The Magical World of Remedios Varo

National Galleries of Scotland is delighted to announce the acquisition of Encounter (1959), an extraordinary painting by the Surrealist artist Remedios Varo (1908–1963). Marking the 100th anniversary of the revolutionary Manifesto of Surrealism (published in 1924), this painting joins Scotland’s world-class Surrealist collection. Varo’s work is incredibly rare and much sought-after: she only completed around 100 paintings during her lifetime. Encounter is Varo’s first work in oil on canvas to enter a British public collection. We are grateful to the Henry and Sula Walton Fund, Art Fund and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco, for making this acquisition possible.

When Remedios Varo died suddenly in 1963, aged just 54, André Breton, founder of the Surrealist movement, described her as ‘the sorceress that left too soon’. Her enigmatic and intricate compositions incorporate planned and automatic techniques, exploring themes of the occult and the scientific. Playing with the magical and spiritual potential of interior spaces, Varo sought power in the domestic and the prosaic, turning dusty parlours and creaking doorways into fantasy realms overflowing with possibility. A deep interest in alchemy, archaeology, esotericism and ecology is evident throughout her work and her paintings often possess an otherworldly, mystical quality. 

Remedios Varo Encuentro (Encounter) 1959 © Estate of Remedios Varo. All Rights Reserved. ARS, New York and DACS, London 2023

Varo was born in Girona, Catalonia in northeastern Spain. Her father – an engineer – recognised her artistic talent from a young age and encouraged her to copy his technical drawings, which would influence her compositions for the rest of her life. She was one of the first female students to attend the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid, where she enrolled at the age of 15, and later received her diploma as an art teacher. In 1935, after moving to Paris, Varo met other Surrealist artists, and was later introduced to the poet and co-founder of the Surrealist movement, André Breton. After fleeing the Nazi-occupied part of France in 1941, Varo settled in Mexico, where she was one of a small but important group of Surrealist poets, painters and photographers. These artists included Kati Horna (1912–2000) and Leonora Carrington, with whom she not only forged a creative alliance but also an enduring, life-long friendship.

Encounter was painted in 1959, at the height of Varo’s career. It embraces the Surrealist fascination with the idea of the ‘chance encounter’, both in subject and practice. At the centre of this striking composition, a seated figure is draped in a fluid cloak of what appear to be tiny, blue waves. Carefully lifting the lid on a small box, she finds her own eyes staring back at her. Several similar boxes sit on the shelves in the background, suggesting many more ‘selves’ to be discovered.

Varo regularly engaged in innovative methods when producing her enchanting paintings. To produce this magic cloak, Varo has used the technique of soufflage (an automatic process where wet paint or ink is blown to create patterns and shapes – souffler means ‘to blow’) which evokes the fluid qualities of both water and fabric. Other techniques such as grattage and decalcomania were also adopted by the artist to produce strange shapes and textures. According to recent research by Tere Arq, Varo is also believed to have scored her hardboard panels with quartz crystals. This created tiny incisions across the surface, allowing for a denser application of paint.

Varo’s most mature paintings were produced in the last decade of her life when (due to the financial support of her husband Walter Gruen) she was able to abandon commercial work and dedicate herself to painting full-time. This, in combination with a meticulous approach to her compositions, meant that she only completed about 100 paintings throughout her career, many of which are in museum collections in Mexico. The scarcity of her work means that her paintings rarely surface at auctions, and she has had very few solo exhibitions. In recent years, her work has generated much interest, in no small part due to the work of scholars such as Janet Kaplan and Tere Arq. This has only increased as a result of Varo’s paintings appearing in the Venice Biennale of 2022 and a major solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2023.

Over the last 10 years National Galleries of Scotland have been actively acquiring major artworks by women artists. This latest addition to the collection will help to give a more comprehensive view of Surrealism as a diverse, international movement, rather than one centred in Paris. It joins other recent acquisitions of Surrealist art, including stunning works by Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning and more recently, archival material related to Edith Rimmington, cementing Scotland’s Surrealist collection as one of the best in the world.

This purchase was made possible thanks to substantial support from the Henry and Sula Walton Fund and Art Fund.

By Tor Scott, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art, 5 March 2024