Sunday, 23 June 2013

Meraud Guevara, the 31 Women number twelve – her birthday is 24 June

 Born in 1904, Meraud Guevara was a British/Irish painter who made surrealist/magical realist images, portraits, landscapes, collage, still life and abstract compositions on plaster. She was also a writer & poet. Though brought up in England and the possessor of an Irish passport, Meraud Guevara spent almost her entire active career in France.

Meraud Guevara, C1920's

She was an imaginative, technically able painter who uncompromisingly lived the life of an artist, but before 1999 her career was un-examined and she doesn’t appear in published art histories.  A few early newspaper references describe her as a popular heiress who gave memorable dinner parties. This is very misleading, giving the impression that Meraud was a society hostess, when in fact she chose to live on the outer edge of bohemia. A report that she lived in a cave with gypsies is also inaccurate. So much for the press.

 By birth Meraud, whose name is Welsh, was part of a wealthy social elite. She was born Meraud Michael Guinness in London, into the hugely wealthy Guinness family. This society, including her own father, couldn’t comprehend a well-bred women, whose dismissal of correct forms of behaviour was as extreme as Meraud’s became.

 Meraud de Guevara was described by Buffie Johnson as one of a pair of “..runaway girls from distinguished British families.” (see below) Leonora Carrington was the other. She and Meraud were the only British born artists amongst the 31 Women.  Meraud frequently defied her parent’s wishes and was cut off by her father for 10 years, though they were later reconciled and her father then gave her a modest allowance. Under British law Meraud, as a woman, was not automatically an heiress, after their father’s death the family fortune went to her younger brother.

 Meraud Guevara’s story is so colourful that it is in danger of obscuring her art, although she is known to have painted more than 400 pictures, she is scarcely represented in public collections. Her influences included Picasso, Picabia and Giacometti but also Ingres and earlier classical works. She was never afraid to experiment and although her association with Picabia led to her being classed as a surrealist, this formed a fairly brief period in a long career.  In London there is one impressive painting hung at Tate Modern, as an artist she is otherwise forgotten. 

 Her art training was serious. Aged 19, she went to the Slade School of Art in London. Her tutor was the renowned teacher Henry Tonks, who had a fondness for the work of Ingres and taught his students the skills of draughtsmanship and anatomical drawing, though he expected them to use these skills as tools to pursue an individual search for style.   

 In 1926 Meraud went to New York for a year, where she was taught by cubist sculptor Alexander Archipenko. Though Meraud Guevara was not a sculptor, Archipenko’s work with the human figure in space was to influence her later paintings, giving her own two dimensional figures the solidity of sculpture. She wrote monthly articles for Vogue magazine, comparing life in London and New York. She later attended classes at Academy Julien and La Grande Chaumiere in Paris and had more informal lessons with Francis Picabia and Pierre Tal-Coat.

 Meraud was set on a career as an artist with parental approval and seems to have been relatively well behaved until her mid-twenties. Then she met painter Christopher (Kit) Wood in the South of France and they eloped to Paris. Her father’s disapproval led to the failure of this relationship and it’s likely that Meraud had more lasting effect on Wood than he did on her.

 She rebelled again by moving in with former Dadaist Francis Picabia and his second wife Germaine, who lived near Cannes. She made an impression on Germaine, arriving in her hand painted Citroen with a large dog and a cockatoo. Picabia too was impressed, he took Meraud on as his protégé, his model and his mistress. He produced a painting of three women, showing Meraud, Germaine and Olga Mohler, his children’s nanny, an extraordinary boast of his ménage a quatre.

 As a teacher, Picabia expanded Meraud’s artistic outlook, encouraging her to look beyond the classicism she had been tutored in and experiment with collage and non-naturalistic styles. He introduced her to Marcel Duchamp and other members of the avant-garde including Cocteau, Leger, Picasso and Isadora Duncan. He also arranged her first solo exhibition at the Galerie van Leer in Paris.  Picabia wrote the introduction to Meraud’s exhibition catalogue and she reciprocated, writing a preface for an exhibition of his, in New York.

