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 bright colors used by Matisse and Bonnard and loved the drawings of the renowned 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 he painted portraits of famous Athenians.

In 1913 he went to Paris to study at L'Ecole des Beaux Arts. His talent and charismatic personality caught the attention of leading artists and intellectuals of the time, including Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henry Miller, and Anaïs Nin. In Paris he shared a studio with Georges Braque. When Picasso saw Varda's works, it is 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, Yanko Jean Varda returned to Paris to resume his career as a painter. From 1923, he spent most of his summers in Cassis, in the south of France, sharing the Villa Les Mimosas house of Roland Penrose, a painter, collector, and art historian. 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, Yanko Jean Varda developed a unique form of mosaic art that involved the use of pieces of broken mirrors. He would first create scratches on the back of the mirror pieces, then paint bright colors on the scratches so that the color would show through on the front of the mirror, and finally glue the mirror pieces to a specially prepared surface.

In Europe, Yanko Jean Varda is becoming known as an innovative artist, witty storyteller, and someone who makes art out of his own life. According to a review in the Manchester Guardian in 1938, 'Varda's mosaics share with his prose a quality of iridescence.' The New Statesman and Nation, also in London in 1938, described Varda's work as 'as subtle as it is clever, as intellectual as it is decorative.

In 1940, he moved to Anderson Creek in Big Sur, California, and later to Monterey. In late 1943, he persuaded the 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 art and literature magazine in Berkeley, California, published by George Leite. During the war years, Varda's 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. Nin often wrote for him, and 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 [1]. 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, from 1955 to 1958. His granddaughter, Joui Turandot, is still alive today [2].

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 of Sausalito 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] The family tree is mentioned here


Georgia Manolopoulou