Whilst attending the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid Remedios met Gerrado Lizarraga, a fellow student. He was a Basque from Pamplona, a lanky, long-nosed man, known for his honesty and great sense of humour. During the time at the Academia she remained living at home and it was during her years at the Academia that she realised she had to break free of the family. She desperately wanted her independence. As an unmarried twenty-one-year old woman she was expected to live at home with her family and remain under their tight control. She realised that marriage was the only way out of this restrictive situation.
This constant battle against a restrictive lifestyle whether it be life at the convent school or life at home whilst attending the Academia must have played on Remedios’ mind for many years. In 1955 whilst living in Mexico she completed a painting entitled Ruptura (Rupture) which recalled life in “captivity” and the escape. In this work we see her character in a similar situation that reminded her of her own experience whilst in Madrid. Before us we see a hooded figure in a brown travelling cloak leaving a building, from which dead leaves and old papers flutter away in the breeze. Look at the faces in the windows, all staring out at the departing figure. For Remedios, this was what life was like in her teenage years. – constantly being watched over and spied upon. She would later write about how she would hide her diaries under a loose stone on the floor of her bedroom and how she had sprinkled sugar on the floor by her door to see if anybody had entered her room while she was absent. The figure in the painting is going down a long flight of steps. The setting is a winter’s day, the trees having shed their leaves. On either side of the steps are high stone walls which are covered in vegetation. These imposing walls suggest constraint and incarceration, the very feelings which Remedios had during her late teenage years Climbing up the walls we can see a number of snails carrying their large shells, their “homes”, on their backs and is a memory of the burdens Remedios had to carry through her early years. Although there would have been parental control and the convent school would have kept an eye on what she was doing, much of Remedios’ perceived spying would be just a figment of her imagination.
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.”
The year she left the Academia, 1930, was also the year she married her boyfriend and fellow student and political activist Gerardo Lizárraga. They got married in the Basque city of San Sebastian, a place she knew well from her family summer holidays. He was three years older than Remedios and was a politically committed artist and his bohemian and carefree lifestyle appealed to Remedios. For Remedios, marriage enabled her to escape the overwhelming control of her parents, especially her mother. She was fascinated by Surrealism and the surrealist ideas which were beginning to permeate Spanish art from France, especially Paris. She wanted to fully immerse herself into the world of Surrealism and so in 1931 she and Lizárraga moved to Paris. Remedios wanted to experience art tuition other than that pedalled by the Academia de San Fernando and signed up for courses at the Accademia de la Grande Chaumiere, a free art school which was legendary throughout Paris. However, she only lasted there a few three weeks. She felt overwhelmed and under too much pressure and decided that life for her and her husband in Paris should simply be an opportunity to immerse themselves in what Remedios later recalled was a poor bohemian lifestyle, one which allowed them to remain self-assured and untroubled by life. It was a chance to savour an unrestricted life free from her parents.
Like her early departure from the teaching at the Accademia de la Grande Chaumiere, she decided that after a year in the French capital it was time to return to Spain. In 1932 Remedios and her husband went back, not to Madrid, but to Barcelona which had a much more unconventional and innovative feel to it. Barcelona was the closest to Paris in its avant-garde atmosphere. It had become the intellectual and artistic centre of Spain and of course it gave a sufficient distancing from her parents.
Another man entered Remedios’s life soon after she and her husband arrived in Barcelona. He was the Catalan artist Esteban (Esteve) Francés who was born in Portbou, a small town close to the French border. Later he and his family went to live inland to the larger town of Figueras, in North Eastern Spain, also the birthplace of Dali. In 1925, at the age of twelve, he moved to Barcelona where, after a brief period studying law, he enrolled at the art and design school, Escola de la Llotja. He was nineteen when he first met Remedios Varo, and later they shared a studio in Barcelona in the Plaza de Lesseps.
He, like Varo, had a great interest in the avant-garde world of Surrealism. Although Remedios lived with her husband, she and Esteban became lovers. This affair marked the first time Remedios had broken the stern moral code under which she had been raised. It was to be first of many open relationships she maintained throughout her life. Being a member of the bohemian set, Varo flouted conventional morals and had few recriminations.
Remedios Varo completed one of her earliest surrealist compositions in 1935 with her pencil on paper artwork, simply entitled Composition. It is a strange depiction of a bone-like tree, a flaccid stretched-out figure and insect/human hybrids all of which flow like a dream one into the next.
