5 Fast Facts: Remedios Varo

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Surrealist painter Remedios Varo (1908–1963), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

varo the call

Remedios Varo, La llamada (The Call), 1961; Oil on masonite, 39 1/2 x 26 3/5 in.; NMWA, Gift from Private Collection

Remedios Varo (1908–1963)

1. Stranger in a Strange Land

Varo spent the majority of her adulthood as a political refugee. She left her native Spain for Paris during the Spanish Civil War and could not return due to her political ties. She then fled Paris after Germany’s 1940 occupation. She escaped to Mexico, where she lived for the rest of her life.

 2. Hanging with the In-Crowd

Varo’s relationship with French Surrealist poet Benjamin Péret introduced her to other Parisian Surrealists. While outwardly accepting, the male-dominated movement placed limitations on women artists by portraying them as innocent and child-like. This view often created obstacles for female Surrealists trying to gain credibility and develop their own creative identities.

3. Paying the Bills

After moving to Mexico, Varo supported herself through various odd jobs, including sewing, restoring ceramics, creating advertisements for pharmaceuticals, and creating technical drawings for the Ministry of Public Health. Although commercial, this work helped her develop a style that was uniquely her own.

varo weaving

Remedios Varo, Tejido espacio-tiempo (Weaving of Space and Time), 1954; Oil on masonite, 32 x 28 in.; NMWA, Gift from Private Collection

4. Fashionista

Although she is renowned as a painter, Varo also designed costumes for theatrical productions. She even made her own clothing, believing that tailors had no knowledge of a woman’s anatomy and figure. Her sewing machine held a place of honor at the 1983 retrospective of her work in Mexico City.

5. Best Friends Forever

Varo was close friends with fellow Surrealist Leonora Carrington. The two often discussed philosophy and collaborated on stories, games, and plays. One of their favorite pastimes was creating recipes that promised to chase away problems like, “inopportune dreams, insomnia, and deserts of quicksand under the bed.”

—Hannah Page was the 2016 summer education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Surrealist Spotlight: Remedios Varo

Within fraught and mysterious settings, Remedios Varo’s fantastical protagonists seem to undertake quests through time or space, as in two recent additions to NMWA’s collection, La llamada (The Call) (1961) and Tejido espacio-tiempo (Weaving of Space and Time) (1954), gifts from a private collection.

varo weaving

Remedios Varo, Tejido espacia-tiempo (Weaving of Space and Time), 1954; Oil on Masonite, 26 x 21 1/4 in.; Gift from Private Collection

Varo (1908–1963) was born María de los Remedios Varo y Uranga in Anglès, Spain, and her life was profoundly shaped by the political and artistic movements of her time. Varo lived an artistic, nontraditional life of creativity and romantic liaisons—during the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War, she spent time in Paris and Barcelona allying herself with Surrealists and creating experimental art. As World War II threatened Paris, Varo fled the city, making her way to Marseilles, and by late 1941 she had secured passage to Mexico.

In Mexico, Varo’s group of friends comprised many refugees from her European Surrealist circle, including artist Leonora Carrington, who became her closest friend and creative collaborator.

In the late 1940s, as she supported herself through commercial illustration work, Varo began to develop the mature personal style for which she is best known.

Weaving of Space and Time shows a couple in a spare domestic setting. Beneath their robes, the figures’ bodies appear to be constructed of turning wheels and gears. In The Call, a woman in flowing robes, who seems to derive energy from a celestial source, traverses a castle courtyard carrying alchemical tools, including a mortar and pestle at her collar.

These paintings exemplify Varo’s characteristic color palette—figures illuminated in fiery orange-gold tones are set against shadowy blue-green-brown surroundings. Precise lines reveal unexpected details, such as those of the castle walls in The Call, which seem to entomb figures in tree bark. The woven-reed surroundings of Weaving of Space and Time contain ghostly echoes of the central image, such as the flowers that appear along the strand intersecting the flower held by the man.

varo the call

Remedios Varo, La llamada (The Call), 1961; Oil on Masonite, 39 1/2 x 26 3/4 in.; Gift from Private Collection

Scholars have noted that Varo’s own features, particularly her large eyes and long, straight nose, reappear in the faces of her protagonists, emphasizing the importance she placed on her perspective as a woman. However, they are not direct self-portraits—they are frequently androgynous or not-quite-human alter egos, with witty and delicate features of fauna or otherworldly creatures.

Varo’s characters share a sense of solemn preoccupation, as though in the midst of momentous adventures or visions. With a life philosophy of non-conformity and a personal story marked by dislocation and tumult, Varo continued her quest through her art. Her immediate and personal work reveals a universe where dreams reign and power is shared between science and magic.

