Remedios Varo. Part 1: Surrealism, the early days, family life and schooling.

Remedios Varo

We all have our favourite art genre and within that genre we also probably have our favourite artists.  For me, I like the Golden Age painters of The Netherlands and the Scandinavian artists who were known as the Skagen painters.  For some people narrative paintings are their favourites for others they prefer paintings that have various symbols depicted, each conveying a hidden meaning.  Today I am going to look at an artist who is famous for her painting genre, a genre which is both equally strange and yet somewhat fascinating.  Let me introduce you to the Spanish surrealist painter Remedios Varo who was born María de los Remedios Varo y Uranga.

André Breton (photo by Henri Manuel) 1927

Before I look at the life and works of Varo, first let us try to understand Surrealism.  Surrealism was founded in Paris by the French writer and poet André Breton in 1924.  Breton had been a leading light in the Dadaist movement, an artistic movement which was practiced by a group of European writers, artists, and intellectuals in protest against what they saw as a senseless war, World War I, which had claimed an estimated 37.5 million lives.  Out of Dadaism was born Surrealism, which was an artistic and literary movement.  The Surrealists wanted to put an end to the overbearing dictates of modern society by destroying its mainstay, that of rational thought.  Surrealism was preoccupied with spiritualism, the thoughts of Sigmund Freud with regards psychoanalysis and the political thoughts surrounding Marxism.  Surrealists wanted to achieve the creation of art which came from the artist’s unconscious mind and that lacked any reasoned thoughts.  Surrealism was a forerunner of Automatism which is the avoidance of conscious intention in producing works of art, especially by using mechanical techniques or subconscious associations.  Breton maintained that Surrealism was pure psychic automatism.

Varo family
Back: Remedios and older brother Rodrigo Jnr
Front: Mother, paternal grandmother, younger brother Luis and father

In a series of blogs, I will be looking at the life and work of Remedios Varo.  María de los Remedios Alicia Rodriga Varo y Uranga was born on December 16th 1908 in the small walled village of Anglès which lies ten kilometres west of Girona and eighty kilometres north-east of Barcelona. The village is situated in a Pyrenees valley close to the River Ter.  Remedios was the daughter of Rodrigo Varo-i-Zayalvo who hailed from Cordoba in Andalucía and his wife Ignasia Uranga Bergareche, a large woman of strong character, who came from a Basque family but was actually born in Argentina.  Remedios was the middle child of three, having an older brother Rodrigo Jnr., who would later become a doctor and a younger brother, Luis, who would sadly die in the Spanish Civil War.  Her mother gave her daughter the name Remedios in dedication to La Virgen de los Remedios as a remedy to help her forget the sadness associated with the death of her older daughter who died when she was very young.  Remedios’ connection with her two brothers was very different.  Probably because her older brother, Rodrigo, looked in horror at her life as a bohemian artist, their relationship was not a close one.  On the other hand, Remedios was very close to her younger brother Luis.

Postcard

Remedios’ father was a hydraulic engineer and it was his work on the nearby canal and lock systems which had brought the family to Anglès.  In his line of work, he had to travel all around the country as well as to North Africa.  His wife did not want to be left at home during her husband’s frequent business trips so she and the children would travel with him.  The constant “wanderings” of the family and the disruption it caused had an overpowering effect on Remedios.  She missed her home, and so, as she should did not want to forget her home life in Anglès, all her life, no matter where she went, she always kept with her a childhood postcard of the street in Anglès where she lived.

Father, older brother and Remedios (1912)

Remedios Varo’s religious upbringing was a tale of two parental beliefs.  Her mother, Ignasia, was a devout Catholic whereas her father, Rodrigo, was more receptive to religious beliefs of different faiths.  Remedios was very close to her mother but did not believe in her narrow Catholic beliefs favouring her father’s more varied and less dogmatic religious viewpoint. Varo’s father wanted his daughter to attend a “free” school which was independent from both the State and the Church and which many believed gave a more rounded education and were educationally superior to Catholic schools, but her mother demanded Remedios attended a Catholic school.  Her mother’s will must have been acceded to as Remedios attended a Roman Catholic convent school run by nuns.  A strict belief in Catholicism was demanded of the pupils and to counter this Remedios would immerse herself in books by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas, which spun stories of fantasy worlds.  She also liked to read about mysticism and alchemy.  It was the strict regimented existence at the Catholic convent school which led, in 1931, to her painting the triptych in which she ridiculed the restraints of convent schooling.

Toward the Tower by Remedios Varo (1961)

The three paintings formed the autobiographical triptych entitled Embroidering Earth’s Mantle.  The first of the three works was entitled Towards the Tower and Varo depicts a pack of identical girls following their leader in a trance-like state, bicycling away from a beehive tower in which they were once held captive.  All the girls face the same way, except one, Varo’s inclusion of herself as the heroine.  She depicts herself as the independently minded rebellious one.  Leading the pack of schoolgirls is the Mother Superior and a strange looking man who has a sack over his shoulder from which we see flocks of blue-coloured birds escaping and hovering over the party of cyclists.  Look at the bicycles.  They are fabricated, in part, from the stiffened fabrics of their own clothes. 

