Remedios Varo (1908-1963) was a Spanish painter associated with the French and Mexican Surrealist movements. Varo was classically educated in painting as a child, before leaving the academy to join the growing Surrealist movement in Barcelona. Forced to flee Franco Spain and Nazi Germany, Varo settled in Mexico City in 1940, where she would produce most of her mature works. Varo’s work features surreal landscapes with mystical and symbolic imagery, often blurring the lines between living and inanimate forms and highlighting complex female icons: alchemists, pilgrims, and creators. I was drawn to Remedios Varo because of the beauty of her paintings, which are brightly colored and extremely intricate; and because of the bizarre but intuitive symbolism that appears in her artwork.
The Gathering (1960)
Varo worked mostly in small-scale oil paintings, and the majority of her work was produced during only ten years of her life in Mexico City. Although her subjects are dreamlike, her painting technique is very precise and full of small details. She uses extremely bright colors and exaggerated shading to give an unreal quality to her work; however, her paintings have an internal logic that makes magical or bizarre subjects seem reasonable. The overall effect, as for many surrealists, is paintings that communicate an emotional or spiritual state rather than a concrete reality.
Disturbing Presence (1959)
Varo often painted scenes where female figures interact with living environments, blurring lines between architectural and organic, living and inanimate forms. Her characters usually resemble her, and engage with themes of displacement, travel and spirituality that were important in her own life. In Disturbing Presence (1959), a woman peels nervelike shapes from a wooden desk as a face emerges from the back of her chair to lick her neck. This bizarre image shows recurring themes of inanimate objects developing life; creative production by female scientist/magicians; and intrusive presences which disrupt or contain the creative energy. While Varo uses a wide range of surreal icons – human-animal figures, active and mutating scenery, moonlight, starlight, music and chemistry – her work all seems to draw on a single symbolic playbook, which is easy to understand emotionally but very unique to her work.
Creation of the Birds (1959)
Varo renounced Roman Catholicism early in life, but continued to be fascinated by religion and spirituality; she read extensively on occult practices as well as psychoanalysis and modern science, and these influences appear in the symbolism of her work. Many of her paintings have tarot-like occult imagery mixed with alchemy or magical science. In Creation of the Birds (1957), an owl-like scientist creates songbirds out of refracted starlight, violin music, and paints distilled from an alembic. Psychoanalytic theories about the unconscious and collective archetypes are also visible in her art; although many of her recurring icons seem to have personal rather than universal meanings, their emotional content is always clear.
Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst (1960)
Remedios Varo was involved with the Surrealist movement of the early 20th century, and her close friends and partners were central Surrealist figures. However, she avoided the themes I like least about surrealism: randomness/automatic artwork, and the problematic use of female symbols. Many male surrealists used the female body in their work in sexualized, dismembered, or one-dimensional states, representing some aspect of the male psyche instead of an actual female person. Varo instead presents dreamscapes with feminine or androgynous protagonists who actively control their surroundings. Rather than being sexual objects or traditional archetypes of mothers, virgins, etc., Varo’s most common subject is a sort of female goddess/scientist creating and interacting with a living environment. Her characters are often in positions of entrapment, discovery or pilgrimage; these themes are common in feminist literature, but I was surprised to see them represented visually in such an evocative way.
Janet A. Kaplan. “Remedios Varo.” Feminist Studies. Vol. 13, No. 1. Spring 1987: 38-48. Via JSTOR.
Janet A. Kaplan. “Remedios Varo: Voyages and Visions.” Woman’s Art Journal. Vol. 1, No. 2. Fall 1980: 13-18. Via JSTOR.
Deborah J. Haynes. “The Art of Remedios Varo: Issues of Gender Ambiguity and Religious Meaning.” Woman’s Art Journal. Vol. 16, No. 1. Spring 1995: 26-32. Via JSTOR.
All images retrieved from WikiArt.org.