In Mexico City, Varo also developed a close friendship and collaborative relationship with
, 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.