Varo, by then well into her 40s, had her breakthrough with a group exhibition in 1955, showing paintings that dealt with the subconscious, the mystical and the metaphysical; in many, the protagonist looked like Varo.
She was interested in tarot, astrology and alchemy, which she balanced with a lifelong love of science, particularly geology, Arcq said in an interview. Varo’s work fused these interests.
“She was trying to find the intersection between the mystical and the scientific,” Arcq said.
In Varo’s painting “Harmony” (1956), a person (it could be a man or a woman) sits at a desk in a cavernous room, threading objects like crystals, plants, geometric figures and paper scraps of mathematical formulas onto a musical staff that looks like an abacus or a loom. Figures resembling muses appear to be coming out of the walls. The person, Varo wrote in a note addressed to her family, “is trying to find the invisible thread that unites all things.”
By this time she was living with Walter Gruen, an exiled Austrian owner of a popular classical music record shop. He believed in Varo’s talent and encouraged her to devote herself to painting wholeheartedly.
Varo had her first major solo exhibition in Mexico City in 1956. It was a hit among critics and collectors as well as the celebrated Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who was quoted as saying that Varo was “among the most important women artists in the world.” Her second solo show, in 1962, was also successful.
Varo died of a heart attack on Oct. 8, 1963. She was 54. Gruen became a tireless champion of her work and legacy, and a 1971 posthumous retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico drew crowds.
The value of Varo’s work has soared in recent years, in no small part because of its rarity, quality and striking imagery.
“It has a magical effect,” Norris said. “There is a radiance and a light to her work, much like you see in a great Renaissance painting.”