The Characters of Anaïs Nin’s Collages: Jean Varda

Anaïs Nin’s last novel, Collages, is populated with several characters taken from real life. We are beginning a series of posts based on these personages, and we continue with the collage artist, Jean (Janko) Varda. In 1944, Henry Miller introduced Anaïs Nin to Varda by giving him one of her books. Varda was so impressed that he mailed a gift to Nin, feeling he’d found a kindred soul:

Women Reconstructing the World
Women Reconstructing the World

One morning what appeared in place of a letter was a big square package, one yard around. I opened it and it was a collage by Jean Varda. He calls it “Women Reconstructing the World.” …All of woman is enclosed in a dance of forms, squares, diamonds, rectangles, parallelograms of moods and sidereal delights, subtle harmonies and pliant mysteries. They are made of intangibles, lights and space, labyrinths, and molecules which may change as you look at them. Elusive and free of gravity. They bring freedom by transcendence. (Diary 3, 312-313)

Nin met Varda on her first trip to California with Rupert Pole in 1947. Varda, who was born in Greece, had lived in a “crumbling twenty-room mansion that constantly overflowed with penniless artists, and where he was often visited by Picasso, Braque, and Miró” in Cassis, France. He came to New York for an exhibition and then left (“New York is a city of angry people”) for California and was in Monterey at the time of Nin’s visit.

Nin says: I loved his laughing eyes, his warm, colorful voice, his bird profile, his sturdy body… Janko Varda is the only modern artist who creates not the sickly-sweet fairy tales of childhood but the sturdy fairy tales of the artist… Everything that came from his hands was more wonderful than its origin, whether it was a salad, a bedspread, a pillow cover, a curtain, a candelabrum, a candle, a books… He created his own world. (Diary 4, 216)

It is no wonder that Nin and Varda felt affinity for each other—both of them believed in woman’s role in the arts, and both of them had created their own way of life, their own “world.” Thus began a friendship that would last until Varda’s death in 1971.

The Vallejo
The Vallejo

Varda eventually moved to Sausalito, California, and lived in the decommissioned ferryboat Vallejo with Gordon Onslow Ford, a British artist, and later, after Ford was bought out, with Zen Buddhist promoter Alan Watts. The Vallejo was the scene of artistic gatherings, elaborate costume parties, and, of course, the creation of Varda’s art, which was composed of cast-off materials of all sorts.

Nin’s novel Collages takes its title from Varda’s art, and is composed of several loosely connected stories. Varda, one of the book’s primary characters, tries to convince his daughter that his way of looking at life is something she should embrace. When she resists him, he uses his storytelling skills to convince her otherwise:

…Varda told her another story: “There was a woman from Albania who was famous for her beauty. A young man from America came, very handsome, slim and blond and he paid court to her and said: ‘I love you because you remind me of a cousin of mine I loved when I was in school. You also remind me of a movie actress I always adored on the screen. I love you. Will you marry me?’ The Albanian girl took a small pistol out of her boot and shot him. When she was brought to trial the old Albanian judge listened with sympathy as she made her own defense. ‘Your honor, I have been humiliated several times in my life.’ ‘How could that be,’ said the judge, ‘you are such a beautiful woman.’ ‘Yes, your honor, it has happened. I was humiliated the first time by a man who left me waiting in church when we were to be married. He was in a car accident, it is true, but still in my family there is a tradition of unfailing courtesy about marriage ceremonies. The second time I was told by a Frenchman that I was too fat. The third time I was “clocked” by a policeman on a motorcycle. He said I had been speeding and I contradicted him and he said he had “clocked” me. Imagine that. But, your honor, I never killed before. You know Albanian pride. Until this American came and told me I reminded him of two other women, and that, your honor, was too much. He offended my uniqueness.’”

She shrugged her shoulders. “Women in Albania do not carry pistols in their boots. And who wants to be unique anyway? It’s a dated concept.”

It is not until the daughter takes LSD that she can experience Varda’s world.

In the spring of 1965, Nin records a short autobiography by Varda:

Varda in his studio, 1970
Varda in his studio, 1970

Facts: Born out of a woman, weight at birth 9 pounds and a half… Immediately out of the womb I started playing with laces on the bed from which my mother inferred that I would be forever irresistibly attracted to women and concerned with their apparel… Not museum will have any of my work. I am only represented in every home where taste, intelligence and all the refinements of the spiritual and physical voluptuousness are enthroned. But above all I am proud of Rexroth’s title for me: a boudoir painter… (Quoted in Diary 6, 374-375)

Varda died in Mexico, where he had intended on visiting a friend.

For more on Jean Varda, click here.

Sky Blue Press has published Collages as an e-book for the first time. It joins several other Nin titles on Kindle: The Winter of Artifice, Under a Glass Bell, Ladders to Fire, Children of the Albatross, A Spy in the House of Love, and Seduction of the Minotaur, and The Four-Chambered Heart, with others to follow. 

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