 When she arrived in Paris on the first of December 1928 to supervise the hanging of her paintings at Galerie Van Leer, the previous exhibitor was there, taking down his own paintings. This was the Chilean born portrait painter Alvaro de Guevara, coincidentally also an ex-Slade student.  After less than three months they were married in London.  Meraud’s parents gave their guarded approval to this high born and apparently wealthy South American, he certainly seemed a better bet than Kit Wood.

 Although both Alvaro and Meraud created portraits, there’s no indication that they greatly influenced each other’s work; Alvaro painted the Bloomsbury set, he favoured a broadly representational, expressionist style with conventional use of paint on canvas. His 1929 portrait of Meraud, painted in the weeks after their wedding, shows her sitting in a large armchair, with her bare feet on the seat and her elegant hands draped over raised knees.  She wears a smart hat, in contrast with her informal posture and bare feet, indicating her dislike of the social norms.

 Meraud, under the influence of Picabia, was still experimenting with fantasy and with surrealist collage. The work she had exhibited at Galerie van Leer included La Sirene, a large painting of a mermaid with an entourage of fantastical fish, though this may have been the most conventional picture there. Her portrait of Picabia showed his face painted twice, on canvas and on a separate cellophane layer and stuck with pins. The portrait of Picabia’s young son Lorenzo was more sympathetic, with painted and collaged silhouettes of dogs surrounding the boy. Other portraits also used mixed media including string and postage stamps. Meraud achieved several sales from this exhibition although it was described as ‘somewhat unusual’ by an obviously bewildered social correspondent and art critics too were uncertain what to make of this latest exponent of ‘Surrealist madness’. Only later in New York did her work achieve positive acclaim.

The months immediately after they settled in Paris were the time when press society pages remarked on the Guevaras’ dinner parties, which were more informal than implied and involved their friends from the artistic avant-garde, one evening included writers Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, painters Pierre Tal-Coat, Picasso & surrealist sculptor Giacometti.  Meraud painted Stein’s portrait, in a style reminiscent of Picasso's portrait of Stein from twenty years earlier. Gertrude Stein was no feminist and allied herself with male creativity, however she is reported to have declared of Meraud Guevara, “Paint is She!” The exact context for this remark remains unclear.

The Guevara’s married idyll was dented in January 1930 when Meraud’s mother died, and their life together did not survive long after the arrival of their daughter, Alladine late in 1931. By this time the Guevaras had moved from their small studio to a larger Paris home, with servants. This was all paid for by Meraud’s father, which Alvaro would not have been entirely happy about. They spent days painting murals on the walls and holding outrageous parties.

Meraud was not domesticated and Alvaro, whose own very proper Chilean upbringing dominated his thinking, had rather rigid ideas of a mother’s duties. Alvaro’s bisexuality added to his confusion, though he had confessed all to Meraud, who was tolerant and forgiving. All this combined to give Alvaro rather unrealistic expectations of his highly unconventional wife. He tended to put women on pedestals and became jealous and violent at any tiny admiration she received. Meraud liked young men, gay and straight, and no pedestal suited her.

During the Guevaras’ summer vacation in 1932, Meraud left Alvaro and the baby and set up home with Provencal artist Martin Roch. Alvaro had always been prone to depression, after challenging Roch to a duel, he stopped painting and drank himself into oblivion. Benjamin Guinness arranged for his granddaughter to be rescued and cared for by a nanny. Once Alvaro surfaced from his despair, he began visiting his daughter at week-ends. He did not see Meraud there, Benjamin had disowned her.

Meraud and Roch took a Provencal farmhouse where conditions were primitive, with no electricity or running water; Meraud relished the challenge.  She lived a rustic life for a number of years, painting and acquiring many animals as house guests. Several of Roch’s relations shared the house, acting partly as housekeepers, also sponging on Meraud’s supposed fortune.  At some stage Roch himself left, meanwhile Meraud continued to write to Alvaro and he wrote back.  They were never divorced; Meraud despised the legal process required.

