Jean Varda

(1893 – 1971 )


Varda was of mixed Greek and French descent. As a child he was known as a prodigy, and received commissions to paint portraits of prominent Athenians.

At 19, Varda moved to Paris, where he met Picasso and Braque. He lost all interest in the academic style of painting he had been pursuing until that time. He moved to London during World War I, became a ballet dancer, and made friends with members of the avant garde in London.

By 1922 Varda returned to Paris and took up painting again. Beginning in 1923, he spent most of his summers in Cassis, in the south of France, sharing Roland Penrose’s home Villa Les Mimosas, where they welcomed a number of well-known guests, including Braque, Miró, Derain, Max Ernst, Roger Fry, Clive Bell, Duncan Grant, Gerald Brenan, Wolfgang Paalen, and others. By the mid-1920s he spent most of his winters in London.

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 he moved to Anderson Creek, in Big Sur, California, and after that to Monterey, about forty miles north of Big Sur. In late 1943 he persuaded the writer Henry Miller to move to Big Sur. In 1944 Miller wrote an admiring profile of Varda called “Varda the Master Builder,” which was published by Circle Magazine, an avant garde art and literary magazine produced in Berkeley by George Leite. During the war years Varda’s house in Monterey became a salon for artists, writers, and other creative people. Through Henry Miller Varda met the writer Anaïs Nin. Varda and Nin became close friends and Nin would write about Varda frequently.  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 taught at a Summer Institute at Black Mountain College, an experimental school in rural North Carolina. During the late 1940s and early 1950s Varda taught at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute).

In approximately 1948 Varda and British-born artist Gordon Onslow Ford acquired an old ferryboat called the Vallejo. They permanently moored the Vallejo in Sausalito, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Using materials scavenged from a closed-down wartime shipbuilding operation, they remodeled the ferryboat into a studio for Onslow-Ford and a studio and living quarters for Varda. The writer and Zen Buddhist popularizer Alan Watts took over Onslow-Ford’s space on the ferryboat in 1961.

Varda turned the Vallejo into a kind of salon. He was an excellent cook and would regale guests with stories at dinners. His costume parties were famous. On Sunday afternoons he would take friends out on one of his homemade sailboats. Throughout his life he continued to create collages.

Jean Varda, 1960’s, 37″ x 53″

Jean Varda, 1960’s, 38″ x 54″

Jean Varda, 1960’s, 50″ x 34″

Jean Varda, 1960’s, 29″ x 37″

Jean Varda, 1960’s, 48″ x 32″