(1893 – 1971 )
Jean Varda was a dynamic character who provided an amazing meeting ground for artists and writers when he and Gordon Onslow-Ford bought the S.S. Vallejo. They converted the boat into studios and created common gathering areas which attracted the likes of Alan Watts, Roberto Matta, Wolfgang Paalen, Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg, Anais Nin, and countless other artists, writers, poets, and musicians.
Varda’s constructions of paint, fabrics, and paper are feasts of color and fantasy, and reflect the artist’s deep connection to human myth-making. Varda mined history for visual and conceptual content for his work, believing that “Nothing endures unless it has first been transposed into a myth.” Varda was attracted to bright colors in his work and his life, which he felt represented vitality and good things. “The artist is the modern alchemist,” Varda said, “transmuting the refuse and scraps of civilization into splendorous visions.”
Of mixed Greek and French descent, Jean Varda (1893–1971) was born in Izmir, Turkey. Known as a child prodigy artist, at 19 he moved to Paris, and then on to London during World War I, where he became a ballet dancer and was active in London avant-garde circles. By 1922 he had returned to Paris, where he met artists who included Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque (with whom he shared a studio). He resumed painting and was especially influenced by the work of Matisse.
During the 1930s Varda developed a type of mosaic that involved the use of pieces of broken mirrors. He would scratch the backs of the pieces of mirror, then paint bright colors in the scratches so the paint showed through to the front of the mirror. He would then glue the pieces of mirror to a board, which he had prepared with a gritty gesso mixture.
In 1940, Varda moved to Big Sur and persuaded his friend Henry Miller to move there as well. In 1944 Miller wrote an article titled “Varda the Master Builder,” published in the Berkeley-based Circle Magazine, which featured avant-garde art and literature. Through Miller Varda met Anais Nin, who also occasionally wrote about Varda. During the war years Varda’s house in Monterey became a salon for artists, writers, and other creative people. By 1943 Varda started shifting over to collages from his earlier mosaic/mirror pictures. The collage, which would typically combine scraps of cloth and bits of paper with paint on a board, would remain his favored medium for the rest of his life.
In 1946 Varda was invited to teach at the prestigious Black Mountain College in North Carolina. He then returned to California and taught at the San Francisco Art Institute. In 1948 he and Gordon Onslow Ford purchased the SS Vallejo, which they remodeled into studios and living quarters, and created rooms where artists, writers, poets, and musicians gathered. The Vallejo became a salon with creative parties that attracted literary luminaries like Miller, Nin, Ginsberg, and Watts (who in 1961 took over Onslow-Ford’s space on the boat as his writing studio), as well as an inexhaustible list of painters and artists, notably Matta and Paalen. Varda and the S.S. Vallejo became legendary in artistic circles in the Bay Area and beyond, due in large part to Varda’s gregarious personality, his cooking, costume parties, and makeshift sailboats on which he gave impromptu tours of the bay. In 1956, Wayne Thiebaud and Patrick Dullanty made a 16mm color film about Varda and his work, titled “Collages of Varda.”