Remedios Varo

Remedios Varo

Remedios Varo
Born December 16, 1908
Anglés, Spain
Died October 8, 1963 (aged 54)
Mexico City, Mexico
Nationality Spanish
Known for Painting
Movement Surrealism

Remedios Varo Uranga (December 16, 1908 – October 8, 1963) was a Spanish-Mexican para-surrealist painter and anarchist.

She was born María de los Remedios Alicia Rodriga Varo y Uranga in Anglès, a small town in the province of Girona, Spain in 1908. Her birth helped her mother get over the death of another daughter, which is the reason behind the name. In 1924 she studied at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid. During the Spanish Civil War she fled to Paris where she was greatly influenced by the surrealist movement. She met her second husband (after her death it was discovered that she had never divorced her first husband, painter Gerardo Lizarraga), the French surrealist poet Benjamin Péret, in Barcelona. There she was a member of the art group Logicophobiste. Due to her Republican ties, her 1937 move to Paris with Péret ensured that she would never be able to return to Franco’s Spain. She was forced into exile from Paris during the German occupation of France and moved to Mexico City at the end of 1941. She died at the height of her career from a heart attack in Mexico City in 1963.

Early life

Varo’s father, Rodrigo Varo y Zajalvo, was an intellectual man who had a strong influence on his daughter’s artistic development. Varo would copy the blueprints he brought home from his job in construction, and he helped her further develop her technical drawing abilities. He encouraged independent thought and supplemented her education with science and adventure books, notably the novels of Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, and Edgar Allan Poe. As she grew older, he provided her with text on mysticism and philosophy. Varo’s mother, Ignacia Uranga Bergareche, was born to Basque parents in Argentina. She was a devout Catholic and commended herself to the patron saint of Anglès, the Virgin of Los Remedios, promising to name her first daughter after the saint. 

Her father was a hydraulic engineer, and the family traveled the Iberian Peninsula and into North Africa. To keep Remedios busy during these long trips, her father had her copy the technical drawings of his work with their straight lines, radii, and perspectives, which she reproduced faithfully. As a child, she read much with favorite authors including Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Alexandre Dumas. She also read books about oriental philosophy and mysticism. Those first few years of her life left an impression on her that would later show up in motifs like machinery, furnishing, artifacts, and Romanesque and Gothic architecture unique to Anglès.

Varo was given the basic education deemed proper for young ladies of a good upbringing at a convent school – an experience that fostered her rebellious tendencies. Varo took a critical view of religion and rejected the religious ideology of her childhood education and instead clung to the liberal and universalist ideas that her father instilled in her.

Formative years

The very first works of Varo’s, a self-portrait and several portraits of family members, date to 1923 when she was studying for a baccalaureate at the School of Arts and Crafts. In 1924 (age 15) she enrolled in the San Fernando Fine Arts Academy in Madrid, the alma mater of Salvador Dalí and other renowned artists. Varo got her diploma as a drawing teacher in 1930. At school, surrealistic elements were already apparent in her work, as it had arrived to Spain from France, and she took an early interest in it. While in Madrid, Varo had her initial introduction to Surrealism through lectures, exhibitions, films, and theater. She was a regular visitor to the Prado Museum and took particular interest in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, most notably The Garden of Earthly Delights.

In 1930, she married a young painter named Gerardo Lizárraga. The couple left Spain for Paris, both to escape the rising political tensions as well as to be nearer to where much of Europe’s art scene was.

Career beginnings/Early artistic life

As a young woman, she had no doubts that she was meant to be an artist. After spending a year in Paris, Varo moved to Barcelona and formed her first artistic circle of friends, which included Josep-Lluis Florit, Óscar Domínguez, and Esteban Francés. Varo soon separated from her husband and shared a studio with Francés in a neighborhood filled with young avant-garde artists. The summer of 1935 marked Varo’s formal invitation into Surrealism when French surrealist Marcel Jean arrived in Barcelona. That same year, along with Jean and his artist friends, Dominguez and Francés, Varo created a surrealist game that was meant to explore the subconscious association of participants by pairing different images at random. These associations were called cadavres exquis, meaning exquisite corpses, and perfectly illustrated the principle André Breton wrote in his Surrealist manifestos. Varo soon joined a collective of artists and writers, called the Logicophobists, who had an interest in Surrealism and wanted to unite art together with metaphysics while resisting logic and reason. Varo exhibited with this group in 1936 at the Galería Catalonia although she recognized they were not pure Surrealists. When the Spanish Civil War began, the French Surrealist poet, Benjamin Peret, came to Barcelona to support the anti-Franco cause and met Varo. It was the beginning of an intensely romantic relationship that was recorded in the many letters declaring his love and publications dedicated to Varo. In 1937, Peret moved back to France, and Varo followed.



