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Imagining an Art World Without Remedios Varo

Remedios Varo BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of vein.es

In all my years dedicated to art and culture writing, how we haven’t known and become obsessed sooner with the surrealist work of the Spanish-Mexican artist, Remedios Varo is as mysterious as the artist herself. 

As a mystical explorer of the female psyche, Varo’s paintings dig deep into the domestic realm to reveal its inner magic and eeriness. What’s surprising is that Varo —who died of a heart attack in Mexico in 1963 at the age of 55 — was not widely known outside of Latin American art communities. And although her name appeared in books about surrealist art, they were usually brief mentions, sometimes filed simply under “Remedios,” an unfortunate side effect of the art movement’s inherent machismo. 

The author of the Surrealist Manifesto, André Breton, once declared Mexico the most surrealist country in the world. His bold statement may have put Mexico on the art world’s radar, but he did little to give equal promotion to his female counterparts. 

Diving deep into their own psyches, the most famous Surrealists of the time like Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí often objectified women in their art by chopping off their limbs, rendering them headless, or replacing their faces with genitalia.

But that was then. Flash forward now to 2012, when New York’s Museum of Modern Art welcomed Varo’s “The Juggler” (“The Magician”) into its Surrealist gallery beside the likes of Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí, and the playing field evens out again. 

In an era where male power is questioned, and an appreciation for female artists who challenge sexual and gender boundaries is welcome, the market for female Surrealists has finally exploded in popularity and price. Its expanding interest includes curators, academics, and a greater number of younger female collectors around the globe. 

When in 2021, The New York Times dedicated a feature on Varo in their “Overlooked No More” series, after her 1956 painting “Harmony” sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $6.2 million in 2020, she suddenly became a topic of conversation worldwide. Even Spain wanted to reclaim her as theirs despite Mexico’s claim on her patrimony. 

“Microcosmos (Determinismo),” Remedios Varo. 1959. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Her un-harmonious yet harmonious style

Varo cultivated her own narrative style peppered with science, mathematics, European cultural themes, astrology, the tarot, and the general occult. 

When you study the androgynous women Remedios Varo painted, they seemed trapped in dreamlike worlds and, in some cases, attached to the machines and gadgets of the time.  

In Varo’s painting “Harmony,” a genderless person sits at a desk weaving objects like crystals, geometric figures, plants, and paper scraps of mathematical formulas onto a musical staff that looks like an abacus or a loom. Muse-like figures appear from the walls. In a letter to her family, Varo wrote that the person in the painting “is trying to find the invisible thread that unites all things.”

Photo courtesy of arthive.net

According to Sotheby’s, the sale of Varo’s “Harmony” was the second-highest price ever commanded by a female Latin American artist. In first place sits Kahlo, whose painting “Two Nudes in a Forest” sold for $8 million in 2016.

In an Artsy interview with Sotheby’s specialist Julian Dawes, women’s most successful Surrealist works offered a counterpoint to this male dominance. He cited Kahlo as the most famous of these women and described the work as “reflective, contemplative, dealing with womanhood from a searching perspective.” 

The eccentric woman behind the work

María de Los Remedios Alicia Rodriga Varo y Uranga was born on December 16, 1908, in Anglès in northeastern Spain. Her father was a hydraulic engineer and taught her mechanical drawing, and her mother was a devoted Roman Catholic from the Basque region. She named her Remedios after the Virgin of Remedies and in memory of an older sister who died before Varo was born.  

To quote a part of art historian Janet A. Kaplan’s biography on Varo: “The painter knew many worlds: rural Spain and North Africa, where she traveled with her family as a child; Catholic convent schools and the fine arts academy of Madrid as a young student; the artistic vanguard of Casablanca during the years of the Spanish Republic; the Parisian Surrealist group (including the poet, Benjamin Péret, who become the second of her three husbands) with whom she exhibited experimental work, the chaos of wartime Marseilles and Casablanca, where she sought to arrange the many documents needed to escape the Nazis; and finally, the hospitable refuge of Mexico, where she created her mature work. Varo’s startling and distinctive paintings were greeted with such resounding and popular success that from her first solo exhibition in 1955, she had to establish waiting lists for her many eager patrons.” 

Perhaps why her work may have gone relatively unnoticed for so long, in comparison to the well-connected and charismatic Kahlo or her career-focused best friend, the British writer, and painter Leonora Carrington, may have had something to do with Varo’s own self-described eccentricity and inability to easily connect with others to achieve critical and curatorial recognition. In the book “Cartas, Textos, y Otros Sueños,” (Mexico: Universidad Autonoma de Tlaxcala) she is quoted saying when asked about her creative influences: “Consciously, I have none. Without a doubt, certain people and events have influenced my style of painting, but only in a way that is not deliberate.” 

While it may not have been so clear what influenced her most given her extensive studies, journeys, and life experiences, if there was one thing that shaped her aside from the Surrealist movement and Mexico itself, it was her close friendship with Carrington. 

Having socialized in Paris, the two female artists would meet again after the war broke out as European exiles in Mexico, where they would develop their most potent and personal works of art. Carrington once stated that “the presence of Remedios in Mexico changed my life.” Varo’s close friendship with expatriates such as Carrington and the photographer Kati Horna would earn them the name of “the three witches” around town, reported Art News. 

Photo courtesy of Arthive.

A witch is nothing without her cats, and Varo’s love of felines might have also earned her the nickname of Cat Lady by some for all we know due to the popularity of “Sympathy” or “The Rage of the Cat.” 

One senses she admires their autonomy and magical symbolism, and Varo spoke about how her lucid dreams featured cats as companions and spiritual guides. Go now, dear reader, and get as lost in her reality as I have these past days by staring at “Papilla Estelar,” where she depicts a woman using a machine to capture stardust to spoon-feed it to a crescent-shaped moon. Varo once said: “El mundo del sueño y el mundo real no hacen más que uno.” The dream world and the real world are the same.