We speak of women artists, we find we share a love for Frida Kahlo, Tamara de Lempicka, Remedios Varo.
Published posthumously (1970). From Surrealism: Desire Unbound, Jennifer Mundy, editor (London: Tate Publishing, 2001), p.306
The feathers do not all have to be white — they can be any colour, but be sure you avoid Guinea hen feathers, which sometimes provoke a state of prolonged nymphomania, or dangerous cases of priapism.
Put on corset, tighten well, and sit in front of the mirror. To relax your nerves, smile and try on the moustaches and hats, whichever you prefer (three-cornered Napoleonic, cardinal’s hat, lace cap, Basque beret, etc.).
Put the two clothes pins on a saucer and set it near the bed. Warm the calf’s livers in a water bath, but be careful not to boil. Use the warm livers in place of a pillow (in cases of masochism) or on both sides of the bed, within reach (in cases of sadism).
From Surrealism: Desire Unbound, Jennifer Mundy, editor (London: Tate Publishing, 2001), p.306
Often known, like many surrealist women painters, simply by her first name, Remedios Varo met the surrealist Benjamin Péret in Madrid in 1936. She went with him to Paris where from 1937 to 1942 they were both members of the surrealist group. In a later interview she recalled, ‘Yes, I attended those meetings where they talked a lot and one learned various things. My position was the timid and humble one of a listener; I was not old enough nor did I have the aplomb to face up to them, to a Paul Eluard, a Benjamin Péret, or an André Breton. There I was with my mouth gaping open within this group of brilliant and gifted people.’ During the Nazi occupation of France she and Péret escaped to Mexico, where they were active in the surrealist community that included Leonora Carrington and the poet Octavio Paz. They separated and Péret returned to Paris in 1947.
In Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst Varo cloaks the pseudo-science of psychoanalysis in a medieval setting, with the initials of its three fathers inscribed on the portal behind the central figure, ‘FJA’ standing for Freud, Jung and Adler. Varo uses the various associations of the veil to invoke seduction (Salome) and the idea of stripping to reach psychological or metaphysical truths. The woman is shrouded in a garment, which contains within it a mask, but her face is partly uncovered. Without a trace of hesitation or compunction, she drops a male disembodied head (Varo’s father’s? or, more likely, Péret’s?) down a well, which, Varo wrote, was ‘the proper thing to do when leaving the psychoanalyst’.
Varo transformed traditionally male mythic heroes into female form, creating, for example, a female Minotaur who holds a magical key before a mysterious floating keyhole. Although many of the characters in Varo’s paintings are androgynous or asexual, in these mythological transformations she was careful to delineate the female anatomy of her heroines.
Varo was not alone in exploring such symbols and transformations. In work by many of the women associated with the Surrealist movement there are references to women’s secret wisdom and special creative powers. This centrality of woman as a creative agent developed in seeming reaction to official Surrealist doctrine, which defined woman as muse and as object of male desire. The self-referential nature of work by the women Surrealists is most clearly apparent in the repeated self-portrait characters who (like those that bear Varo’s features) signal the artists’ intense quest for personal definition. Absorption with self-analysis is found throughout their work, explored in a series of narrative fantasies, not only in painting and sculpture but in writing as well.
In Caravan, Varo continued in the personal vein already begun in The Tower, building fantasy around autobiography. In this image a house on wheels, with pulleys and propellers, is peddled by a mysterious cloaked man who steers the curious vehicle through a lushly wooded landscape. Inside the house—which is filled with doorways and windows, each oriented toward a different direction—sits a woman at a piano. As Varo described it, ‘This caravan represents a true and harmonious home, inside of which there are all perspectives, and happily it goes from here to there, the man guiding it, the woman tranquilly making music’. This can be understood as a metaphor for Varo’s new-found security. Here, the woman, a musician, is safely inside an interior that radiates warmth, freed to concentrate on her art by the man who is outside, bundled up against the elements, guiding the progress of their home. The house travels ‘happily,’ the woman works ‘tranquilly,’ all expressions of the ease that Varo was now enjoying.
This use of fantastic vehicles as emblems for her personal dislocation had been a theme of her earlier work as well. The isolation of this vehicle, alone in a deep and misty woods, is reinforced by the isolation of the figures themselves—she inside, he out, facing away from each other and totally absorbed in separate activities. This theme of human isolation is one that Varo continued to explore: it is rare to find people in direct contact with one another in her work.
