Why This Surrealist’s Paintings Still Inspire Witches and Academics Alike
In Remedios Varo’s fantastical, Surrealist paintings, bodies merge with objects and animals to create alluring new hybrid figures. In Mimicry (1960), for example, a woman sits in a patterned chair. The shapes of her arms and hands echo those of the armrests, while the skin of her face and neck adopts the fabric’s design. Similarly, the central figure in The Creation of the Birds (1958) appears to be a genderless human-owl hybrid. A nearby machine resembles an insect, its hand depositing paint onto a palette. These types of depictions, typical throughout Varo’s oeuvre, are simultaneously ghoulish, attractive, and delicately rendered.
Such dreamlike transformations became part of Varo’s unique modernist mythology. Along with the rest of the Surrealists, Varo invoked the occult to challenge viewers’ understandings of their own psychologies, bodies, and latent powers. As witchcraft continues to make a comeback as an antidote to our chaotic times, Varo’s mystical paintings particularly resonate today.
Varo was born in Spain in 1908. Like many of the Surrealists, she lived through dramatic upheavals across Europe. She attended the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando in Madrid, later moving to Barcelona and joining the Logicophobistas—a kind of Spanish offshoot of the France-centered Surrealists (whose manifesto André Breton developed in 1924). Varo began a relationship with a French Surrealist poet named Benjamin Péret. Their radical beliefs put them in danger as Civil War broke out in the late 1930s, and the duo fled to Paris. There, Varo happily immersed herself in Surrealist activities until the Nazis occupied France; afterwards, in 1941, she fled to Mexico City. After parting ways with Péret, she also become romantically involved with Walter Gruen, an Austrian émigré who helped support her art practice. Varo died in 1963 in Mexico City, at age 54, of a heart attack.
Varo worked a day job, as well, designing marketing and advertising materials for the Bayer pharmaceutical company. The position resonated obliquely with her artwork. If her paintings espoused magic and alchemy for transformative purposes, her pamphlets sold elixirs of the most prosaic sort. Indeed, Varo was interested in science in addition to less-predictable forces; an image of her painting The Call (1961) even graced the cover of the medical journal Emerging Infectious Diseases in 2004. The publication’s accompanying explanatory note suggests that its central character holds a flask that represents science, the real antidote to societal ills (more mystically inclined critics would probably disagree).
Portrait of Remedios Varo. Photo by Walter Gruen. Courtesy of Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.
In Mexico City, Varo also developed a close friendship and collaborative relationship with Leonora Carrington, another Surrealist. Similarities abound in the work of Varo and Carrington, her better-known peer. They both delighted at notions of the occult, mystical realms, and anthropomorphization. Both espoused flat and highly-detailed scenes, which often evoke illuminated manuscripts from the medieval era. (Their works have even been misattributed as the other’s.) Yet the pair immersed themselves in different philosophical texts. Varo’s palette, too, distinguishes her work from her friend’s: Burnt oranges, scarlets, and browns infuse Varo’s paintings, often exuding fire and warmth.
Given the turbulence and relocations that defined Varo’s life, it’s perhaps unsurprising that scholars have identified stories of journeys and quests throughout her work. Scholar Ricki O’Rawe speaks in particular about a 1961 triptych called Weaving the Earth’s Mantle . The first panel features a group of blonde women bicycling out of a many-tiered structure. In the second, they appear to be studying in a tower high above the earth. And in the third, one of them floats with a brown-haired character down a billowing yellow channel toward an opening in a craggy green rock.
This dream-like painting has spawned many interpretations. Varo’s main biographer, Janet Kaplan, views it as an autobiographical work, an allegory of the artist’s flight from Spain (Kaplan, in fact, titled her book Unexpected Journeys). Other scholars understand the narrative as a feminist or political quest for emancipation or empowerment. In contrast, O’Rawe tells Artsy, “I read it as a spiritual journey, but I don’t think any one interpretation of the painting precludes the others. That’s why I find Varo interesting.”
Though her paintings are often whimsical, O’Rawe describes their profound philosophical rigor. Varo, he says, was reading Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung; Buddhist texts; the I-Ching (a work of Chinese divination); the science fiction of Ray Bradbury; and the environmental writings of Rachel Carson. In a 2014 article, he explores how two esoteric philosophers, G. I. Gurdjieff and P. D. Ouspensky, deeply impacted Varo’s idea of the self. Remarking on the painting Rupture (1955), he writes, “A gender-ambiguous figure leaves a house from which s/he is watched by six faces that are identical to his/her own.” Scholar Teresa Arcq suggests that the faces represent false facets of personality. The essence of Varo’s characters, then, transcends traditional ideas about gender, and even begins to approach our contemporary conceptions of queerness.
Dr. Susan Aberth, on the other hand, believes that something different is operating in the works of both Varo and Carrington. “I think it’s more about mysticism,” she tells Artsy. The pair were interested in alchemy, which espouses the belief that all humans are both man and woman at the same time. “I don’t know if it was a political agenda,” Aberth continues, “but it was a magical agenda. People think that magic isn’t political, but in a way, it’s the ultimate politics. It’s not transitory. It goes to the heart of how the universe works.”
In death, Varo has become something of a sorceress herself, conjuring up scholarship that supports varied leftist ideals, from gender equity to wealth redistribution. O’Rawe sees specifically socialist politics in Varo’s work. In Bankers in Action (1962), a woman in baggy dress flees from four well-suited men (in O’Rawe’s estimation, their clothing hints at a difference in financial and social status). Flying like bats, the men resemble vampires. “It’s quite perceptive of her to see all these issues rolled in together,” he says, suggesting a perceptive combination of feminist and economic concerns.
Pam Grossman, a renowned lecturer and podcaster on topics of witchcraft, explicitly cites Varo as an inspiration (she even named her cat after the artist). What Varo was really doing, Grossman tells Artsy, “was elevating the interior lives of women to the level of the sacred” and “making her own mythological allegories.” In 2016, Grossman mounted an exhibition at New York University that revealed the impact of magical practices on artwork for over 100 years. If the included artists didn’t explicitly reference Varo, her presence could still be felt in the show. Jesse Bransford even created a work in tribute to Varo. Grossman suggests that Judy Chicago’s famed Dinner Party (1979) explores similar concerns to those of Varo: the intersection of femininity and the divine.
Remedios Varo, La Ilamada (The Call), 1961. Courtesy of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Despite all of this emphasis on her spirituality, many of Varo’s characters were actually rooted in the subject matter closest to the artist: her own body. Not all of her characters are androgynous or half-animal—indeed, many are distinctly female approximations of herself. When the artist elected to paint women, they were often strong, self-determined figures in charge of their own destinies.
Virginia Treanor, associate curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, describes the central character in La Llamada, which is in the museum’s permanent collection. The painting features a woman dressed in bright orange, walking through a gray corridor from which other bodies emerge. Treanor believes that the subject is visualizing enlightenment as she walks. “She’s glowing. She’s on the path of knowledge and surrounded by people who have their eyes closed to the world around them,” Treanor tells Artsy.
Whether Varo and her characters had supernatural powers, or advocated science or socialism, is up for debate. What’s clear is that both the artist and her creations were confident in their direction, forging their own way in a gloomy world.