A legal battle that is Surreal

Times Staff Writer

One of Mexico’s most treasured artistic legacies, 39 paintings by the Surrealist artist Remedios Varo now in this city’s Museum of Modern Art, is in legal limbo amid a nasty battle over ownership of the works.

Although Varo’s works are rare and almost never sold at auction, she is esteemed by art historians and sought after by collectors as a key female Surrealist. Her paintings have sold at auction for more than $800,000, ranking her behind only Frida Kahlo on the list of priciest female Latin America artists.

Influenced by Rene Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst, Varo’s unique style has earned her a cult following in the United States, Japan and Europe. Public appreciation is limited because of the small number of her known paintings -- about 150 -- and her scant presence in galleries.


She was born in Spain in 1908, emigrated to Mexico during World War II and lived out her days here until dying of a heart attack in 1963. She began her career in Paris in the late 1930s and was among the circle of Surrealist artists influenced and encouraged by Andre Breton.

The dispute centers on who owns 39 paintings first lent and then given to Mexico City’s Museum of Modern Art in 1999 by Walter Gruen, an Austrian and also a World War II refugee who was Varo’s supporter and lover the last 11 years of the artist’s life.

Varo’s niece Beatriz Varo Jimenez of Valencia, Spain, has contended in a Mexico City family court that she is Varo’s rightful heir and that Gruen had no right to give the works to the museum. The niece won a crucial judicial round in March. But Mexico’s National Institute of Fine Arts is claiming that the works are state patrimony and is appealing the verdict.

Gruen, now 91, said in an interview that he inherited no works from Varo, who died intestate. He said that he and his wife, Alexandra, whom he married in 1965, acquired all the paintings given to the museum on the open market after Varo’s death and so are his to give. He said he gave the only painting in Varo’s studio at the time of her death, “Still Life Reviving,” to the artist’s mother. The work was auctioned at Sotheby’s New York in 1994 for $574,000.

Varo Jimenez’s attorney, Gustavo Ortiz Madrigal, contended in an interview that all the paintings were in the artist’s studio when she fell mortally ill, and so they belong to her niece. Varo Jimenez has been able to score legally, say sources close to the case, because the Gruens’ documentation of their acquisitions is spotty. “Walter Gruen donated the paintings in a fraudulent manner,” said the Mexico City lawyer. “He has never proved he was the owner. He has no receipts or contracts, just catalogs.”

Gruen said that he does have adequate documentation of his purchases but that the family court ignored it.

Varo never divorced the husband she married in Spain in 1930, which caused a court to deny Gruen’s request in 1992 to be given inheritance rights as the artist’s common-law husband. But Samuel Duran Perales, an attorney representing the Mexican government, said Gruen’s legal relationship is of secondary importance. The overriding fact is that the local Mexico City court that ruled in Varo Jimenez’s favor had no jurisdiction.

“These works constitute national patrimony, and the dispute belongs in the federal courts,” Duran Perales said. “I have no doubt that the final result will favor the National Institute of Fine Arts.” Final resolution of the case, which has been in litigation since 2000, is three or four months away, he added.

Critics of Varo’s niece say she came forward to make her claim only after the artist’s works began to attain international stature and value. The collection in dispute is valued at around $15 million. Her attorney said that she came forward in 2000 as soon as she was informed by the Spanish government that the Gruens were making the donation to the museum.

When Varo arrived broke in Mexico in 1942, she made her living doing book and publicity illustrations. After she met Gruen, then owner of a classical record shop in Mexico’s Roma section, her work flowered because Gruen’s support enabled her to devote all her time to her art, said Raquel Tibol, a Mexico City art historian.

“Whatever is or isn’t proven in court, no one can take from Gruen that he was the one who knew Remedios needed support to fully flower as an artist and that he gave it to her,” Tibol said. “It was her time with Gruen that allowed the real Remedios to surge forth.”

In 1998, the Gruens lent their entire collection to the museum after their daughter Isabel died in a car accident and left them without an heir. Later they made the loan a permanent gift. It’s what Varo would have wanted, said Gruen, who spent a year in a German concentration camp before fleeing Europe for Mexico.

“Remedios was extremely introverted and unsociable,” Gruen said. “But she felt grateful to Mexico for having been accepted as a refugee during the war.”

Varo developed a highly detailed style reminiscent of 15th century Flemish artists, Tibol said. The fact that Varo, with Leonora Carrington, is one of the few female Surrealist artists to make a name for herself helped make her works sought after, said Mary-Anne Martin, a New York art dealer who specializes in Latin American art.

“Remedios Varo, Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington have become the best known female Surrealist artists, and the rise of feminism in the past 30 years has increased interest in their art,” Martin said. “The [male] Surrealist artists tended to be sexist -- they considered women to be muses, not intellectual equals -- so they might be surprised now to see how sought-after the works of these women have become.”

In addition to feminists, Varo’s work also appeals to “scientists who are intrigued by her apparently accurate references to astronomy and chemistry. People relate very strongly to the intellectual content of the work, the sense of humor, the magic and her very precise painting technique,” Martin said.