Varo shared a studio in Paris with Benjamin Peret and Esteban Frances. It was through Peret that she met André Breton and the Surrealist circle, which included Leonora Carrington, Dora Maar, Roberto Matta, Wolfgang Paalen, and Max Ernst among others. Shortly after arriving in France, Varo took part in the International Surrealist exhibitions in Paris and in Amsterdam in 1938. She drew vignettes for the Dictionnaire abregé du surrealisme and the magazines Trajectoire du Rêve, Visage du Monde and Minotaure featured her work. In late 1938, she participated in a collaborative series, Jeu de dessin communiqué (The Game of Communicated Drawing), of works with Breton and Peret. The series was much like a game. It began with an initial drawing, which was shown to someone for 3 seconds, and then that person tried to recreate what they had been shown. The cycle continued with their drawing and so on. Apparently, this led to very interesting psychological implications that Varo later used in her paintings many times. Despite the social circles, she and Peret lived in poverty, with Varo having to copy and even forge paintings in order to get by. At the beginning of World War II, Peret was imprisoned for his political beliefs and she along with him as his wife. A few days after Varo was freed, the Germans entered Paris, and she was forced to join other French refugees. Peret was freed soon after, and the two managed to obtain documents to allow them to escape the war to Mexico. On November 20, 1941 Varo, along with Peret and Rubinstein, boarded the Serpa Pinto in Marseilles to flee war-torn Europe.


In 1941, she left Europe for Mexico because of World War II, arriving in the country with Péret as part of the wave of Spanish refugees. She initially considered Mexico a temporary haven, but would remain in Mexico for the rest of her life. She started in commercial art. and did not begin painting until three years after settling in Mexico. It took another nine years before her first exhibition.

In Mexico, she met regularly with other European artists such as Gunther Gerzso, Kati Horna, José Horna, and Wolfgang Paalen. In Mexico, she met native artists such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, but her strongest ties were to other exiles and expatriates, notably the English painter Leonora Carrington and the French pilot and adventurer, Jean Nicolle. However, because Mexican muralism still dominated the country’s art scene, surrealism was not generally well received. She worked as an assistant to Marc Chagallwith the design of the costumes for the production of the ballet Aleko, which premiered in Mexico City in 1942.

She worked at other jobs including in publicity and decorating. In 1947, Péret returned to Paris, and Varo traveled to Venezuela, living there for two years. She returned to Mexico and began her third and last important relationship with Austrian refugee Walter Gruen, who had endured concentration camps before escaping Europe. Gruen believed fiercely in Varo, and he gave her the economic and emotional support that allowed her to fully concentrate on her painting. In 1955, Varo had her first individual exhibition at the Galería Diana in Mexico City, which was well received. One reason for this was that Mexico had opened up to other artistic trends. Buyers were put on waiting lists for her work. Even Diego Rivera was supportive. Her second showing was as the Salón de la Arte de Mujer in 1958. In 1960, her representative, Juan Martín, opened his own gallery and showed her work there, and opened a second in 1962, at the height of her career. Only a year after that opening, she died. Her work is well-known in Mexico, but not as commonly known throughout the rest of the world.

Major influences

Artistic influences

Renaissance art inspired harmony, tonal nuances, unity, and narrative structure in Varo’s paintings. The allegorical nature of much of Varo’s work especially recalls the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, and some critics, such as Dean Swinford, have described her art as “postmodern allegory,” much in the tradition of Irrealism.

Varo was also influenced by styles as diverse as those of Francisco Goya, El Greco, Picasso, and Braque. While André Breton was a formative influence in her understanding of Surrealism, some of her paintings bear an uncanny resemblance to the Surrealist creations of the modern Greek-born Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico.

In Mexico, she was influenced by pre-Columbian art.

Varo’s painting The Lovers served as inspiration for some of the images used by Madonna in the music video for her 1995 single “Bedtime Story”.

Philosophical influences

She considered surrealism as an “expressive resting place within the limits of Cubism, and as a way of communicating the incommunicable”.

