Remedios Varo’s six year old marriage to Gerado Lizarraga was in decline and she started a romantic relationship with the young Spanish surrealist painter Esteban Francés, and a short time later, she left the marital home and she and Esteban went to live together in a room in a small house in the city. Whilst there, the two lovers produced a number of surrealist works. Remedios also became friendly with a group of surrealist artists known as the Logicophobists, who wanted to bring about a close connection of art with metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, and although she never became an official member of the group in 1936 she exhibited three of her work with theirs at the Catalonia de Barcelona gallery.
The Spanish Civil War broke out on July 17th 1936 between two political groups. The Republicans who supported the Second Republic of Spain which had been founded in 1932 following a bloodless coup and the Nationalists, led by General Franco, who opposed it. Remedios’ young brother, Luis, joined Franco’s army but was killed shortly afterwards. Remedios was devastated by the death of her brother and could never understand why he decided to fight under the banner of the “enemy”.
In October 1936, Remedios Varo met Benjamin Péret, a French poet, a founder and central member of the French Surrealist movement. Péret had married the Brazilian singer Elsie Houston in April 1928. Her brother was Mario Pedrosa, a Trotskyist activist, and the next year, Péret and his brother-in-law founded and hosted the Communist League of Brazil, which was based upon the ideas of Trotsky. Péret was eventually arrested, imprisoned and expelled from Brazil as a “communist agitator” on December 30th, 1931, a few months after the birth of his son Geyser. He returned alone to France and carried on with the political struggle as a Trotskyist and participated in the Spanish Civil War as one of the many Trotskyists and anarchists, who claimed to fight for a classless society. When Remedios and Péret first met she was twenty-seven and he was thirty-seven.
Péret was a close friend of the Surrealist painter, André Breton. In 1937, Péret returned to Paris and Remedios went with him, breaking off her ties with her husband Gerardo and her lover, Esteban Frances, but the latter later decided to follow the couple to Paris. Remedios and Péret were now lovers but the couple’s life was marked by poverty and political uncertainty. She described the position she found herself in the French capital:
“…It is not easy to live on painting in Paris…Sometimes I did not have more food in an entire day than a small cup of coffee with milk. I call this ‘the heroic epoch’…That bohemian life that is supposed to be necessary for the artist is very bitter…”
It is Spring 1937 and Remedios Varo and Benjamin Péret are safe in Paris having escaped the mayhem in Spain caused by the Civil War. Remedios, through her close relationship with Péret, was accepted into the heart of the Surrealist group. She commented on her lowly position within the inner sanctum:
“…My position was the timid and humble one of a listener; I was not old enough nor did I have the aplomb to face up to them, to a Paul Eluard, a Benjamin Péret or an André Breton. Here was I with my mouth gaping open within this group of brilliant and gifted people…”
Whilst living in Paris she shared a Montparnasse studio with Péret and Francés and although this ménage-a-trois caused rivalries Remedios managed to enjoy life in Paris. In 1938 she completed a painting entitled The Souls of the Mountains. In this work, mountains are portrayed as slim volcanic tubes which are seen rising from a light-impregnated mist. Out from the inside of the tallest pair of these mountains emerge a head of a woman each bearing a resemblance to the artist. Remedios experimented not just with what she depicted but also how she depicted things. In this work she has used a Surrealist technique known as fumage. The technique of fumage was invented by the Austrian surrealist artist Wolfgang Paalen in the late 1930s and is achieved by passing a flame quickly across a surface fresh with oil paint. Paalen found that the smoke would trace unique marks in the wet surface. In this work by Varo the fumage technique created clouds swirling around the cylindrical mountains, linking the stony peaks and is suggestive of dreams and apparitions.
Again, we try and get into the head of the artist and work out what the painting is all about. The encased females in the painting appear to be imprisoned all alone inside the mountain. Remedios continually harked back to the past and on her feeling of imprisonment within the family home, the constraints made upon her at her convent school and the feeling of isolation and this depiction reminds us of her struggle to break free. The mountains have a phallic shape and this could be Remedios’ take that she lives in a male-dominated world and that female artists of the time were not looked upon as real painters but were compartmentalised as being the “spouses of artists”. The overall dark and depressing palette of the depiction was chosen by Remedios so as to give the work a feeling of isolation and disheartening confinement. The title of the work gives us a clue that the depiction is about a life force under oppression which is deprived of its freedom and entitlement to be acknowledged. Remedios believes that the souls in the painting should be released from their incarceration so that they may be able to express themselves fully and without any restrictions from their surroundings. Likewise, Remedios believes female artists should be freed from the restrictions of a patriarchal society.
So, what was life like for Remedios Varo and her Surrealist group ? Maybe the late American art historian, Robert Goldwater summed it up in his publication, Reflections on the New York School, Quadrum 8. He wrote about the group:
“…international in character, bohemian in a self-confident, intensive fashion….. living as if they had no money worries….[Yet they] existed on the margin of society……As thee latest issue of a long line of romantics, they accepted this situation as a condition of creativity and made it a positive virtue. They carried with them a warmth of feeling, an intensity and concern for matters aesthetic, a conviction of the rightness of their own judgements and an unconcern for any other…”
This encapsulates Remedios Varo’s lifestyle at the time. She believed fervently in the importance of art and she was reliant on spontanaity and put her trust in her subconscious instincts. At the time, Péret was working as a proof-reader as the sale of his paintings did not bring in enough money to survive and he would often have to beg for food. When Remedios joined him, she too had to endure this lifestyle but she didn’t care as she loved this bohemian way of life and revelled in the company of the extraordinary and stimulating group of people with whom she was surrounded. They too were mesmerised by her and during this time she had a number of love affairs. However, her joie de vie was to be short lived as politics and war were to change her life once again. Hitler was on his march towards European domination and with his annexation of the Sudetenland and the takeover of Austria, people in France feared the worst. By July 1939, the worst had arrived and Parisians were told that if they were able, they should get out of their city which was now paralysed with anxiety. It was an even more dangerous time for foreigners who lived in the French capital. They were threatened with deportation back to their own countries. Remedios, being a former Republican sympathiser, could not return to Spain where the right-wing Nationalists under Franco now ruled with an iron fist and where summary executions of Republican sympathizers were common. Her former husband, Lizarraga, had fled from Franco’s armies and arrived in France but, as a Spanish refugee, he found himself interred in a French concentration camp.
