Yanko/Jean Varda

Yanko/Jean Varda



”Yanko” Jean Varda was influenced by the major artistic movements of the twentieth century, such as Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism. He was an admirer of the bright colors used by Matisse and Bonnard and loved the drawings of the great artist Paul Klee. He was also inspired by the light and color of Byzantine icons.

Born to Greek parents in Smyrna in 1893, he spent his childhood between Smyrna, Alexandria, and Athens. As a teenager in Athens, he had a reputation as a “child prodigy” and paints portraits of famous Athenians.

In 1913 he went to Paris to study at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts. Soon his talent and charismatic personality were singled out by leading artists and intellectuals of the time – from Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henry Miller, and Anaïs Nin. In Paris he shared a studio with Georges Braque. When Picasso saw Varda’s works, he was said to have commented: “You are an academic painter. You are not a contemporary painter.” Varda quickly decided to shed his academic character by taking up surrealism and Dada. He moved to London during the First World War, becoming a ballet dancer at the Imperial Royal Ballet in London and associated with avant-garde personalities of the city.

In 1922 Varda returned to Paris and began to paint again. From 1923, he spent most of his summers in Cassis, in the south of France, sharing the Villa Les Mimosas house of painter, collector and art historian Roland Penrose. Villa Les Mimosas became a meeting place for well-known artists including Braque, Miró, Derain, Max Ernst, Roger Fry, Clive Bell, Duncan Grant, Gerald Brenan, Wolfgang Paalen and many others.

During the 1930s Varda developed a kind of mosaic that involved the use of pieces of broken mirrors. He would create scratches on the back of the mirror pieces and then paint bright colors on the scratches so that the color would show through on the front of the mirror and then glue the mirror pieces to a specially prepared surface.

He is becoming known in Europe as an innovative artist, witty and storyteller, and as someone who makes art out of his own life. “Varda’s mosaics share with his prose a quality of iridescence.” Manchester Guardian, London, 1938; “He has a very fine sense of color and an extraordinary feeling for the material with which he works. His work is as subtle as it is clever, as intellectual as it is decorative.” New Statesman and Nation, London 1938.

In 1940 he moved to Anderson Creek, Big Sur, California, and then to Monterey. In late 1943 he persuaded writer Henry Miller to move to Big Sur. In 1944 Miller wrote an article of admiration for Varda entitled “Varda the Master Builder,” which was published by Circle Magazine, a pioneering artand literature magazine in Berkley, published by George Leite. During the war years his Monterey home became a place of hospitality for artists, writers, and other creative people.

Through Henry Miller, Varda met the writer Anaïs Nin, and they became close friends and Nin often wrote for him. Her novel “Collages” includes a slightly fictionalized profile of Varda.

From 1943 he begins to move on to collages from his earlier mosaic/mirror images. Collage, which usually combined pieces of fabric and pieces of paper with paint on a panel, would remain his favorite medium for the rest of his life. In 1946 Varda was teaching at Black Mountain College, an experimental school in rural North Carolina. In the early 1950s Varda taught at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute.

Around 1948 Varda and British-born artist Gordon Onslow Ford acquired an old ferryboat named Vallejo. They permanently dock the Vallejo in Sausalito,a small settlement across the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco. Using materials salvaged from a closed wartime shipyard, they remodeled the ferry into a studio and residence for Varda.

Vallejo, which was renovated almost entirely from discarded materials, is described by Varda’s friend Maya Angelou as “a happy child’s dream castle”. Using cheap fabric dyes, Varda transformed old clothes into colorful costumes. His cheerfully painted sailboats had lived past lives as metal lifeboats. Varda transformed Vallejo into a kind of salon. He was an excellent cook and host, where he greeted guests with amazing stories and endless dinners. His costume parties had become famous at that time.

In 1967 Agnès Varda directs a short documentary entitled “Uncle Yanco”. Agnès Varda, who had never met Varda until she made the film, refers to him in the film as an uncle because of their age difference, but she was Varda’s younger first cousin. She was the daughter of Jean L. Varda, who was the brother of Varda’s father, Michel. The film explores his lifestyle, his ideologies, and his ties to the hippie subculture.

Varda was married three times: to Dorothy Varda in the 1920s, to Virginia Barclay from 1940 to about 1947 and to Chryssa Vardea-Mavromichali, from1955 to 1958. His granddaughter, Joui Turandot, is still alive today.

He has exhibited at the Oakland Art Museum, San Francisco Museum of Rental Art Gallery, New Arts Gallery in Houston, Texas, UCLA, Palo Alto, at Room at the Top Gallery, Martin Schwieg Gallery in St. Louis, Souza Gallery in Mexico, Stanford University. Varda died in 1971 of a heart attack upon his arrival by plane in Mexico. In the same year the De Young Memorial Museum holds the exhibition, which because of his death became a retrospective. In 1973 the Arts Festival ofSausalito is dedicated to Jean Varda.

His famous phrase ‘I wish to live in ecstasy’ is closely linked to the whole philosophy of art creation.



[1] Here the family tree is mentioned


Georgia Manolopoulou