Mental Floss

A Spanish Parisian in Mexico: Remedios Varo

Andréa Fernandes

Readers Valerie and Liz requested a "Feel Art Again" post on Remedios Varo (1908-1963) as part of our quest to feature an artist from a different country for each post in June. Although Varo is described as just "an artist from Mexico," she was born and raised in Spain and then lived in Paris before finally settling in Mexico.

1. Remedios Varo's fantasy paintings often feature mathematical and scientific concepts, such as the square root of minus one, machinery, test tubes, and orreries. Her scientific interest and artistic talent were nurtured from a young age by her father, a hydraulic engineer. Varo's father helped her perfect her draftsmanship as well as taught her the correct use of the rule, carpenter's square, and triangle.

2. Most sources state that Varo was married twice: first to a French poet and then to an Austrian émigré. She was actually married three times, though. Varo met fellow painter Gerardo Lizárraga in art school. They married in 1930 and separated just two years later. She then married her French poet, Benjamin Peret; they separated in the late 1940s. Her final husband was Walter Gruen, the Austrian émigré, whom she married in 1953. Gruen's small fortune enabled Varo to devote herself to her art. As Gruen told her, "If you want, all you have to do is paint."

3. During the Nazi occupation of France, Varo and other artists were forced into exile from Paris. She settled in Mexico, where she tried to merely survive, painting furniture, designing costumes, making toys, constructing dioramas, and working as a commercial illustrator for Bayer Pharmaceuticals. She even made scientific drawings for Venezuela's Ministry of Public Health during an extended trip to the South American country in the late 1940s.

4. When Varo passed away in 1963 in the arms of her husband, Gruen, she left behind 39 paintings valued at an approximate total of $15 million. As late as 2005, though, the rights to ownership were still being fought over in the Mexican courts. Gruen, then 91, claimed to be the rightful heir as her husband, but his claim was denied because Varo had never legally divorced Peret. A Spanish niece, whom Varo reportedly barely knew, and the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City were also vying for the rights.

5. Some of the imagery in Madonna's 1995 music video, "Bedtime Story," was inspired by Varo's painting, "The Lovers."

Larger versions of Varo's "Papilla Estelar" (above left) and "Spiral Transit" (above right) are available. Fans should check out the collection of Varo's work at IUPUI and Janet Kaplan's book about Varo, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys. "Feel Art Again" usually appears three times a week. Looking for a particular artist? Visit our archive for a complete listing of all 250+ artists that have been featured. You can e-mail us at with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.