Varo repeatedly turned to music as a symbol of the wholeness she sought. In Harmony, she created the world of the composer, a quiet, dark, fecund world of diligent study. An androgynous figure whose features mirror Varo’s own sits in a medieval-looking study filled with the tools of the alchemist. Taking objects from a treasure chest—geometric solids, jewels, plants, crystals, handwritten formulas — the composer places them as notes onto a three-dimensional musical staff, creating from a chaos of possibilities the order that is music. Varo: ‘The person is trying to find the invisible thread that links everything and, for this reason, is skewering all kinds of things on a staff of metal threads’. Like Pythagoras searching for the secret harmony between music, nature, and mathematics, the composer looks to unite the abstract and the concrete with the intangibility of sound. Varo: ‘When he has succeeded in putting each of the diverse objects in its place, by blowing through the clef that supports the staff, a music should come out that is harmonious’. It is the breath of the musician, through the magical process of ‘inspiration,’ that sets up the vibrations of musical harmony.
Her 1956 solo exhibition had established Varo as a self-supporting artist who could sell whatever she wanted to paint. Yet in 1957, although she profoundly disliked making portraits, she took on commissions from two prominent Mexican families to paint portraits of their children.
In Daughters of the Arnus Family, Varo depicted two girls, one a preteen, the other an adolescent, as oversize figures in an elaborate seahorse boat. Gazing out apprehensively, the girls seem uncomfortably cramped, especially in contrast to the school of flying fish that darts beside the boat in the open air and water.
In Hairy Locomotion, danger is realized as a girl is kidnapped by a man lurking high above the street, who extends his long beard down around the corner to snatch her up as she passes. Three other men, identified in Varo’s notes as detectives dispatched to investigate the crime, are ludicrously ineffectual, hovering above the ground with their heads lost in clouds that look oddly like the fur hats worn by Hasidic Jews. Their beards, elongated and stiffened, have become the wheels on which they ride. For steering they use their handlebar mustaches, which have similarly lengthened and stiffened to cleverly serve the purpose stated by their name. The kidnapped girl, strikingly similar to the young Remedios, is not at all amused. The tension in her rigid body expresses her anxiety and is set against the inventive humor that Varo often used to mitigate the pain.
In Visit to the Plastic Surgeon, the veil is turned to a humorous purpose, serving as a diaphanous shield for the lengthy proboscis of a woman who surreptitiously rings the bell of a clinic in search of surgical help. As if to inspire confidence, the clinic window displays the doctor’s latest creation, a woman whose body has been modified by the addition of two extra sets of breasts. Dr. Jaime Asch, a Mexican plastic surgeon for whom this parody was painted, remembers endless discussions, only half in jest, in which Varo worried about the length of her nose and debated the potential benefits of cosmetic surgery.
For a portrait commission, Varo painted the prominent Mexican cardiologist Dr. Ignacio Chavez. Depicting the doctor as a kind of Svengalian figure, she dressed him ‘in somewhat priestly clothing to suggest that this profession is perhaps a kind of priesthood. In his hand he holds a key. The persons coming from the gorge have a little door in place of a heart and he winds them up as they pass by.’ In this comment on medicine’s godlike pretensions, Varo also derided the mindless way that patients, here little more than puppets, allow ‘authorities’ so much control.
These were far from traditional portraits, but Varo’s patrons must have expected something out of the ordinary in choosing her for their commissions. Even so, she did not enjoy the pressure of patrons’ expectations and soon began turning commissions down or conniving ways to drive them away. She much preferred to paint fantasy portraits of people she could invent herself.
In Breaking the Vicious Circle, the heroine seizes control and breaks free from passivity and restraint. With eyes wide and staring, as in a trance, she summons her strength to pull apart the rope that encircles her body. Electrified, her hair stands on end, charged by the energy of her act. As the ‘vicious circle’ is broken, a dense, green forest is revealed within her chest, the deep dwelling place of her unconscious, now made accessible. Accompanied by a bird, a Jungian symbol of transcendence, which nestles in the folds of the cloak at her feet, she has made a spiritual breakthrough.
The archaic torso in Rilke’s famous poem says to us: ‘change your life’. So do any poem, novel, play, painting, musical composition worth meeting. The voice of intelligible form, of the needs of direct address from which such form springs, asks: ‘What do you feel, what do you think of the possibilities of life, of the alternative shapes of being which are implicit in your experience of me, in our encounter?’ The indiscretion of serious art and literature and music is total. It queries the last privacies of our existence. This interrogation is no abstract dialectic. It purposes change. Early Greek thought identified the Muses with the arts and wonder of persuasion. As the act of the poet is met, as it enters the precincts—spatial and temporal, mental and physical—of our being, it brings with it a radical calling towards change.
John Everett Millais
Tamara de Lempicka
Nicolas de Staël
Hans Holbein, Younger
Vincent Van Gogh
Caspar David Friedrich
Leda and the Swan