Remedios had fully engaged herself in the Surrealist movement and had joined the group known as Logicofobista, whose aim was to epitomise the mental state of the internal soul in a Surrealist style. It was during her time spent as a member of this group that Remedios Varo produced her painting L´Agent Double (Double Agent). Trouble had been brewing in Spain since the early 1930’s which, in 1936 culminated in an almost three-year very bloody civil war. In 1936 Remedios Varo completed this work which reflected the political tensions in Spain at that time. The setting is a small enclosed room which has a separate image on each of the walls and the floor. The back wall is covered with full fleshy female breasts and a small bushy tree, suggesting a hairy pubic triangle. To the right, coming through the window an elongated red arm holding a ball-like object, from which a sperm-like tail is attached which wriggles away into a small dark opening low down on the far wall. On the opposite wall we see a large-handed figure, part heavy-limbed male, part curvaceous female standing up, nose pressed hard against the surface of the wall. It seems to be trapped within the confines of the room. Climbing up the back of this figure is a giant bumblebee. Looking at the floor we see a woman’s head rising out of a crack in the floor surface. It is the first self-portrait of Varo to appear in one of her paintings. Many more would follow over the years. She cautiously looks out and on either side of her head we see vapour or roots rising. This part of the painting is also a reminder that as a child and a teenager Remedios used to hide things, such as her writings and diary, from her family under a stone, part of the floor in her bedroom.
It is easy to describe what we see before us but a little more difficult to make sense of what we see. The year 1936 was the start of the Spanish Civil War, a war which was to see about 200,000 people die as the result of systematic killings, mob violence, torture, or other brutalities. Fighting and killings however, had preceded that date in the struggles between the left-wing sympathisers of the Republican Government also known as the Loyalists who supported the Spanish government and the right-wing Nationalists led by General Franco. Spies and secret agents for both sides were ever present. In the painting entitled Double Agent we are posed the question as to who the double agent is. Is it the figure appearing from out of the floor and who has the perfect vantage point to see what is going on. Has she trapped the part man, part woman? Or is it the figure with its nose pressed to the wall that has trapped her. Or are they both trapped by the creature with the long far-reaching hand? It is all about entrapment and of the fear of treachery and double agents at a time in Spain when one did not know who your ally was and who was your enemy. It was a painting which juxtaposes eroticism with distorted unreal and unrelated objects. Welcome to Surrealism !
Enter the life of Remedios Varo of a man who was to play an important part of her life. He was Benjamin Péret, a French poet, Parisian Dadaist and a founder and central member of the French Surrealist movement and a close friend of André Breton. Péret had met Varo in October 1936, through her friendship with Oscar Dominguez, an artist from the Spanish Canary Islands who had close connections with Gaceta de arte, a Tenerife journal devoted to all Surrealist activities. Péret had come to Spain in 1936, a month before the civil war had begun, along with many other left-wing foreigners who wanted to fight for the Republicans against Franco’s Nationalists. He was a Communist activist and had been jailed in Brazil for his subversive activities. Soon a love affair between Varo and Péret began. Péret was nine years older than Varo but was in love with her. In a letter, dated October 15th 1936 to André Breton, the French writer and poet, who was concerned for the safety of his friend in Barcelona and wondered when he would return to the safety of France. Péret repiled in a letter:
“…I am involved in a love story that holds me here until the young person can accompany me to Paris, so I can say nothing of my return…”
Péret wrote love notes in his books which he gave to Remedios. He was absolutely besotted with her and in his book of love poems, Je sublime, there was a dedication “to Remedios Lizarraga” and part of one of the poems, Source, Péret wrote:
“… It’s Rosa weather with a real Rosa sun
And I’m going to drink Rosa with a Rosa meal
Until I fall into a Rosa sleep
Dressed in Rosa dreams
And the Rosa dawn will wake me like a Rosa
In which Rosa’s image will be surrounded
By a Rosa halo…”
Remedios was equally in love with Péret. So what was the thing that forged this love affair between the two ? For Varo it was probably the fact that Péret was a published poet, a French Surrealist and a close friend of Breton. He was a romantic who had dedicated poems to her. He had left France to fight as a revolutionary defending her country. For Péret she was an attractive younger woman who doted on him. What more could he ask for ? Péret moved back to Paris in early 1937 and in the Spring of that year, Remedios Varo decided to join him, leaving her homeland, her husband and also her one-time lover Estéban Francés, who would later follow her to Paris.
Remedios Varo had escaped the chaos and blood-letting of the Spanish Civil War which had taken the life of her younger brother and moved to the safety of the French capital. However, unknown to her at the time, Paris and France was to be almost the death of her………….
………………………….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.