In 1939, the Germans invaded Poland.  Meraud and Alvaro were both, for once, in agreement with her father; Alladine, now eight, should be moved from Europe to safety in Canada. Meraud chose to remain in southern France. Alvaro, under the illusory safety of being a neutral Chilean, remained in Paris for three years after the German’s invaded France. After being arrested and seeing his studio destroyed, Alvaro became depressed and paranoid. He was repatriated to Chile in 1943.

Meraud had sent paintings to her sister Tanis in the USA and in April 1939 she had a solo exhibition at Valentine Gallery in New York. The 26 paintings shown were well received, Meraud had drawn back from the most radical surrealist ideas, her paintings were compared to Balthus. Today, comparison with Balthus, painter of young girls in compromising poses might be considered a dubious compliment for a woman artist. Meraud Guevara’s substantial figure paintings and ‘fantasy portraits’ of Giotto-esque adult women bear no obvious comparison with the adolescent ingénues of Balthus. Time Magazine gave a complimentary review emphasising her simplified interpretation of a largely classical style. Despite their simplicity there is nothing naïve about Meraud’s strong, calm women, who seem self-contained if lonely, their mystery leads to them sometimes being classed as Magic Realism.

Although her work proved popular in New York, including at the 31 Women Exhibition, Meraud stayed in Europe. She lived on the edge of the war in Switzerland and France, largely protected from interference by her fluency in the French language and her neutral Irish passport.  She met Alvaro briefly in 1945 in London, where he had been appointed as Chilean Consul after the war ended. He then went to Berne, Switzerland while Meraud moved back down to Aix-en-Provence where, funded once again by her father, she set up a top floor studio in town. She returned to the Bohemian life which was her preference, painting during daylight hours and entertaining friends with wine and her famous pot-au-feu in the evenings.

In December 1947, Benjamin Guinness died, aged eighty; Meraud’s brother Loel was now in charge of the family fortune. Though he was less judgemental of his unconventional sister, he decided that Meraud should now take responsibility for her daughter. Sadly, nobody thought to consult sixteen year old Alladine who, while mourning her grandfather, was removed from the finishing school where she had only just settled and dispatched to Aix with her mother. There followed a difficult time for Alladine, with no friends her own age. In Berne, Alvaro was leading a lonely life as Chilean cultural attaché, with nothing to do except write a novel. He was ill once again and Meraud decided the more convivial environment of southern France would help him. He took a flat near to Meraud and Alladine and his depression lessened.

From 1948 Meraud became involved with the local artists, including Tal-Coat whom she had known before the war.  In 1950 she had a joint exhibition with Balthus, continuing the unexpected juxtaposition of their work. She also participated in a number of group exhibitions, showing with artists including Salvador Dali, Martin Roch, Talcoat and 31 Women exhibitor Leonor Fini, but she did not have another solo show until 1959.  She began experimenting with fresco techniques and her later works included abstract frescoes, landscapes and statuesque still lifes, far removed from her former surrealist experimentation.

With a contribution from her brother, Meraud bought ‘La Tour de Cesar’, a derelict property near Aix with land but no mod cons, not even a cooking stove. Undeterred, Meraud moved in with Alladine, a small horse to provide transport on the unmade entrance track and Alladine’s large brown dog. These animals and others gradually provided the bridge between mother and daughter, whose very different lives had held them apart for so long.

Over the next few years the property was modernised and Alvaro again became an integral part of Meraud and Alladine’s lives, though they still lived separately. Then Alvaro became terminally ill with cancer. During his final months he moved into Meraud’s now renovated home where she cared for him until he died in  October 1951. Alvaro Guevara was buried in a nearby country churchyard and Meraud designed and hand painted a majolica mosaic to cover his grave. She also arranged two successful, posthumous exhibitions of his work in London.  Meraud continued to live and paint at La Tour de Cesar, exhibiting her work locally throughout the 1950’s and 60’s. She experimented with collage and with fresco techniques, in 1959 exhibiting a series of gestural abstract works on plaster in a solo exhibition in London.

