Remedias Varo is one of a number of women Surrealist painters who were equally a part of the movement but unfortunately are much less known today. She came into contact with Surrealism in Spain and in Paris. One of her marriages was to Benjamin Peret, a Surrealist poet and close friend of Breton, the leader of the Surrealists. Surrealism began after WWI when the ideas of Sigmund Freud concerning the subconscious mind were taken seriously. In the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, Breton stated the need to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality.” Put simply, the concrete realities of the conscious mind and the fantasy and dreams of the subconscious mind needed to be brought together to create a unified whole.
From her childhood onward, Varo was intellectually curious and a prolific reader. As a child she read Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe, Alexander Dumas, and later she studied math, alchemy, mythology, mysticism, religions, Karl Jung, Isaac Asimov and others. She even had a make believe Hindu friends. Her mother was a Catholic and she was raised in that faith, but left them in favor of the Universalist and liberal ideas of her father. Her intellectual pursuits were encouraged by her father, a hydraulic engineer, who took her to South Africa. She copied his blue prints for projects, learned technical drawing and became interested in machines. During the rise of Fascism in Spain, she fled to Paris only to be imprisoned in Paris by the Nazi’s. She managed to escape, lived in hiding, and was able to get to Mexico in 1941with the aid of international agencies helping artists and Jews to escape. She lived and worked in Mexico City with a number of other Surrealist artists until her death in 1963. These influences and life experiences permeate her paintings. However, unlike the unease and fright produced by Dali’s art, Varo sought to reconcile the conscious and subconscious into a new, hopeful and harmonious union.
Varo’s “Harmony” was painted in 1956, and it illustrates the power of music, one of the significant influences in her life. Music represented organized harmony and equaled wholeness. In this painting an androgynous figure is seated before a measure of a musical score, and appears to be in the process of creating a composition. The treble clef appears to be made of wood and is extended on both ends to become a horn. The notes are a unique and significant combination of items. A rose, an ivy leaf, and a turnip are growing things. The rose is universally identified as a symbol of the Virgin Mary; she is the rose without thorns and the base word for the rosary. Ivy is an ancient symbol, it is every green it represents fidelity. It is often used in wreaths and crowns and climbs up and clings to walls. In Tarot, turnip seeds are a source of immortality. Other notes are represented by crystals, pyramids, circular stones and pieces of paper, one of which has the numbers of Pi written on it. All of these items are strung on the lines making one think of an abacus. A solid wall behind the musical composition dissolves as a graceful spirit woman, clad in white and blue, comes through the wall and adds a seashell to the composition. Sea shells reference water and world travel. “Harmony” synthesizes religion, mythology, math and science, and much more.
Across the room a second spirit woman breaks through the wall and appears as a mirror image. Some of the floor tiles come loose as branches, flowers and fragile pieces of paper push their way into the room. In nature we see plants pushing through cement and brick sidewalks and blooming through rocks and man-made surfaces. This could be interpreted as walls being destroyed, or in a positive interpretation which is in keeping with Varo’s art, man and nature are unified and need to work together to preserve life and harmony.
Also in the room is a yellow chest of drawers and an orange chest full of other objects which might be used to form notes. On the back wall and on the front right wall we see books on shelves and an assortment of flasks, beakers and retorts used for alchemy and scientific research. At first glance there appears to be a large eye at the top of the large book shelf, but on closer observation, it is a bed with two pillows. A rope ladder hangs from one end, giving access to the bed. Three pieces of furniture are seen in the back corner: a chair, a trunk and a uniquely shaped vessel on a pedestal. As with all of Varo’s painting there are always things that remain a mystery and come into focus later.
Varo’s color choices are interesting and present another mystery. The room is painted in a range of yellow to dark orange, warm colors of the sun. A second range of color is from white to light grays and light blue. White represents purity, grays are the colors of rocks and blue references the sky. It interesting to move your eyes across the painting and see what is painted in the yellow tones and what in the whites to blues.
Three other mysterious items are also present. On the wall above the large book case are two Romanesque arches. In the city of Angeles, where Varo lived as a child, the architecture was predominantly round Romanesque. Varo kept a post card from Angeles with her always. The shape of these double arches was used in Jewish art to illustrate the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. Varo’s interest included knowledge of several religions. In the right front a red chair, its top cushion ripped, reveals another eye. On closer observation the ripped cushion as been appropriated by a bird looking after her children in the nest. Another bird painted white and blue, flies out the open door of the room. Does this bird take the new harmonious composition to the world in its song? Is this bird possibly the blue bird of happiness?
Varo is one of my favorite artists and I have studied her work repeatedly and still find intriguing mysteries and have unanswered questions. Her art is as complex and unique as was the artist herself.
Varo’s paintings, including “Harmony” are full of intriguing mysteries and unanswered questions. Her art is as complex as the artist herself.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.