REMEDIOS VARO | CHRONOLOGY By Walter Gruen and Tere Arcq
María de los Remedios Varo y Uranga is born in Anglés in the province of Girona, Spain, on December 16. Her father Rodrigo Varo y Zejalvo is of Andalusian descent and is a hydraulic engineer by profession. Her mother, Ignacia Uranga y Begareche is from the Basque country. Remedios is the second of three children, with two brothers named Rodrigo and Luis.
Her father’s work involves exploring river systems, a job that takes the family to different parts of Spain and North Africa, so Remedios Varo spends her early years living in a diversity of places and cultures. Rodrigo Varo y Zejalvo takes his daughter to museums and teaches her how to draw from a young age.
The family moves to Madrid. Remedios Varo receives her basic education at convent schools. Although her mother is a devout Catholic, her father is a liberal and an Esperantist. He encourages independent thinking and gives Remedios scientific texts and adventure tales to complement her learning, with a particular emphasis on the novels of Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne and Edgar Allen Poe, as well as texts on philosophy and mysticism.
After studying at the School of Arts and Crafts in Madrid, Remedios Varo enrolls at the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts. There, she learns composition, perspective, anatomy and painting in addition to standard academic subjects. She also enrolls in an optional scientific drawing course. During this period, she visits the Prado Museum frequently, showing a particular interest in paintings by Hieronymus Bosch and Francisco de Goya. Her first encounter with Surrealism comes in the form of a series of lectures in Madrid, and through the work of Dalí, Buñuel and García Lorca.
She completes her education at the San Fernando Academy, obtaining a diploma as a drawing teacher. On September 6, 1930, she marries Gerardo Lizarraga, a fellow student at the Academy. The wedding takes place at the San Vicente Church in San Sebastián. Spurred by the political situation in Spain and their fascination with Surrealism, the newlyweds then leave for a year in Paris.
On their return to Spain, Lizarraga and Varo decide to move to Riera Alta Street in the avant-garde city of Barcelona.
During their time in Barcelona, where they stay until 1936, the couple works on various commercial projects for the Thompson advertising agency. It is here that Remedios Varo forms her first circle of artist friends, including José Luis Florit, Óscar Domínguez and Esteban Francés. She shares a studio with Francés in Plaza Lesseps, a popular neighborhood for young avant-garde artists. She and Gerardo Lizarraga separate.
Remedios Varo and her circle of friends devote themselves to creating cadavers exquis. She and José Luis Florit participate in an exhibition of drawings in Madrid.
She joins the logicophobiste group, a collective of artists and writers interested in Surrealism and seeking to combine art and metaphysics. Three of her works are included in an exhibition of the same name at the Catalonia de Barcelona gallery. Civil war breaks out in Spain. Through Óscar Domínguez, she meets the Surrealist poet Benjamin Péret, who is in Barcelona supporting the Anti-Franco cause. She begins a relationship with Péret.
Benjamin Péret returns to France. After the assassination of Federico García Lorca, Remedios Varo flees to Paris with Esteban Francés. Péret, Francés and Varo share studio space in the Montparnasse neighborhood. In Paris, Varo’s relationship with Perét leads her to join the Surrealist circle close to Breton. She meets Wolfgang Paalen, Alica Rahon, Joan Miró, Max Ernst, Leonora Carrington, Roberto Matta, Gordon Onslow Ford, Dora Maar and
Victor Brauner, a group with whom she meets frequently at the Parisian café Les Deux Magots. During this period, Varo experiments with Surrealist ideas and techniques. She takes part in the International Surrealism Exhibition in Tokyo. Her piece Le Désir is featured in the tenth issue of the Minotaure magazine.
Varo takes part in the International Surrealism Exhibition in Paris and later in Amsterdam. She contributes vignettes to the Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme, while the magazines Trajectoire du Rêve and Visage du Monde publish some of her work. During this period, she earns a living from commercial art, translating lectures for Latin Americans and even creating works in the style of Giorgio de Chirico, together with Óscar Domínguez.
