involved with the surrealist project. Her work was included in the 1937 edition of the Surrealist journal Minataure, as well as in the International Surrealist Exhibitions in New York (1942) and Paris (1943). 

Bird like creatures riding on bicycle wheels pass through a courtyard, which has at its center a single spindly tree
Au Bonheur Des Dames (Au Bonheur Des Citoyens) (1956) by Remedios Varo. EMMANUEL DUNAND / Getty Images

The Mexico Years

Varo arrived in Mexico in 1941 with Péret, having escaped Nazi encroachment in France through the port of Marseilles. The emotional trials of transition made it difficult for Varo to begin painting with the same force she did in Europe, and the first few years in Mexico saw the artist focus more on writing than art. Among these writings are a series of “prank letters,” in which Varo would write to a person at random, asking him or her to visit her at a future date and time. 

To earn money, she took up a series of odd jobs that centered around painting, which included costume design, advertising, and a collaboration with a friend painting wooden toys. She frequently worked with the pharmaceutical company Bayer, for which she designed advertisements. 

Friendship With Leonora Carrington

Varo and fellow European exile Leonora Carrington (who was born in England and also fled Europe during World War II) became close friends while in Mexico City, a friendship which can be evidenced in the clear sharing of ideas apparent in their paintings. 

The two often worked collaboratively and even co-wrote several works of fiction. Hungarian photographer Kati Horna was also a close friend of the pair. 

A woman stands in a black collared dress blowing on a horn as six figures emerge from caves behind her
Invocación (1963) by Remedios Varo.  EMMANUEL DUNAND / Getty Images

Maturity as an Artist

In 1947, Benjamin Péret returned to France, leaving Varo in the romantic company of a new lover, Jean Nicolle. This entanglement did not last, however, but soon gave way to a relationship with a new man, Austrian writer and refugee Walter Gruen, whom she married in 1952 and with whom she would remain until her death. 

It was not until 1955 that Varo hit her stride as an artist, as she was finally afforded a period of uninterrupted time to paint, free from the burdens of worry due to her husband’s financial stability. Along with a prolonged period of production came her mature style, for which she is known today. 

Her group show in 1955 at Galería Diana in Mexico City was met by such critical success that she was quickly awarded a solo show the following year. By the time of her death she had consistently sold out her gallery shows, often before they opened to the public. After decades of emotional, physical, and financial struggle, Varo was at last able to support herself on the strength of her artwork. 

Varo died unexpectedly in 1963 at the age of 55, from an apparent heart attack. 

Legacy

Varo’s posthumous career has been of even more repute than the brief years of flourishing she saw at the end of her life. Her work has been given many retrospectives beginning the year after her death, which was followed by retrospectives in 1971, 1984, and most recently in 2018. 

Her death was lamented far beyond the close group of artists she had built around herself in exile, but extended to a world devastated to learn of the artist’s untimely death, as she no doubt had many years of creative expression left in her. Though she was never formally a part of the group, André Breton posthumously claimed her work as part of the surrealist cause, an act Varo herself may have found ironic, as she was known to disparage surrealism’s insistence on automatic production, a core tenet of Breton’s school. 

The originality of her work, which combined a meticulous attention to layered and lustrous painted surfaces—a technique Varo learned in her classical painting classes back in Spain—with the deep psychological content still resonates with the world today.

Sources

  • Cara, M. (2019). Remedios Varo’s The Juggler (The Magician). [online] Moma.org. Available at: https://www.moma.org/magazine/articles/27.
  • Kaplan, J. (2000). Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys. New York: Abbeville.
  • Lescaze, Z. (2019). Remedios Varo. [online] Artforum.com. Available at: https://www.artforum.com/picks/museo-de-arte-moderno-mexico-78360.
  • Varo, R. and Castells, I. (2002). Cartas, sueños y otros textos. Mexico City: Era.