Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington

Posted by: Valetta

By Valetta, Regional Center for Women in the Arts

The story of Remedios Varo (pictured) and Leonora Carrington is one of a deeply sustaining friendship between two superior women surrealist painters who offer much to be discovered by present day art enthusiasts. Varo was born in Spain in 1908 and Carrington in England in 1917. They first met in Paris in the 30s as members of the vibrant surrealist circle. Their real relationship began years later in Mexico as émigrés from Europe during the turbulent time of World War II. Their shared history of those times in Europe brought them together. Leonora had recently been released from an insane asylum after a nervous breakdown when her lover, Max Ernst, was interned in a prison camp, and Remdios had been newly released from a French Detention camp.

The early years in Mexico were fraught with hardship for both women. As émigrés they were looked upon as colonizers and ostracized from the Mexican art scene. So, they surrounded themselves with other European artists and war refugees and created a rich supportive circle of friends. Varo was a strong force in this group. Her playful, generous spirit was a buoy to this group of artistic expatriates, providing them with a way to live with flair and joy in spite of the harsh living conditions they faced.

During this period, Remedios did very little painting though she did write quite a bit as a way to nourish her artistic soul. She held a variety of jobs such as a painter/designer of furniture and costume designer. She built dioramas and worked briefly for the British antifascist’s propaganda office. She also did commercial art work for Bayer Pharmaceutical, but signed them with her mother’s name to keep her fine art work separate.

Leonora’s journey which led to Mexico was quite different. Born into a wealthy family, she was educated by
governesses, tutors and nuns. Later, using family connections, she was able to attend art schools and eventually exhibit her work in London and New York galleries. But her flight to Mexico was propelled by rebellion. In 1983, she wrote, “I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse. I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.” While in Mexico she wrote “Down Under,” a tale of her treatment in the medieval asylum where she was given convulsive treatments and heavy drugs.

The lifelong friendship of these women was based on a true understanding and acceptance of each other. Together, Leonora and Remedios enjoyed making adolescent mischief and shared in all sorts of creative endeavors. They wrote alternating chapters in a book, planned elaborate patties and organized plays with fanciful costumes. They concocted fantastical recipes such as one that was created to make you dream you were the king of England. They served meals to guests, claiming all manner of expensive ingredients such as Russian Caviar. Both artists were creative and talented writers with absurd but acute senses of humor informed by keen observation. One of Leonora’s books, The Hearing Trumpet, is an entertaining story of a 92 year old feminist held captive in a Spanish castle, now transformed into a nursing home. The character who writes to people she’s never met is based on Remedios who often did the same. Varo’s sketchbooks are full of letters to strangers.

Their art work is informed by the occult, magic and alchemy. After reading The White Goddess, a pivotal book in their search for expression, the women in their canvases took on a stronger and more confident appearance. Remedios Varo died in 1963 at the age of 55, but Leonora Carrington went on to live and long and productive life, dying in 2011 at age 94.

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