She remained sociable, visited Paris frequently and recorded the exhibitions she saw here in her diary which she kept from 1956. She continued to see old friends including, Pierre and Bronica Talcoat, Lucien Freud, Jean Dubuffet, Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia and Roberto Matta and make new ones such as poet Allan Ginsberg. For more than a decade from 1950, surrealist author David Gascoyne stayed with her on and off. He had been a rebel at an even younger age than Meraud, absconding to Paris aged only 17 and like Alvaro Guevara before him, Gascoyne was bisexual and suffered from crippling depression. He retreated to La Tour de Cesar and Meraud’s care every summer and whenever Paris became too much for him. Sometimes Gascoyne became too much for Meraud, he once tried to strangle her.

Gascoyne eventually returned to England for treatment, Meraud lived alone although she kept busy and was far from a recluse. She often visited Paris and at La Tour de Cesar had constant visits from friends and family as well as the companionship of her many animals. She stopped painting in 1986 and due to illness moved permanently to Paris, where she died in 1993. Her daughter and grandson son placed Meraud’s ashes in the grave with Alvaro.

Meraud Guevara’s colourful life may have dismayed her family, but her joi de vivre and generosity is recorded in her daughter’s biography, published in France in 2007. Her best works are her magical-realist portraits of monumental, mysterious women, some based on her friend Bronica Talcoat.  Meraud’s art is represented by her powerful portrait, Seated Woman with Small Dog 1937, which is displayed in the surrealist gallery at Tate Modern in London.


Sources include:-
Guevara, Alladine   2007    Meraud Guinness Guevara, Ma Mere  (biography)

Johnson, Buffie       1943   Women in Art - the Embattled Woman Artist         s                                                                                  (essay - not published until 1997)                                               


 You can read about each of the 31 women as their birthdays arrive, earlier ones will remain on this blog. Just click the 'Project 31 Women' label below to see the others.


  1. Very interesting! I read Alladine's book about her mother, it describes a woman with no maternal instinct, who never cared about the well-being of her only daughte

  2. Thanks Anneliese. I've read Alladine's book too. Meraud certainly seemed to be a woman who had no concept that children's needs are different to those of adults, or that she should sacrifice anything herself to care for her child. I suppose it was her wealthy upbringing, in a family where children were almost exclusively cared for by nannies not mothers.
    Can I ask if you've seen any of Meraud's paintings anywhere, the only one I've seen is 'Seated Woman with Small Dog' in Tate Modern in London. I'd love to see more of them.

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  4. Thanks, Sue, for such a complete and scholarly background on Meraud Guevara. In the 1970s, my wife and I acquired a painting by her which we would love to research more thoroughly. It is a portrait of perhaps an African woman, nude from the waist up, upper arms decorated with rope wound about, wearing what looks like a shell necklace and beaded headband. The background is quite surreal, dark clouds drifting across a pale blue sky. She has quite a powerful and regal quality.

  5. Thank you Sue for this important piece of scholarship. I met Meraud in Aix in the 60s, when staying with Francois Hugo, the goldsmith to Picasso, Arp, Ernst & co. Francois too was a friend of Picabia. Meraud was introduced to me as someone who had been close to Matthew Smith. At that time the Chilean film producer Octavio Señoret Guevara was living at le Tour de Cesar. Meraud told us that twice a year, she had an articulate lorry struggle up the track to the house to deliver cans of cat food for the army of strays whom she looked after. Francois Hugo made her a bracelet that resembled a splash of molten silver dropped on her wrist. It had four claws to hold a huge uncut ruby. Meraud was a lady of of fierce creativity and tremendous elegance.

    1. Hello - could you tell me/us more about Octavio during that time? He is my mothers brother.

    2. Thanks Alsekers, I wish I could have met Meraud, she was so interesting to research.

  6. Really good research, in particular about Alvaro Guevara (my great uncle). Thanks for that.

    1. Thanks Dlafourc. Have you read the biography about Alvaro Guevara, 'Latin Among Lions' by Diana Holman Hunt? I used it for some of my research, it has plenty of fascinating information about Alvaro and Meraud Guevara. I would be interested to know how accurate it is from your family point of view.