Even though Varo was critical of her childhood religion, Catholicism, her work was influenced by religion. She differed from other Surrealists because of her constant use of religion in her work. She also turned to a wide range of mystic and hermetic traditions, both Western and non-Western for influence. She was influenced by her belief in magic and animistic faiths. She was very connected to nature and believed that there was strong relation between the plant, human, animal, and mechanical world. Her belief in mystical forces greatly influenced her paintings. Varo was aware of the importance of biology, chemistry, physics and botany, but thought it should blend together with other aspects of life.

She turned with equal interest to the ideas of Carl Jung as to the theories of George Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky, Helena Blavatsky, Meister Eckhart and the Sufis, and was as fascinated with the legend of the Holy Grail as with sacred geometry, alchemy and the I Ching. In 1938 and 1939 Varo joined her closest companions Frances, Roberto Matta and Gordon Onslow Ford in exploring the fourth dimension, basing much of their studies off of Ouspensky’s book Tertium Oganum. The books Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic and Alchemy by Grillot de Givry and The History of Magic and the Occult by Kurt Seligmann were highly valued in Breton’s Surrealist circle. She saw in each of these an avenue to self-knowledge and the transformation of consciousness.

She was also greatly influence by her childhood journeys. She often depicted out of the ordinary vehicles in mystifying lands. These works echo her family travels in her childhood.

Also, the Surrealist movement tended to degrade women. Some of Varo’s art elevated women, while still falling under Surrealism. But it was not necessarily her intention for her work to address problems in gender inequality. But, her art and actions challenged the traditional patriarchy, and it was mainly Wolfgang Paalen who encouraged her in this with his theories about the origins of civilization in matriarchal cultures and the analogies between pre-classic Europe and pre-Mayan Mexico.

Interpretations to her body of work

The male surrealists almost never saw their female counterparts as capable artists; therefore, the female surrealists were forced to find ways of working within the restrictions of the surrealist misconceived definition of woman, while still trying to refute it. Varo does this through her images of women in confined spaces.

Later in her career, Varo’s characters developed into her emblematic androgynous figures with heart-shaped faces, large almond eyes, and the aquiline noses that represent her own features. Varo often depicted herself through these key features in her paintings, regardless of the figure’s gender. The sense of isolation was achieved again and again as Varo secluded her characters in one environment or another, conveying an extraordinarily powerful message to those who paid attention long enough to notice it. Her use of seemingly autobiographical characters—confined and held captive by forces unknown—could be seen as exposing the dynamic of superiority that is inherent in male surrealist’s misuse of women as muses. It could be interpreted that her paintings are responses to the marginalization of women; portrayals of the characteristic misogynist treatment of women artists by the male surrealists by likening her characters and chimerical figures to prisoners.

Varo’s legacy

In 1963, Varo died of a heart attack. Breton commented that the death made her “the sorceress to left too soon.” Her mature paintings, fraught with arguably feminist meaning, are predominantly from the last few years of her life. Varo’s partner for the last 15 years of her life, Walter Gruen, dedicated his life to cataloguing her work and ensuring her legacy. The paintings of androgynous characters that share Varo’s facial features, mythical creatures, the misty swirls and eerie distortions of perspective are characteristic of Varo’s unique brand of surrealism. Varo has painted images of isolated, androgynous, auto-biographical figures to highlight the captivity of the true woman. While her paintings have been interpreted as more surrealist canvases that are the product of her passion for mysticism and alchemy, or as auto-biographical narratives, her work carries implications far more significant.

More than fifty of her works were displayed in a retrospective exhibition in 2000 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC.

Currently, the ownership of 39 of her paintings, first loaned and then given by Gruen to Mexico City’s Museum of Modern Art in 1999 is in dispute. Varo’s niece Beatriz Varo Jiménez of Valencia, Spain, claims Gruen had no rights to those works. Gruen, now 91, claims he inherited no works from Varo, who died intestate. Varo never divorced the husband she married in Spain in 1930: a court denied Gruen’s request in 1992 to be given inheritance rights as the artist’s common-law husband. He and his wife, Alexandra, whom he married in 1965, acquired all the paintings given to the museum on the open market after Varo’s death and are therefore his to give. He said he gave the only painting in Varo’s studio at the time of her death, “Still Life Reviving,” to the artist’s mother. The work was auctioned at Sotheby’s New York in 1994 for $574,000.