[Varo’s] blending of surrealist techniques and images, Freudian and Jungian psychology, science, magic, and the occult results in an imaginative, oftentimes humorous and subversive vision, focused primarily on metaphysical speculations. Transformations, both physical and spiritual, are central to her paintings, as are transmutations, as when inanimate objects become living things, or, more commonly, when human beings take on the forms or markings of animals, plants, insects, or domestic objects.
Gunther Gerzso’s surrealist exercise Days at Gabino Barreda Street of 1944, an important work that the artist nearly destroyed, documents the creative presence of the close-knit European émigré community in Mexico City—one that the Mexican-born Gerzso inserted himself into. The painting’s title refers to the weekly gatherings hosted by Remedios Varo and her husband poet Benjamin Péret at their run-down tenement house on Gabino Barreda Street number 18 in the Colonia San Rafael; Gerzso remembers their soirées as filled with “Surrealist games, practical jokes, elaborate costume parties, raucous story-telling into the night.” In his oneiric landscape Gerzso locates enigmatic portraits of Leonora Carrington, Esteban Francés, Péret, himself, and in the foreground the sphinx-like Remedios Varo, wearing a furry cat eye mask, and cloaked in the earth’s mantle while guarded by her several black cat allies. Common to the Surrealists were animal alter-egos that took form in their artworks; Varo’s best friend Leonora Carrington identified with the horse (as in her Self-Portrait or The Inn of the Dawn Horse of 1937-38), while Carrington’s lover Max Ernst identified with a bird he named “Loplop,” and for Varo, her alter-ego was the cat, as is made evident by a number of her artworks, including Simpatía, also known by the title “La Rabia del gato” (The Madness of the Cat).
Having left Barcelona for Paris at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil war and subsequently fleeing the Nazi invasion after being incarcerated for a time by the Vichy government, Varo had arrived to Mexico City with Péret, and little else, in December 1941. She had learned mechanical drawing from her father, a hydraulic engineer, completed a rigorous training at the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid (1924-30), and had collaborated with members of the Surrealist circle around Andre Bretón in Paris. To support herself and Péret, during the 1940s Varo found commercial work and odd jobs, creating advertising for the pharmaceutical firm Casa Bayer (aspirin), hand-painting decorative motifs onto furniture for Clardecor, designing costumes for the theatre and ballet, restoring pre-Columbian objects, and occasionally, convincingly reproducing modernist paintings by Giorgio de Chirico and others.” When Péret decided to return to France at the end of World War II, Varo traveled to Venezuela with her new love Jean Nicolle and found work doing technical drawings of disease-carrying parasitic insects for a State epidemiological study. She returned to Mexico City definitively in 1949 moving into two side-by-side apartments in a building on Alvaro Obregón in the Colonia Roma with her cats Zorrillo and Pituso and the Austrian exile Walter Gruen; she stayed with him up to her unexpected death in 1963, not yet having reached her fifty-fifth birthday. There in her sunny studio on the third floor, she could finally completely dedicate her time to painting personal work creating a mystical, mechanically inventive, permeable, anthropomorphic, and transformative world.
Varo’s inner world populated her easel-sized paintings on canvas and masonite in the 1950s; she worked methodically, as Gruen described “with a brush that was 000, basically a single hair, so to cover the surface required a month or more” using a palette of jewel tones contrasted with a cool metallic range. Many sources nourished Varo’s otherworldly expression. Turning to her childhood memories of her birthland, the solitary town of Anglés in Girona, Catalonia where she resided as a young girl up through age five, she built much of the imagery in her paintings on select elements of that town such as the street cats, checkered flooring, Gothic and Renaissance architecture, the forest, and the textile machines with gears run by steam power. To that mix she added her favorite readings by Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas, Edgar Allan Poe, the lessons she learned at the Prado Museum from studying paintings by Francisco Goya, El Greco, and Hieronymous Bosch, as well as her interest in all things alchemical and occult including the Fourth Way teachings of the Russian esotericist Ouspensky, and the sufi mysticism of Gurdjieff. Most significant was her friendship with artist Carrington, with whom she concocted magic potions, impossible recipes, and fantastic writings.
Simpatía was one of four recently painted small-scale works that Varo debuted in the summer of 1955 in Seis pintoras, a group exhibition at the Galería Diana on Paseo de la Reforma 489. Varo commented on Simpatía’s charged scene: “This lady’s cat jumps onto the table producing the sort of disorder that one must learn to tolerate if one likes cats (as I do). Upon caressing it, so many sparks fly that they form a very complicated electrical contraption. Some sparks and electricity go to her head and are quickly used to create a permanent wave.” The exchange between human and cat is tender and caring, yet intense; it is one that generates threads of electricity made visible so as to reveal a web of interconnectedness. Unexplained are the three cattail forms that protrude from underneath the figure’s dress; presumed to be a depiction of the very artist, Varo’s “facial features (heart-shaped face, slightly slanted, almond-shaped eyes) [that] were strikingly similar to those of a cat resulted in self-portraits in which the transmutation from human to animal can be discerned, suggesting an intimate identification of the artist with this particular species,” notes literary critic Nancy Vosburg. Using one of her favorite Surrealist techniques, that of decalcomania to create surprising, metamorphic effects, a single glass of spilled liquid turns into an ocean as Varo conjures a portal into another, subterranean or cosmic dimension. So well received was her work in Seis pintoras, that she committed to a solo show the following year again at the Galería Diana, where all twelve paintings sold within three days.
Important to note is the recent wave of impactful, enlightening, and popular exhibitions dedicated to Remedios Varo as a result of Walter Gruen and his wife Anna Alexandra Varsoviano’s donation of their archive to the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes’ Museo de Arte Moderno (INBA/MAM) in Mexico City. Building upon their initial 2002 gift, Gruen’s wife, who passed away in 2015, willed additional Varo paintings, drawings, personal letters, books, and objects to the institution. Remedios Varo. Apuntes y anécdotas de una colección (September 2016-February 2017) was followed by Adictos a Remedios Varo: Nuevo legado 2018 (October 2018-February 2019), the latter exhibition boasting 190,000 visitors during its run.
Teresa Eckmann, Associate Professor of Contemporary Latin American Art History, University of Texas at San Antonio