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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Remedios Varo

Spiral Transit, 1962 Remedios Varo
It should come as no surprise to anyone that women have long been underrepresented in the visual arts. For centuries, that was true in virtually all professions except for those involving the kitchen, the hospital, the file room, or the classroom. Even in those venues the predominance of the female labor force has been a relatively recent phenomena, mostly in the past 150 years. Much of the more recent trends toward equality of the genders in the labor force has had to do with four factors, mechanization, education, economics, and motherhood. Mechanization reduced the male advantage as to upper body strength; co-education equalized a vast talent pool of untapped creative potential, economics had to do with the traditionally lower pay scale for women; while the decline in the birthrate during the past century (and an avalanche of timesaving home appliances) has freed up time for women to pursue previously male dominated careers in everything from military combat to presidential politics. Until the advent of the women's movement in the 1970, a gender imbalance was taken for granted in the visual art, as well.
Remedios Varo. The bottom-left photo features the artist's own faced
surrealistically juxtaposed with that of her first husband, artist Benjamin Peret.
Today however, the National Museum of Women in the Arts (who should know, if anyone does) claims that 51% of all artist are women. If statistical equality is the case, this balance has not come easily. It began with landscape painting, then spread to portraiture and abstract expressionism. According to my count, it likely came last to the Surrealist movement. I've counted more than ninety reasonably well-know Surrealists since the movement began in the early years of the 20th-century. There were only eleven women in the group (roughly 12%). Of course that figure does not represent the male-female ratio of working Surrealists today, but it does suggest at least one area of painting where the gender imbalance may remain. Among the better know women Surrealist were, Frida Kahlo, Dora Maar, Leonora Carrington, Kay Sage, Dorothea Tanning, and Remedios Varo. If you've never heard of the last artist, it's because I've not written about her...yet.

Allegory in Winter, 1948, Remedios Varo
Souls of Mountains,
1938, Remedios Varo
In virtually every instance in which a woman rose to prominence in the Surrealist movement it was due to their attaching themselves romantically to a more famous male artist. With Frida Kahlo, it was the Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera. Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning both had Max Ernst (during different intervals). Kay Sage was married to Yves Tanguy. Dora Maar was the muse and mistress of Pablo Picasso for over a decade. In the case of Remedios Varo, she had three such mentors, her first husband, Gerardo Lizárraga, and a short time later, a second "husband" Benjamin Peret (without having divorced her first). Later, in Mexico, she married Walter Gruen, a wealthy Austrian refugee who managed her career late in life. Despite a rather prominent nose, she was a very attractive bigamist. Remedios Varo was of Spanish birth into an upper-middle-class family, her father, a hydraulic engineer, her mother, a devout Catholic who sent her only daughter off to convent school. Doing so served to provide her was a broad upbringing in the arts and literature but also a lifelong resentment toward religion and a stubborn determination to become an artist. Other than portraits of family members, Varo's earliest serious work dates from 1938 when she was thirty, titled Souls of the Mountains (above, left). Her Allegory in Winter (above) came some ten years later. In terms of color, they are similar. Otherwise, it looks as if she came a long way during those ten years.

                 The Alchemist,                                     Stellar Porridge                                  
           1955, Remedios Varo                            1958, Remedios Varo                           
Following her bouts with the convent nuns, Remedios Varo moved on to the San Fernando Fine Arts Academy in Madrid, which was also the alma mater of Salvador Dali, though she didn't met the aurrealist master until much later. In Madrid, Varo spent many long hours at the Prado where she fell in love with the work of Hieronymus Bosch and his Garden of Earthly Delights. He seems to have made quite an impression in that virtually every one of her paintings from then on plainly suggests his influence. In 1930, she married her first husband, a young painter named Gerardo Lizárraga (the one she later forgot to divorce). They immediately fled to Paris to escape Francisco Franco and the Spanish Civil War. There she met for the first time Andre Breton, Max Ernst, Leonora Carrington, and a number of lesser surrealists including the poet-painter Benjamin Peret with whom she shared a studio. She displayed her work for the first time in the 1938 International Surrealist exhibitions in Paris and Amsterdam.

Harmony, 1956, Remedios Varo (possibly a self-portrait)
The Flight, 1961, Remedios Varo
About the time the German's took Paris in June of 1940, Varo. along with Peret. managed to obtain the paperwork allowing her to once more flee a war, this time ending up in Mexico where she was to spend the rest of her life. For a time she worked eking out a living as a commercial artist before turning to painting full time some three years later. Even though Peret returned to Paris in 1947, Varo had plenty of company from the old Paris days, fellow refugees Gunther Gerzso, Kati Horna, José Horna, Wolfgang Paalen and Marc Chagall as well as major Mexican artists such a Kahlo and Rivera, all of whom helped her survive in an art world far more interested in murals than Surrealism. It wasn't until 1955 that she had the first exhibition of her Mexican works coming as a result of a new relationship with Austrian refugee Walter Gruen, who had endured Nazi concentration camps before escaping Europe. Gruen promoted Varo fiercely, giving her the economic and emotional support which allowed her to fully concentrate on her painting. Her work began to be well-received as Mexico opened up to new artistic trends. Buyers were put on waiting lists for her work. Her second showing came at the Salón de la Arte de Mujer in 1958. In 1960, her agent, Juan Martín, opened his own gallery where he featured her work, followed by a second gallery in 1962. Only a year after that opening, at the height of her career, Remedios Varo died of a heart attack. Today, her work is well-known in Mexico, but not so much throughout the rest of the world.

Still-life Reviving, 1963, Remedios Varo (her final painting)

Meeting, 1959, Remedios Varo


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