“In clear contrast with the surrealist tendencies seeking ‘liberation’ from the underground depths of unconscious desire, the art of Remedios Varo projects itself toward the opposite extreme: toward the supra-conscious understanding of a ‘superior’ reality….Remedios consciously “constructs” an idealized world in which harmony and sublimity reign.” –Juliana Gonzales, art historian.
In 1908, Remedios Varo was born into a complicated family setting in the small town of Gerona, Spain. Her mother was a deeply religious woman, committed to Catholic spirituality, while her father was an atheist engineer, whose life was built on reason, mathematics, and free thinking. These two forces—the mystical and scientific—greatly influenced Remedios’s work throughout her artistic career. When she was nine, the Varo family moved to Madrid, where Remedios was formally educated at a religious school; however, at night she stealthily read science books and taught herself to use her father’s engineering tools. At age sixteen, Remedios escaped the world of the convent to attend the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid, where she was a classmate of Salvador Dali until he was expelled for recalcitrance.
At age twenty-two, Remedios’s artistic career began to take off. She participated in her first group exhibition, married fellow artist Gerardo Lizarraga (with whom she stayed married for only two years), and moved to Barcelona with him. With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Varo decided to move to Paris with the poet Benjamin Peret, who was a close companion of the socalled father of Surrealism, Andre Breton. With Peret by her side, Remedios was brought into Breton’s circle of Surrealist artists, yet she often felt overshadowed by Peret’s presence and notoriety. Because of her gender, she was never considered an integral member of the Surrealist group; on the fringe, she participated in Surrealist shows only occasionally. It was partly due to her marginalization and partly due to her inability to relinquish complete control over her artistic creations, that many art historians, and even Remedios herself, did not consider her to be a strict Surrealist.
Varo’s artistic style--part surrealistic, part realistic--truly blossomed when she fled Nazi-occupied France and moved to Mexico in 1941. About her move to Mexico, Varo remarked “I came to Mexico searching for the peace that I had not found, neither in Spain—because of the revolution—nor in Europe— because of the terrible war. For me it was impossible to paint amidst such anguish.” Although she initially felt like an exile, Remedios found home in Mexico, and she realized that she ultimately experienced more artistic and intellectual freedom there than she had anywhere in Europe. “I can see that my life” she said, “not only in material or emotional terms, but also my intellectual life, is here in [this] land I sincerely love with all its faults, shortcomings, and hardships.” It was her deep love for Mexico that kept her from returning to Paris with Peret in 1947, and instead pushed her to explore another Latin-American country, Venezuela, where her mother and brother Rodrigo then lived. Rodrigo was chief of epidemiology for the Ministry of Public Health in Venezuela, and under his tutelage, Remedios began studying and drawing mosquitoes for a campaign against malaria. Again, her artistic work dipped into the scientific realm.
In the early 1950’s Remedios returned to Mexico and married Walter Gruen, an Austrian political refugee, and at this time she pledged to devote her life entirely to painting. It was then that her style fully matured to include its unique brand of symbolism and iconography: women with heart-shaped faces that mimic her own, and slit-like eyes that convey a sense of loneliness and a lack of fulfillment. This loneliness is highlighted again and again as Varo paints her characters trapped in one environment or another, whether it be a tower in the sky, like in Celestial Pablum, a room without a door, or even a chair that seems to have a magical power that forces its victims to stay put, like in Mimetismo, which is currently in the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City. In all of her works, one senses the artist’s own isolation; yet this seclusion is coupled with internal revelation and astonishment that takes the form of a mysterious ray of light or patches of luminosity on the canvas. This combination of isolation and revelation is mirrored in Remedios’s overall juxtaposition of whimsy and precision, a blend that many art historians find unsettling. Varo uses her scientific knowledge to paint scenes that place scientifically accurate machinery in an unrealistic fantasy world.
Varo’s first solo exhibition in 1956 in Mexico City was a spectacular success, gaining Remedios both critical acclaim and a plethora of commissions. She had always been critical of the way that Surrealists treated women, and now that she had detached herself from that movement, her gender was no longer a handicap. She could treat the domestic realm as a “site of secret discovery” for women in paintings like Celestial Pablum, where a woman grinds up star matter and feeds it to a crescent moon. Art Historian Janet Kaplan argues that feeding the moon is a metaphor for feeding one’s child: “That most mundane and timeless of maternal rituals, feeding the baby, becomes a means of access to the celestial realms, brought under human control.” In this painting and others, Varo created magical heroines that helped her to explore the female psyche.
In so doing, she found herself drawn to the mysticism of the Kabala, alchemy, Tarot, and magic. When she died of a heart attack in 1963, she had just finished the painting Still Life Reviving, in which objects from a still life painting begin to rise and orbit around the table on which they previously lay. As in many of her works, Remedios here melds a strict attention to detail and scientific accuracy with supernatural forces in order to create a thrilling work of art. When she died at age 55, she had created 384 works of art, over half of them drawings, which are now globally dispersed. Art historian Luis-Martin Lozano once said that “Remedios Varo’s imaginary world knew no bounds other than her brief existence.”
Today, Remedios Varo’s name can be found in the newspapers and art journals in reference to a legal dispute over thirtyeight of her most prominent paintings. In 2002, Walter Gruen donated these works to the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City in an attempt to share Remedios’s art with the country she loved so dearly. Varo’s niece, Beatriz Varo Jimenez, has filed a legal dispute with the Mexican government, claiming that she is the rightful owner of these thirty eight paintings. Beatriz Varo Jimenez would like to take these paintings out of the public eye and auction them off for a sizeable sum. Jimenez won her court case, although the Museum and Gruen have filed an appeal. It remains to be seen where these paintings will eventually end up.
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