A lot of people know who Frida Kahlo is. Rightly so — her art and the story of her life are inspiring and tragic all at the same time. Kahlo has become so iconic, in fact, it might be easy for non-art lovers to overlook the other female painters that came before and after her, including Remedios Varo. As one of the few female surrealists of her day, Varo’s work is uniquely fantastical, intriguing, and terrifying. But in the years since her death, her work has been overshadowed by her contemporaries, including the most famous surrealist of all, Salvador Dali.
In life, Varo was a rebel down to her very core. She rebelled against her mother and the Catholic church as a girl and their idea of what a “respectable” woman of the day did. But her relationship with her father was the inverse of that with her mother. Rodrigo Varo gave her the introduction to the literature that would influence her own work later on (Poe and Jules Verne were two of their favorites). Through the exercises he gave her copying his own engineering work, he taught her drafting techniques that would provide the foundation for the world and the imposing Gothic structures Varo created within her paintings. As an adult, she studied mysticism, perhaps as another way to thumb her nose at her mother and the Church. Religious iconography juxtaposed next to symbols of the occult wasn’t the only dichotomy that defined her work, but it became the defining characteristic in her approach to surrealism.
Due to her father’s profession, the Varo family moved around Europe and northern Africa throughout her young life, but Spain was her first home. Her aptitude for art was apparent at a young age, and at fifteen she attended La Escuela De Bellas Artes, the same school that boasts former alumni such as Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, and former professors such as Francisco Goya. She met her husband, Gerardo Lizarraga while at school, and the two left for Barcelona once their educations were complete. She joined the surrealist group Logicophobistas, and through them she connected to a group that greatly informed the next course of her life. Poet Benjamin Peret was another member of this group, and they quickly went from friends to lovers. Some say the couple had Lizarraga’s blessing, and while they would never live a traditional life together as husband and wife for the rest of their lives, they remained legally married. But while the men in her life seemed to constantly change, the female friendships she forged were more durable, particularly with painter Leonora Carrington and photojournalist Kati Horna.
Varo’s early work consists mainly of portraits, but as time went on, the world within her art expanded. She incorporated elaborate backdrops, some filled with color and detail, others remarkably devoid of either. In the pieces where she did use color, red was a favorite in her palate, evident in a piece like Simpatia, or Sympathy.
Side note — Simpatia recently sold in 2019 to the tune of 3.1 million dollars.
The theme of “the confined woman” is another constant within Varo’s work. Throughout her career and her life, Varo often found herself confined either by societal expectations, or by the role that women were resigned to in the art world. Her paintings feature subjects that are either clearly female or androgynous in appearance, hidden, tied down, or otherwise separated from the outside world. The subject of Rheumatic Pain (1948) faces away from the viewer, alone in a seemingly endless landscape, chained down and literally stabbed in the back. Star Catcher (1956) also features a solitary woman, shrouded in darkness, illuminated only by the moon she has captured in her hand. These elongated, exaggerated figures (which often bore similar features to her) reflected her own feelings of isolation and disconnect from her identity as a woman, and later in life, her identity as a Spaniard. The de-feminization of her subjects’ bodies also allowed her to challenge gender stereotypes that were prevalent toward women and women artists, as well as discourage any sexual interpretation of her work itself.
Varo also wasn’t afraid to get political. She and Peret couldn’t return to their home country once the Spanish Civil War began, and she was imprisoned alongside him for his political activity at the start of World War II. Once they were freed, they went on the run again. They left Paris and headed for Mexico, where she would have her first solo exhibition in 1956.
During her life, Varo spent more time fighting to maintain her identity over trying to pursue commercial fame or interest. But even though she’s not a household name, I personally still see her influence in the works of Guillermo Del Toro, and contemporary artists like Trash Riot and Natee Utarit. And once you know her name, you won’t be able to forget it.