In February 1940, Péret, being an outspoken Communist, was recalled to military service but three months later he had been incarcerated in a military prison in Rennes for his political activities. On June 14th 1940 the Nazis entered Paris. An independent French government was established in Vichy and the Franco-German armistice was signed. Included in the treaty was an article which required the Vichy French government to surrender on demand any fugitive wanted by the Third Reich. Remedios was now in great danger for her connections with Péret. She knew that because of her left-wing Republican views and past actions, she would not survive if she was deported to Spain and yet to remain in Paris would ultimately mean a journey to an internment camp. Her friends tried everything to save Remedios from arrest but during the Winter of 1940 she was taken in by the police. She was eventually released but she knew, despite wanting to stay behind until Péret was released, she had to get out of the French capital.
She did manage to escape the chaos in June 1940 and through help from her friend, Oscar Dominguez. She managed to get a ride in a car owned by an American couple who were also escaping from Paris. She arrived on the south coast at the small fishing village of Canet-Plage which lay close to Perpignan. It was here she stayed with a number of Surrealist painters who had taken refuge on the Mediterranean coast. Soon she and a Romanian Jew, Victor Brauner, who had also fled south, paired off and went to live together in Marseilles. This was yet another of her love affairs. As a reminder of their time together he gave her a watercolour, probably a portrait of her, and he wrote on it:
“…To my very dear friend Remedios with the memory of an indelible period of my life. Your admiring friend, Victor Brauner, Marseille, Oct 1941…”
Remedios kept Brauner’s watercolour and a letter from him all her life.
Varo and Brauner were now part of a large group of intellectuals, artists and Jews who were trying to escape the Nazis. They were joined by Péret at the end of the year. He had managed to bribe the Nazi guards and then made a long and dangerous journey south. The city of Marseilles was bursting with refugees all desperate to get out of the country. They were living on little food and the fear of being caught in random but regular police roundups.
Varo and Péret eventually found refuge at the Villa Air-Bel, a large residence outside the city which was being used by a group calling themselves the Emergency Rescue Committee. This was a group that officially helped refugees legally obtain visas so they could leave France. The group’s secret agenda was to get those people on the Gestapo’s blacklist – specifically writers, artists and political activists, out of the country, by any means possible, The organisation was led by an American, Varian Fry. Fry was one of the founding members and as soon as the Committee was set up, they established a list of people to save in priority, mainly artists and writers, who had fled Germany and Occupied France to hide in the South.
Remedios Varo, now back with Péret, was in great danger. Many of their fellow refugees had gained passage to America but Péret had been refused entry to America due to his previous communist activities. As each month passed in Marseilles the danger of being arrested by the Vichy police became ever greater. They knew they had to escape. Their perilous situation was documented in notes in the files of the Emergency Rescue Committee:
“…He [Péret] is in immediate danger as his democratic ideas are opposed to the Vichy government, and he faces persecution. He and his family [referring to Varo, although Péret did not marry Remedios Varo until 1942, after the death of his first wife] are in danger of starvation, as the problem of the food supply in their region is acute…”
The Emergency Rescue Committee recognised the couple as “qualified as intellectuals and worthy of attention” and proceeded to try and attain visa for them so as they could leave France. It was a long and torturous fight to get the documentation and took six months to achieve. However, it was not just the visas they needed but money, again something they did not have. Once again it was up to the Emergency Rescue Committee to get them financial help from their American backers. Their fund-raising pamphlets were quite clear with their message which displayed hard-hitting headlines such as:
“…Wanted by the GESTAPO, Saved by America…”
The pamphlet then asked for contributions of $350, as the price of a life of one escapee.
Remedios and Péret’s thoughts then turned to Mexico as a place of refuge. They had a number of things going for them with this idea. Varo spoke Spanish. The President of Mexico had stated that he would accept all Spanish refugees and to any members of the International Brigade living in France, who had once fought against Franco. So, the destination for Péret and Varo was decided, now all they needed was to get there and procure a safe sea passage across the Atlantic. For this to happen they had to travel from Marseilles to Casablanca and then board a ship to Mexico. They eventually made it to Casablanca and on November 20th 1941, a year after they had arrived in Marseilles, they set sail from Casablanca on the Portuguese freighter Serpa Pinto. The couple arrived in Mexico at the end of 1941. They had been battered by the ferocious winter seas of the Atlantic Ocean crossing and also fearful of being attacked by Nazi naval ships. Remedios remembered the ordeal in a later interview, she said:
“…I came to Mexico searching for the peace that I had not found, neither in Spain – that of the revolution – nor in Europe – that of the terrible war – for me it was impossible to paint amidst such anguish…”
…………..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.