Through A Dream, but Darkly: Remedios Varo’s Eerie and Surreal Mindscapes
Among the vagaries of human existence is the fact that some have their lives unfortunately cut short prior to the fullest realization of their potential. Recently I stumbled across an example of just such a phenomenon. During a research project for a presentation on the world’s most mysterious manuscript (The Voynich Manuscript), I began to search for forms of art which in some ways conjure feelings of disquiet akin to the images found within the Voynich.
Despite having made a brief study of the history of Art as one of the electives while working toward a degree in history, I cannot recall ever having seen the magnificent work of the Spanish-Mexican artist known as Remedios Varo. It strikes me as sort of tragedy of time or the way that institutions document and record history that sometimes great things, for whatever reason, never make it to the fore. This appears to have occurred to both the life and works of Varo.
There are a host of likely reasons for this. Many of these reasons seem to be factors related to the times in which Varo lived. Born in the year of the famous Tunguska event (1908), Varo lived in a time that commonly accepted women being shunted to the side even in domains wherein their skills or talents were every bit as great as (or better than) than their male counterparts. Violent discrimination of many types was rampant. Bizarre occult and mystical belief systems were being created and underpinned some of these discriminatory practices (here think of the esoteric Thule society of Germany which prominently used the swastika as one of their primary symbols far before Hitler and the Nazis). To be sure, Varo was later to have her own problems with the Nazis as well.
Born in Spain to an Andalusian father and Basque mother, Varo early displayed an interest in endeavors of art and philosophy. Her father was a hydraulic engineer and, in many ways, seems to have been her earliest mentor. He actively encouraged her to draw and helped her to understand how to deploy her skills first by drawing blueprints and engaging in draftsmanship which continued to influence her art projects to the end of her life. Varo grew up reading the great works of Alexandre Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, and so on), Jules Verne (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, From the Earth to the Moon), and Edgar Allan Poe (The Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven), and host of other texts from philosophy to religion to science.
She began formal art training in the 1920s as she enrolled in Madrid’s School of Arts and Crafts and later in the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts. During these years she studied the works of Salvador Dali, cubism, surrealism, among many others. However, it is just here that I must jump out of a pure chronological tracing to get back to a point being made above. Namely, this is about the contributing factors to Varo’s work being lost in time and the discrimination issue. During her official institutional studies of art Varo met her first husband. The interesting bit about this is that they did not remain together. Rather they simply separated and later Varo married a second gentleman who was also an artist as had been the first husband. Now, this gets us close to some stereotypes about artists and the arts community but that is beside the point. What stands out here is that this means Varo was committing bigamy. Although in many circles today that hardly raises an eyebrow, but in the early 20th century bigamy was not simply illegal, it was taken to be a very serious religious and moral offense as well. And to compound the issue, Varo went on to separate from this second husband and found another consort whom she later married. My preference would be to not cover these matters at all and simply focus on the art, but (at least for me) the central mystery of the tale of Varo’s life is why is she not more widely-known today? Why are there not more books about her? Why are there no television shows or films about her? So in order to get closer to an answer to that central mystery I am compelled to write about what may be taken to be rather unseemly biographical facts.
Nevertheless, I think this gets us to at least two significant factors for the historical amnesia that engulfs Varo’s art: she was a female participating in a form of art heavily dominated by prominent men and she was involved in bigamy. This is certainly not a complete answer of course, because we all know of other artists, entertainers, singers, writers, and so on with immensely problematic biographical facts. Thus, it is important to continue to look deeper still.
From the time she was a small child, Varo travelled throughout the Mediterranean region. Madrid, Northern Africa, Paris, Barcelona, and many others were among the sites she frequented and established important connections and took on themes that would influence her art. Francisco Goya was among the foundational influences. Goya’s works echo in dreamlike distillation through several of Varo’s pieces. Notable reflections of Goya’s Los disparates and The Sleep of Reason can be found in transmuted forms in a variety of Varo’s works. These art pieces represent an amalgam of times, places, others artists, poetry, and even dreams that Varo experienced and then brought together in the final fantastical forms of her paintings.
Throughout the 1930s, Varo increased her connections with surrealist artists and poets. However, horror and tragedy were on the way. Not only did Spain experience a civil war from 1936–1939 but by 1941, Varo was forced to escape Europe for Mexico due to the ravages of the Nazis. Driven into exile, Varo soon met up with other escapees and highly-skilled native artists of Mexico. Originally, Varo had only planned her venture to Mexico to be a short one. That plan changed.
Continuing her interests in travel and science, Varo went to many locales throughout Central and South America. She spent a significant amount of time in Venezuela while participating in an expedition. Once she returned to Mexico, she continued to live there throughout the 1950s. In 1955 Varo hit with success and was able to sell many of her works of art. This major sell freed her of the many other jobs she held over the years and the projects she worked on to make ends meet. She was now able to fully focus on her art and developing her style which included a play, short stories, collages, and sculptures.
What about the content and themes of her paintings? Much of it is related to dreams, dreaming, and symbolism. Her paintings often leave one feeling ill at ease as the eerie imagery drives deeply into our psyche. Varo often depicted very powerful and sturdy-looking edifices which would contain a wispy human. Others hinted at occult otherworlds, were filled with a sort of electrical energetic flow, hinted at saddening feelings of isolation, confinement and containment, and lonesomeness. They were brilliant in melding real-world machinelike technologies with the fantastic and mystical, which together deliver a disorienting experience. She drew upon city and structural designs of Medieval times and wove these in with a sensibility of quietude, enchantment, and the holy.
Varo’s works were deep and complex, reflecting her own personality and experiences. Toying with space-time, multidimensionality, foreboding realms, and womanhood, she was truly unique even among other surrealist artists. What’s more is that she also blended into her works suggestions of late Medieval and Renaissance understandings of alchemy and symbolism drawn from later traditions of spirit mediums. Mirrors play a prominent role as do strange and interesting small creatures often with birdlike or catlike features. This gets to the whimsical quality that one may find in some of her works, which are not all simply drawing from a well of rebellion, darkness, and dreams.
Almost 80% of Varo’s works of art resulted after her escape to Mexico and have been estimated in value to be somewhere close to $15 million dollars according to collectors and art experts. These bore her experiences in convent schools and her mother’s Catholicism. Some pieces are reminiscent of abbeys and convents of monks and nuns, yet set in landscapes of the bizarre. The paintings also at times reflect a solitary individual in a small confined space, perhaps related to Varo’s own time in captivity as she was arrested in France while under Nazi occupation. These oil paintings display a type of magical realism produced in tempera style, a style which was common from the 1100s to the 1400s.
Finally, I wish to conclude by returning to trying to resolve why it is that so few (outside of art experts, historians, and collectors) know of Varo. In addition to the factors already mentioned, I would add these as suggestive: the fact that Varo was born in Spain and died in Mexico effectively closing her off geographically and linguistically from the Anglophone world, she tragically passed at an early age (54) from heart attack, and politically she was an anarchist. Many of the truths about Varo’s life are enough to constitute significant controversy in isolation, but when taken together contribute to her being unfortunately left out of mainstream accounts of the history of art. Frankly, Varo needs better PR and deserves greater recognition for her contributions to surrealist art because of what she accomplished regardless of the external issues that seem to have distracted so many. Indeed Varo herself came very close to saying what I feel about her and her work when she 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.”