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: July 31, 2015

East London’s newest museum stirs up controversy. The space was initially intended for “the first women’s museum in the UK.” Instead, the Jack the Ripper Museum took its place.

TakePart states, “Even the men who are famous for killing and terrorizing get honored with museums, while the women who helped shape history are largely forgotten.”

Front-Page Femmes

British painter Cecily Brown identifies another neo-Expressionist painter as an alleged copycat of her work.

The Huffington Post looks at seven lesser-known women surrealists.

Women artists in India start conversations in notoriously dangerous streets in an attempt to make these aresa safer.

Artist Maria Aristidou treats coffee spills like watercolors.

Crowdfunding has enabled women creators and fans to launch their own comics.

The Arab American National Museum will showcase graphic arts and comics by six women.

Inventor Lipa Aisa Mijena helped create a lamp that runs on saltwater.

Children’s book author Beatrix Potter’s (1866–1943) birthday was on Tuesday. Brain Pickings reveals that the famed author also drew scientific studies of mushrooms.

The Telegraph discusses J.K. Rowling’s online presence in honor of the author’s 50th birthday.

Toni Morrison’s commencement address is one of 11 recorded in Take This Advice. The Nobel Prize-winning author “defies every graduation cliché with wisdom.”

Vanity Fair has a list of novels that tell the stories of women whom history has forgotten.

Maggie Shannon’s photo project Noise Girls features female noise-rock participants.

The number of female artists on country radio has remained consistent over the last 20 years, but their success rate has declined.

Former SNL cast member Abby Elliott reflects on her experiences on the show and says, “I sort of got pigeonholed into being the impression girl.”

Filmmaker and artist Penny Woodcock tells The Guardian, “I’m always open about my age, because I hope that’s encouraging to younger women. I’m 65 and still doing interesting things. You don’t need to bow out.”

The Guardian describes actress Tilda Swinton as “shapeshifting” and “otherworldly.”

Shows We Want to See

Tate Modern will host a retrospective of famed American artist Georgia O’Keeffe next summer. “This exhibition will re-examine her entire career, her development, her trajectory west, and the profound influence and legacy of her work.”

Petra Cortright discusses her internet-inspired artwork in her exhibition Niki, Lucy, Lola, Viola.

Alice Anderson has a compelling new show at the Wellcome Collection.

Works by 72-year-old painter Judith Bernstein are on view at Mary Boone Gallery.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: July 25, 2015

A new project hopes to add sculptures of suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to the public art of Central Park. Out of the park’s 22 sculptures, none depict women. Of the 5,193 public outdoor sculptures in the U.S., only 394 are of women.

Chicagoist also discusses the need for more statues of women of historical significance in Chicago parks—rather than depictions of fictional female characters like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.

Front-Page Femmes

Los Angeles Times comments on the glaring lack of major solo exhibitions in the city featuring black women artists.

Ti-Rock Moore, the artist behind the controversial Michael Brown sculpture, explains her motivations in this Huffington Post article.

A Brooklyn-based artist and textile designer, Lauren Garfinkel creates food art featuring political commentary.

A behind-the-scenes tour of rarely seen WWII artwork in Reality in Flames examines Australian female war artists. The Australian War Memorial’s assistant curator says, “I think the women artists do offer us a much more intimate, a much more personal view of the war.”

The Telegraph’s Claire Cohen explains why author Beatrix Potter should be the next woman on Britain’s £20 note.

Marvel’s publishing line relaunch includes books by 116 creators—but only 10 are women.

Celebrated dancer Jennie Somogyi will retire from the New York City Ballet this fall.

Reel Girl says Minions is the most sexist kids’ movie of the year. “The fact that the lack of females in children’s movies—from protagonists to crowd scenes, from heroes to villains—isn’t glaringly obvious to us and our children shows how sexist the world is.”

Female rapper MC Lyte is one of the women featured in Oprah.com’s “Who Am I” web series.

Shows We Want to See

Spanning her 35-year oeuvre, a major survey of Dame Elisabeth Frink’s public sculpture commissions will open in Nottingham.

The new Joan Mitchell retrospective reminds ARTnews of this throwback review of a 1965 exhibition of Mitchell’s work.

Carnegie Museum of Art’s She Who Tells a Story features women artists whose work comments on and subverts stereotypes about Middle Eastern identity.

Sotheby’s Cherchez la Femme: Women and Surrealism features women Surrealists, including Kay Sage, Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, and Remedios Varo. Sotheby’s Vice President Julian Dawes says, “Male Surrealists look at women as objects of desire. The female Surrealists sort of treat women as looking inward.”

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.