Embroidering Earth’s Mantle by Remedios Varo (1961)

In the central panel of the triptych, Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle, we observe the same young women.  This time the setting is a room in the tower where the convent girls are made to work.  The setting is what could be termed a medieval scriptorium, a room devoted to the writing, copying and illuminating of manuscripts commonly handled by monastic scribes.  It is a cramped and isolated space in which the young women are weaving out the surface of the earth under the intense supervision from the Great Master who reads from the book of instructions whilst at the same time, stirring a boiling broth in the same alchemical vessel from which the women draw their embroidery thread.  Behind him a veiled figure sits playing a flute.  Each and every young woman works alone embroidering images of the landscape onto a continuous fabric which tumbles 0ut from table-height battlements around the sides of the tower.  This act of embroidering and needlework was considered to be a skill suitable for cultured young women

Hidden image of the lovers

Varo has added an ironic twist to the painting although it may not be very clear in the main picture.  Remedios’ rebellious heroine in this triptych has embroidered an upside-down image of her and her lover within the folds of the cloth that emerge from her table.

The Escape by Remedios Varo (1962)

In the final panel, Varo reveals The Escape; Varo’s heroine has successfully fled with her lover on a fantastical furry inverted umbrella which floats on a foggy mist.  Both the clothes of the girl and her lover billow behind them in the wind and act as sails.  For Varo the triptych is all about imprisonment and the chance to liberate herself from the strict academic confines of convent school life and her determination to free herself from the facelessness of being one among a homogenous many.  It was her determination to escape isolation and be free.  Her freedom was to come in 1930 when she was twenty-one and left home after marrying Gerrado Lizaraga a fellow art student.

Portrait of Grandmother Doña Josefa Zejalvo by Remedios Varo (1926)

In order to keep his daughter, Remedios, amused on his business trips he would allow her to redraw his blueprints, and at the same time explain the function of the various systems. Remedios’s knowledge grew as did her inquisitiveness.    This was the start of her artistic tuition.  Her father was a hard taskmaster and would make his daughter repeat technical drawings until they were right.  Over time her draughtsmanship  constantly improved and her pencil lines gradually became more accurate as she became self-assured.  This infused in her the lifelong characteristic of meticulousness.  She had started to become a perfectionist.    Besides his training of Remedios in draughtsmanship, her father encouraged her love of art, by taking her to museums and art galleries.

Mother and daughter – Pencil sketches by Remedios Varo (1923)

By 1924 the family had relocated to an apartment on calle Segovia, one of Madrid’s main streets and because fifteen year old Remedios had shown a love of art the family arranged for her to attend the city’s Escuela de Artes y Oficios (School of Arts and Crafts) and later the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, where she became one of the first female students of the academy.  Like all the major art Academies of Europe, the Academia was known for its strict observance of the methodology of the Old Masters.  They would not compromise and those who became disruptive were expelled.  The year Remedios started at the Academy was the same year that fellow student, Salvador Dali, returned from his one-year expulsion for leading a student protest over a professional appointment at the Academia.  Two years later he was permanently expelled.  Despite this strict observance of academic art Remedios became interested in Surrealism.  Of her education at the Academy, she said:

“…”I took advantage of all that I learned, in painting the things that interested me on my own, which could be called, together with technique, the beginning of a personality…”

In Janet A. Kaplan’s book, Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys she quotes a story from Remedios teenage years, an erotic fantasy she had endured in a dream:

“…One night, a strange being entered through the window and threw itself on top of me; it was like the devil.  I resisted, but his eat was immense.  The following day and with out having said anything at the table my grandmother said to me ‘Remedios, what has happened to you?  Your hair is burned’…”

All her life Remedios would believe in the power of such dream images and in her mind, there was little to differentiate between reality and dreams.

Pencil sketches of Paternal grandmother by Remedios Vara (1925 and 1923)

Her “personality” was her strong attraction to Surrealism, which had gained a foothold in the Madrid art culture.  Whilst studying at the Academia she would make many visits to the Prado and became fascinated with the works of Primitive painters, including tribal art from Africa, the South Pacific and Indonesia, as well as prehistoric and very early European art, and European folk art.  She also loved the works of Hieronymus Bosch and also the mainstream art of El Greco and Goya.  In 1930, she graduated from the Academia with a drawing teacher diploma.

…………………………….. to be continued.


Most of the information for this blog, apart from the usual sources, comes from Janet A. Kaplan’s excellent book entitled Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys.  This is a must-read book if you want a fuller version of the life and times of Remedios Varo.

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

3 thoughts on “Remedios Varo. Part 1: Surrealism, the early days, family life and schooling.”

  1. Jonathan, you are simply amazing! I love reading your blogs (which I have been a fan of for many years), and your tenacious research and style of presentation are second to none!… Keep the love of art going, and your reportage, as you are a true inspiration!
    My very best regards to you.

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