When Remedios Varo died suddenly in 1963, Andre Breton described her as “the sorceress who left too soon.” Looking at her complex, occult themed canvases now, it is easy to see why he thought of her as possessing magical powers. 

Born Mariá de los Remedios Alicia Rodriga Varo y Uranga (1908-1963), Varo was a Spanish Surrealist painter and poet. Using a combination of automatic and planned techniques in her artistic practice, Varo produced work that was influenced by science and hermetic tradition in equal measure.

Elements of Varo’s formative years can be seen reflected in her later work. The artist produced her first painting at the age of 12, and from 1923 began to paint portraits of members of her family. From a young age she was encouraged by her father – Rodrigo Varo – to draw and read. He was a hydraulic engineer, and would have Varo copy his technical drawings, a skill that would transfer easily to the detailed surrealist compositions she would later become famous for. Similarly, the gothic architecture of Varo’s home town (in the Girona Province of Catalonia) is unique to the region, and would later inspire the buildings and interiors seen in the artist’s surrealist paintings.

By the age of 15, Varo was enrolled at the Escuela de Bellas Artes in Madrid, studying under the tutelage of Manuel Benedito.  There, Varo became influenced by the work of Goya and Hieronymus Bosch, whose work she visited often at the Prado. At the Escuela de Bellas Artes she met her future husband, the artist Gerado Lizárrago, and by 1930 they were married. The same year, Varo received a diploma to become a drawing teacher, and the couple moved to Paris, before venturing on to Barcelona where she would work as a Publicist for J. P. Thompson. 

In 1936, Varo contributed three paintings to an exhibition organised by the Grupo Logicofobista, which was held at the Galería Catalonia. This collaborative of artists and poets were united in their desire to unite Surrealist and Spiritualist themes upon canvas and paper, and Varo’s combination of magical motifs and technical ability rendered her a desirable addition to the group.

Varo’s life in Barcelona changed dramatically when she met the artist Esteban Francés in 1937 and decided to leave Lizárrago and move to Paris. Here, she shared a studio with Francés and Benjamin Péret, the poet and founding member of the Surrealist movement. Péret would become her lover, and it is through him and his artistic circles that she would meet renowned Surrealists such as Max Ernst, André Breton and (most significantly) Leonora Carrington, with whom she would become great friends. 

Despite this, Varo’s life in Paris was not glamorous, nor was she financially stable. She often had to work numerous jobs and produced forged copies of famous paintings to bring in money. To make matters worse, by 1940 both Varo and Péret were imprisoned by the French Government for their political alliances and involvement in the Spanish Civil War. In 1941, the couple fled Paris aboard the Serpa Pinto, which was an ocean liner departing from Casablanca. Arriving in Vera Cruz, both Peret and Varo were granted political asylum due to their status as artists.

The early 1940s were not as artistically productive, as Varo found more conventional ways to make a living. In Mexico, Varo lived close to Carrington, and they spent much time together, collaborating on projects and remaining close until Varo’s untimely death in 1963. The two Surrealist women were inseparable, often getting up to mischief together. Once they tried to trick Luis Brŭnel into thinking tapioca was caviar by dying it with squid ink and flavouring it with fish stock. The poet and diplomat, Octavio Paz, described their friendship:

 There are in Mexico two admirable artists, two bewitched witches: they have never heard the voices of praise or disapproval from schools or parties… Untouched by social mores, by aesthetic and prices, Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo move through our city with an air of supreme and ineffable distraction. Where are they going? Where their imagination and passion call them.

The artist spent her remaining years living in Mexico, with the exception of a move to Venezuela in 1947 where she stayed for two years, shortly after separating from Péret. During this time, Varo worked as a Technical Illustrator for the Malariology Division of the Ministry of Public Health. Varo returned to Mexico at the beginning of 1949. Here, she was approached by a wealthy Austrian businessman named Walter Gruen, who later became her second husband and gave her a studio and the financial support she needed to focus on her art. 

In Mexico, she met regularly with Carrington and the Surrealist Photographer Kati Horna. She also spent time with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Wolfgang Paalen. In 1956, Varo had her first solo show at the Galería Diana in Mexico City, followed by a second exhibition at the Salón de la Arte de Mujer in 1958. 

Remedios Varo died at the height of her career, suffering from a fatal heart attack in 1963. She is one of a large number of female Surrealist artists that were once lost to history, but thanks to a number of feminist scholars, their work is being reintroduced to the Surrealist Canon.


©The Heroine Collective 2020 – Present, All Rights Reserved. Every effort is made to ensure our articles are as accurate as they can possibly can be, but if you notice a factual error, please do be in touch. We only use images we believe are either in the public domain or images we believe we are able to use for illustrative, editorial and non-commercial purposes. If you believe one of our images is being used incorrectly, please be in touch. References include Remedios Varo: The Mexican Years by Massayo Nonaka  // Surrealism and the Occult by Nadia Choucha // Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement by Whitney Chadwick. 

Tor Scott

Written by Tor Scott

Tor is a Collections & Research Assistant at the National Galleries of Scotland. Her interests involve material culture, curiosities, and in particular a focus on superstitious objects and charms found in England and Scotland over the last 600 years.
Detail from "La Huida", 1961

Image by Detail from "La Huida", 1961

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