María de los Remedios Alicia Rodriga Varo y Uranga was born in Anglès, a small town in the province of Girona (Catalonia), in northeastern Spain, in 1908. Her mother named Varo in honor of the Virgen de los Remedios (the “Virgin of Remedies”) after a recently deceased older sister.
Varo’s father, Rodrigo Varo y Zajalvo (Cejalvo), was a hydraulic engineer. Because of his work, the family moved to different locations across Spain and North Africa. Varo’s father recognized her artistic talents early on and would have her copy the technical drawings of his work with their straight lines, radii, and perspectives, which she reproduced faithfully. He encouraged independent thought and supplemented her education with science and adventure books, notably the novels of Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, and Edgar Allan Poe. As she grew older, he provided her with texts on mysticism and philosophy. Those first few years of her life left an impression on Varo that would later show up as motifs in her work such as machinery, furnishings and artifacts. Romanesque and Gothic architecture, unique to Anglès, also showed up in her later artistic production. Varo’s mother, Ignacia Uranga Bergareche, was born to Basque parents in Argentina. She was a devout Catholic and commended herself to the patron saint of Anglès, the Virgin of Los Remedios, promising to name her first daughter after the saint.
Varo had two surviving siblings: an older brother Rodrigo and a younger brother Luis.
Varo was given the basic education at a convent school that was typical for young ladies of a good upbringing at the time – an experience that fostered her rebellious tendencies. Varo took a critical view of religion, rejecting the religious ideology of her childhood education and instead hewed to the liberal and universalist ideas that her father instilled in her. Varo drew throughout her childhood and painted her first painting at age twelve. The family moved to Madrid in 1924 and Varo entered the prestigious Escuela de Bellas Artes at the age of 15 under the tutelage of Manuel Benedito. Varo met her husband Gerardo Lizárraga at the Escuela de Bellas Artes and married him in San Sebastián in 1930.
The couple left Spain for Paris to be nearer to where much of Europe’s art scene was. After a year, Lizárraga got a job in Spain and the couple moved to Barcelona, at the time the European centre of the artistic avant-garde. Both Lizárraga and Varo worked for the Thompson Advertising Firm while in Barcelona In 1935, Varo participated in a drawing exhibition in Madrid which displayed her Composición (Composition). The following year, Varo contributed three works to a show organized by the “Logicophobists”.
In 1937 Varo met political activist and artist Esteban Francés and left her husband behind to fight in the Spanish Civil War. She moved back to Paris with both Francés and the poet Benjamin Péret in order to escape from the political unrest and shared a studio with them there. Varo never divorced Lizárraga and had different partners/lovers throughout her life; but she also remained friends with all of them, in particular with husband Lizárraga and Péret.
In Paris, Varo lived in poverty, working odd jobs and having to copy and even forge paintings in order to get by. At the beginning of World War II, Péret was imprisoned by the French government for his political beliefs; Varo was also imprisoned as his romantic partner. A few days after Varo was freed, the Germans entered Paris, and she was forced to join other refugees leaving France. Péret was freed soon after, and the two escaped to Mexico acquiring Mexican nationality.  On 20 November 1941 Varo, along with Péret and Rubinstein, boarded the Serpa Pinto in Marseilles to flee war-torn Europe. The terror she experienced at this time remained as a significant psychological scar.
Varo began her interest in esoteric doctrine of G.I. Gurdjieff in 1943 and officially joined the group in 1944.
Varo initially considered her time in Mexico to be temporary. However, except for a year spent in Venezuela, she would reside in Mexico for the rest of her life. This trip to Venezuela was part of a French scientist expedition which she joined in Paris during a trip there from Mexico. She returned to Mexico after a year abroad in 1949.
The very first works of Varo’s – a self-portrait and several portraits of family members – date to 1923, when she was studying for a baccalaureate at the School of Arts and Crafts.
In 1924, aged 15, she enrolled at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, in Madrid, the alma mater of Salvador Dalí and other renowned artists. Varo got her diploma as a drawing teacher in 1930. She also exhibited in a collective exhibition organised by the Unión de Dibujantes de Madrid. Surrealistic elements were already apparent in her work at school at the same time that French surrealism was having an early influence on Spanish surrealism; she took an early interest in the French surrealism. While in Madrid, Varo had her initial introduction to surrealism through lectures, exhibitions, films, and theater. She was a regular visitor to the Prado Museum and took particular interest in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, most notably The Garden of Earthly Delights, as well as other artists, such as Francisco de Goya.
