Remedios Varo

I am not an art historian by any means, but I've spent enough time in museums that I tend to recognize the names of artists associated with major movements such as surrealism. I was surprised, then, when Chris Barzak told me a certain surrealist had had an influence on his writing, because the name was new to me: Remedios Varo.
Creation of the Birds
Chris recommended Janet Kaplan's biography Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varo, but I haven't yet been able to get hold of a copy, so I have relied on a few Internet resources to educate myself, including a collection of images, a detailed chronology of her life, an article about an exhibition, and this essay about Varo's scientific influences.

Varo grew up in Spain, lived in Paris, and eventually settled in Mexico after spending time in a Nazi internment camp after the occupation of France. She associated with various members of the artistic and literary avant-gardes wherever she lived, and specifically identified herself with the surrealists.
Varo's technique is continually described as "meticulous" -- she tended to like miniatures, and her approach is said to be closer to that used for egg tempera than for oil painting. Most of her work seems to have the kind of vehemently pictorial surface common to the most popular surrealists, but many of the paintings also remind me of medieval and Northern Renaissance images in some of their shapes and approach to perspective.

Some of Varo's paintings come awfully close to a sort of kitschiness that I associate with some of Dali's work, but few of Varo's paintings seem to me to descend quite to the same level of camp, because there is a naivety to her work that is quite charming, as well as a sense of humor (I particularly like her vegetarian vampires).


  1. Since you like Varo and are interested in her surface treatment and the elements suggestive of Medieval and Renaissance influences, you really ought to know about the paintings of Steve Cieslawski. He is known in the book world for his jacket paintings and illustrations (Richard Peck's A Year Down Under, Jean Karl's The Search for the Ten-Winged Dragon, etc.) but has been concentrating entirely on his oil painting since 2001.

    You can take a look at his two solo shows at CFM gallery by going to and If you're going to be in New York, go see his new show, up through November 27th. Here's a preview: (Hope I copied those right, complete with misspellings--if not, google his name and the gallery.)

    On the page for the first solo show, there's an appreciation by Teresa del Conde, Director of the Museo de Arte Contemporario in Mexico City. She visited Steve's studio in Oaxaca before she wrote the essay, and in it she compares him to Varo: "Some of the colors and settings used by the artist remind me of Caspar David Friedrich, who can be considered a forerunner of the late 19th century Symbolist Movement, while others are linked to Surrealism in many ways. One can see a relationship to the imagination of Remedios Varo, as well."

    I'm very lucky to own the oil painting done for the jacket of one of my books--Steve dropped it by my editor's office and asked for it to be sent to me because he liked the book, and the oil now hangs close by me when I'm writing. That's not a usual action from an illustrator, and I have continued to be grateful for and to take great pleasure in the gift. I would describe its surface as you do a Varo--"meticulous." Teresa del Conde also mentions a link to Vermeer: "Indeed, it is a joy to see paintings so carefully achieved with layers and layers and layers of pigment, as in the paintings by Vermeer of Delft. They are pleasant to the eye and to the mind." And, in fact, Vermeer was the first painter who sprang to mind when I first saw Steve Cieslawsk's skies and sun and the light falling on drapery and faces.

    His paintings are polished and reward a very close inspection. So if you're in New York before the 27th, go by CFM gallery...

  2. Pheasant plucker!

  3. Great steaming evil monkey stewpot! Love them Ceislawski pics!

  4. Thanks for sharing the links to Cieslawski's work -- fascinating stuff. I'll have to look for that gallery the next time I'm in New York.


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