Jean Varda

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Jean Varda
Born11 September 1893
Died10 January 1971
Mexico City, Mexico
Known forCollage Art
Spouse(s)Dorothy Varda, Virginia Barclay Varda, Chryssa Vardea Mavromichali

Jean (Yanko) Varda (11 September 1893 – 10 January 1971) was an artist best known for his collage work and for being the subject of the 1967 short documentary Uncle Yanco, made by his relative Agnès Varda.


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.[1]

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.[1] He moved to London during World War I, became a ballet dancer,[2] and made friends with members of the avant garde in London.[2][3]

By 1922 Varda returned to Paris and took up painting again.[4] 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.[4] By the mid-1920s he spent most of his winters in London.[5][6]

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.[5]

Varda exhibited his work in London and Paris before leaving for New York in 1939, where his work was exhibited at the Neumann-Willard Gallery.[7] 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.[8] Through Henry Miller Varda met the writer Anaïs Nin. Varda and Nin became close friends and Nin would write about Varda frequently.[9] Her novel "Collages" includes a slightly fictionalized profile of Varda.[10]

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.[11]

In 1946 Varda taught at a Summer Institute at Black Mountain College, an experimental school in rural North Carolina.[8][12] 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.[13] The writer and Zen Buddhist popularizer Alan Watts took over Onslow-Ford’s space on the ferryboat in 1961.[14]

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.[14]

In 1967 he was the subject of a short documentary film by Agnès Varda entitled "Uncle Yanco." Agnès Varda, who had never met Varda before making the film, referred to him as Uncle in the film because of the difference in their ages, but in fact she was Varda's much younger first cousin. She was the daughter of Jean L. Varda, who was a brother of Varda's father, Michel. The film explores his lifestyle, his ideologies and his ties to the Hippie subcutlure.

Varda died after suffering a heart attack upon arriving by plane in Mexico City, where he had gone to visit Alice Rahon.

Personal life[edit]

Varda was married three times: to Dorothy Varda during the 1920s;[6] to Virginia Barclay Varda from 1940 until approximately 1947; and to Chryssa Vardea Mavromichali, from 1955 until 1958. He is survived by a granddaughter, Joui Turandot.


  1. ^ a b Marin Independent Journal, Interview with Jean Varda, August 5, 1950)
  2. ^ a b Stella Bowen, Drawn from Life, Collins, United Kingdom, 1940, p. 39
  3. ^ The Journals of Mary Butts, ed. Nathalie Blondel, Yale, New Haven 2002, pp. 98, 100,104,106.
  4. ^ a b Roland Penrose, Scrap Book, Rizzoli, New York, 1981, p. 28.
  5. ^ a b Julian Trevelyan, Indigo Days, (originally published MacGibbon & Kee, London, 1957), revd. Ed. Scolar Press, Aldershot, 1996, pp. 59-63
  6. ^ a b Gerald Brenan, Personal Record, Knopf, New York 1975, p.162
  7. ^ Art News, 1939
  8. ^ a b Susan Landauer, The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism, University of California, Berkeley, 1996, p.48
  9. ^ The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 6,ed. Gunther Stuhlmann (First Harvest/HBJ edition, United States, 1977, pp. 105, 132,165,183.
  10. ^ Anaïs Nin, Collages, Swallow Press, Chicago, 1964, pp. 59-71.
  11. ^ Time Magazine, 30 August 1943
  12. ^ Mary Emma Harris, The Arts at Black Mountain College, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1987
  13. ^ Annie Sutter, The Vallejo Collage, The Sausalito Historical Society and The Ferryboat Vallejo Preservation Project
  14. ^ a b Alan Watts, In My Own Way, an Autobiography, New World Library, Novato, California (Originally published by Pantheon Books, 1972), 300-304

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