As a young woman Varo had no doubts that she was meant to be an artist. After spending a year in Paris, Varo moved to Barcelona and formed her first artistic circle of friends, which included Josep-Lluis Florit, Óscar Domínguez, and Esteban Francés. Varo soon separated from her husband and shared a studio with Francés in a neighborhood filled with young avant-garde artists. The summer of 1935 marked Varo’s formal invitation into Surrealism when French surrealist Marcel Jean arrived in Barcelona. That same year, along with Jean and his artist friends, Dominguez and Francés, Varo took part in various surrealist games such as cadavres exquis that was meant to explore the subconscious association of participants by pairing different images at random. These cadavres exquis, meaning exquisite corpses, perfectly illustrated the principle André Breton wrote in his Surrealist manifestos. Varo soon joined a collective of artists and writers, called the Grupo Logicofobista, who had an interest in Surrealism and wanted to unite art together with metaphysics, while resisting logic and reason. Varo exhibited with this group in 1936 at the Galería Catalonia although she recognized they were not pure Surrealists.
During her time in Barcelona she worked as a publicist with the J. Walter Thompson company.
It was through Péret that Remedios Varo met André Breton and the Surrealist circle, which included Leonora Carrington, Dora Maar, Roberto Matta, Wolfgang Paalen, and Max Ernst among others. Shortly after arriving in France, Varo took part in the International Surrealist exhibitions in Paris and in Amsterdam in 1938. She drew vignettes for the Dictionnaire abregé du surrealisme and the magazines Trajectoire du Rêve, Visage du Monde and Minotaure featured her work. In late 1938, she participated in a collaborative series, Jeu de dessin communiqué (The Game of Communicated Drawing), of works with Breton and Péret. The series was much like a game. It began with an initial drawing, which was shown to someone for 3 seconds, and then that person tried to recreate what they had been shown. The cycle continued with their drawing and so on. Apparently, this led to very interesting psychological implications that Varo later used in her paintings many times.
Compared to her time in Mexico, she produced very little work while working in Paris. This may have been due to her status as a femme enfant and the way women were never taken seriously as surrealist artists. She said, reflecting on her time in Paris, “Yes, I attended those meetings where they talked a lot and one learned various things; sometimes I participated with works in their exhibitions; 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 Andre Breton. I was with an open mouth within this group of brilliant and gifted people. I was together with them because I felt a certain affinity. Today I do not belong to any group; I paint what occurs to me and that is all”.
In Mexico, she met regularly with other European artists such as Gunther Gerzso, Kati Horna, José Horna, and Wolfgang Paalen. In Mexico, she met native artists such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, but her strongest ties were to other exiles and expatriates, notably the English painter Leonora Carrington and the French pilot and adventurer, Jean Nicolle. However, because Mexican muralism still dominated the country’s art scene, surrealism was not generally well received. She worked as an assistant to Marc Chagall with the design of the costumes for the production of the ballet Aleko, which premiered in Mexico City in 1942.
She worked at other jobs including in publicity for pharmaceutical company Bayer and decorating for Clar Decor. In 1947, Péret returned to Paris, and Varo traveled to Venezuela, living there for two years. She returned to Mexico and began her third and last important relationship with Austrian refugee Walter Gruen, who had endured concentration camps before escaping Europe. Gruen believed fiercely in Varo, and he gave her the economic and emotional support that allowed her to fully concentrate on her painting. In 1955, Varo had her first individual exhibition at the Galería Diana in Mexico City, which was well received. One reason for this was that Mexico had opened up to other artistic trends. Buyers were put on waiting lists for her work. Even Diego Rivera was supportive. Her second showing was as the Salón de la Arte de Mujer in 1958. In 1960, her representative, Juan Martín, opened his own gallery and showed her work there, and opened a second in 1962, at the height of her career. Only a year after that opening, she died. Her work is well known in Mexico, but not as commonly known throughout the rest of the world.
She has said about working in Mexico, “for me it was impossible to paint among such anxiety. In this country I have found the tranquility that I have always searched for”.
Renaissance art inspired harmony, tonal nuances, and narrative structure in Varo’s paintings. The allegorical nature of much of Varo’s work especially recalls the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, and some critics, such as Dean Swinford, have described her art as “postmodern allegory,” much in the tradition of Irrealism.
Varo was influenced by styles as diverse as those of Francisco Goya, El Greco, Picasso, and Braque. While André Breton was a formative influence in her understanding of Surrealism, some of her paintings bear an uncanny resemblance to the Surrealist creations of the modern Greek-born Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico.
While there is little overt influence of Mexican art on her work, Varo and the other surrealists were captivated by the seemingly porous borders between the marvelous and the real in Mexico.
She considered surrealism as an “expressive resting place within the limits of Cubism, and as a way of communicating the incommunicable”.
Even though Varo was critical of her childhood religion, Catholicism, her work was influenced by religion. She differed from other Surrealists because of her constant use of religion in her work. She also turned to a wide range of mystic and hermetic traditions, both Western and non-Western for influence. She was influenced by her belief in magic and animistic faiths. She was very connected to nature and believed that there was strong relation between the plant, human, animal, and mechanical world. Her belief in mystical forces greatly influenced her paintings. Varo was aware of the importance of biology, chemistry, physics and botany, and thought it should blend together with other aspects of life. Her fascination for science, including Einstein’s theory of relativity and Darwinian evolution, has been noted by admirers of her art.