Péret is imprisoned for refusing to enlist in the army. Hitler’s troops invade Paris. Varo is also imprisoned, though the exact location is unknown as she is reluctant to discuss the incident. Varo flees Paris and takes refuge in the unoccupied zone, where she meets up with a group formed by Victor Brauner, Óscar Domínguez, Robert Ruis, Henri Goetz and, for a while, Magritte. Initially, a friend of Jacques Hérold puts them up at his house in Canet-Plage. She later moves in with Victor Brauner. From there, Varo goes to Marseilles where she joins several refugee artists and intellectuals gathered in Villa Air-Bel, awaiting visas to escape France. There she meets up with Benjamin Péret, André and Jacqueline Breton, Antoine and Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry, Victor Serge, Óscar Domínguez, Jacques Hérold, Wilfredo Lamm and others. Her work Souvenir of the Valkyrie is shown at the International Surrealism Exhibition in Mexico, organized by Wolfgang Paalen and César Moro. Moro tries to make arrangements for Péret and Paul Eluard and their wives to escape Europe on an invitation from the University of Lima to go to Peru, but his efforts come to nothing.
Péret and Varo leave in October 1941 for Casablanca, owing to the efforts of Varian Fry, a member of the Emergency Rescue Committee operating out of New York to help artists and intellectuals escape war-torn Europe, and of André Breton, who requested money from Helena Rubinstein to pay for their tickets. On November 20, 1941, they leave for Mexico on board the Serpa Pinto. They arrive in December, and move into a tenement on Gabino Barreda Street. They meet Mexican and exiled artists who are sympathetic to the Surrealist movement: Gunther Gerzo, Octavio Paz, Eva Sulzer, Alice Rahon, Wolfgang Paalen, Esteban Francés, César Moro, Gordon Onslow Ford, Kati and José Horna. Varo helps make the costumes designed by Marc Chagall for the Aleko ballet. During this period, she works on a number of commercial projects, as well as interior decorating and the restoration of pre-Hispanic artifacts. She is a frequent visitor at Gordon Onslow Ford’s house in Erongarícuaro, Michoacán. The French pilot Jean Nicole arrives in Mexico after Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry intercedes on his behalf, and he moves into the house on Gabino Barreda Street.
On May 10, Remedios Varo and Benjamin Péret are married in a civil ceremony in Cholula, Puebla, so Varo might obtain a passport and travel through South America.
Péret decides to return to France. On December 19, 1947, Varo travels to Venezuela together with Jean Nicole as part of a French scientific expedition organized by the IFAL. There she is reunited with her mother and her brother Rodrigo, who is working as a sanitation officer in that country. During this period, she conducts microscopic studies for a public health campaign against malaria and works on advertising projects for Bayer Mexico. On César Moro’s request, she contributes to Las Moradas magazine on art, literature and philosophy, which also features contributions from Leonora Carrington, César Moro, Benjamin Péret, Antonin Artaud, Agustín Lazo, Pierre Mabille, Wolfgang Paalen and others. She returns to Mexico in 1949, via Havana. She continues to work in commercial art.
On her return to Mexico, Remedios Varo associates with leaders and members of the Gurdjieff and Ouspensky groups in Mexico. Christopher Fremantle, a disciple of Gurdjieff, arrives in Mexico, and Varo develops a close relationship with him. She ends her relationship with Jean Nicole.
She begins a relationship with Walter Gruen, an Austrian refugee and founder of Sala Margolín, the first store in Mexico City to specialize in classical music. Gruen’s support enables Varo to devote her time to painting. They move into an apartment on Álvaro Obregón in the Roma district.
Her first group solo show opens at the Galería Diana.
Her first solo show at the Galería Diana opens to great critical acclaim. All of the pieces are sold within just a few days. Aficionados and collectors add their names to long waiting lists in order to acquire her paintings. In subsequent years, she devotes most of her time to art.
She returns to Paris together with Marysole Worner Baz to visit Péret who has fallen gravely ill. She meets her mother and visits old friends, including Geo Dupin and Victor Brauner. Back in Mexico, she exhibits her work at the First Salon of Women’s Art at the Galerías Excélsior, taking first prize for her paintings Harmony and Be Brief.
Through the intervention of Fernando Gamboa, she is commissioned to do a mural for the Oncology Department at Mexico City’s Centro Médico. She accepts with some hesitation, but her doubts increase after working in the initial sketches so she decides to back out of her commitment. She creates her only sculpture, Homo Rodans, and writes an anthropological treatise on human evolution.
She takes part in the Second Interamerican Biennial in Mexico City.
Varo has her second solo show at the Galería Juan Martín, exhibiting sixteen paintings, including her only triptych. The show is a great success and all the paintings are sold.
On October 8, Remedios Varo dies of a heart attack. Her last completed painting –Still Life Reviving – is found in her studio along with the sketch for what would have been her next painting, Forest Music.
Translated by Quentin Pope.