She turned with equal interest to the ideas of Carl Jung as to the theories of George Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky, Helena Blavatsky, Meister Eckhart and the Sufis, and was as fascinated with the legend of the Holy Grail as with sacred geometry, witchcraft, alchemy and the I Ching. In 1938 and 1939 Varo joined her closest companions Frances, Roberto Matta and Gordon Onslow Ford in exploring the fourth dimension, basing much of their studies off of Ouspensky’s book Tertium Oganum. The books Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic and Alchemy by Grillot de Givry and The History of Magic and the Occult by Kurt Seligmann were highly valued in Breton’s Surrealist circle. She saw in each of these an avenue to self-knowledge and the transformation of consciousness.
She was also greatly influenced by her childhood journeys. She often depicted out of the ordinary vehicles in mystifying lands. These works echo her family travels in her childhood.
Also, the Surrealist movement tended to degrade women. Some of Varo’s art elevated women, while still falling under Surrealism. But it was not necessarily her intention for her work to address problems in gender inequality. But, her art and actions challenged the traditional patriarchy, and it was mainly Wolfgang Paalen who encouraged her in this with his theories about the origins of civilization in matriarchal cultures and the analogies between pre-classic Europe and pre-Mayan Mexico.
Relationship with Leonora Carrington and Kati Horna
Of all refugees that were forced to flee from Europe to Mexico City after World War II, Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, and Kati Horna formed a bond that would immensely affect their lives and work. They all lived in proximity to each other in Colonia Roma.
Varo and Carrington had previously met while living in Paris through Andre Breton. Although Horna did not meet the other two until they were all in Mexico City, she was already familiar with the work of Varo and Carrington after being given a few of their paintings by Edward James, a British poet and patron of the surrealist movement.
All three attended the meetings of followers of the Russian mystics Peter Ouspensky and George Gurdjieff. They were inspired by Gurdjieff’s study of the evolution of consciousness and Ouspensky’s idea of the possibility of four dimensional painting. Though deeply influenced by the ideas of the Russian mystics, the women often ridiculed the practices and behavior of those in the circle.
After becoming friends, Varo and Carrington began writing collaboratively and wrote two unpublished plays together: El santo cuerpo grasoso and Lady Milagra – the latter unfinished. Using a technique similar to that of the game called Cadavre Exquis, they took turns writing small segments of text and put them together. Even when not writing together, they were often working collaboratively, often drawing from the same sources of inspiration and using the same themes in their paintings. Despite the fact that their work is extremely similar, there is one major difference: Varo’s painting is about line and form, while Carrington’s work is about tone and color. Varo and Carrington would stay extremely close friends for 20 years, until Varo’s death in 1963.
One critic states, “Remedios seems to never limit herself to one mode of expression. For her tools of the painter and the writer are unified in breaking down our visual and intellectual customs”. Even so, most classify her as a surrealist artist in that her work displays many trappings of the surrealist practice. Her work displays a liberating self- image and evoke a sense of otherworldliness which is so classic of the surrealist movement. One scholar cites Varo’s practice of automatic writing directly correlates to that of the Surrealists.
Interpretations of Varo’s artwork
Varo often painted images of women in confined spaces, achieving a sense of isolation. While Varo did not deem her own work as feminist, “her work stretches the limits of and directly challenges confabulated, patriarchal ideals of femininity”. Also, Varo’s work redacts male interpretation of the female body. Her works focus on female empowerment and agency. The androgynous figures characteristic of her later work also challenge gender in that the figures do not fall neatly into gender normative categories, and often could be of either sex, creating a sense of the “middle area” between the two sexes and of the gender norms placed on them. One critic states, “Because the female body, a sacred erotic artistic space for men, is transformed by [Varo] into nongendered shapes and forms, namely animals and insects, the space becomes freed from monolithic sexual interpretation”. Later in her career, her characters developed into her emblematic androgynous figures with heart-shaped faces, large almond eyes, and the aquiline noses that represent her own features. Varo often depicted herself through these key features in her paintings, regardless of the figure’s gender. “Varo tends to not play out personal strife on the canvas but rather portrays herself in various roles in surreal dreamscapes”. “It is Varo herself who is the alchemist or explorer. In creating these characters, she is defining her identity”.
Varo’s work also focuses on psychoanalysis and its role in society and female agency. In speaking on Woman leaving the Psychoanalyst (1961), one of Varo’s biographers states, “Not only does Varo debunk the idea of a correct process of mental healing, but also she trivializes the very nature of that process by representing the impossible: a physical and literal dismissal of the father, Order, and in Lacanian terms the official entrance into culture: verbal Language”. (Source)