The Magic of Remedios Varo

at the Mexican Fine Arts Center

Museum, through August 20

By Janina A. Ciezadlo

This summer the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum hosts a traveling retrospective, curated in Mexico, of captivating, subversive work by an important 20th-century woman artist, “The Magic of Remedios Varo.” Each of the 77 detailed, meticulous paintings and drawings on display offers a window on the Catalan-born Varo’s complicated vision of an occult world. Her works are an arcane catalog of stairways, hallways, towers, and moats. Walls dissolve into ruffles; a woman spoon-feeds the moon. There are odd conveyances: gazebos on wheels and little boats like soupspoons with buttons and paddle wheels.

Remedios Varo lived during interesting times among interesting people. She was a surrealist, a full member of an anarchic Camelot that called for systematic revolution against the chaos produced by such institutions as government and religion. For the surrealists, the rationality on which Western civilization was based–long viewed as instrumental in safeguarding order–was responsible for the anguish and destruction produced by World War I. The surrealists’ exaltation of the unconscious, of dreams and the irrational, was not a regressive or even ironic rejection of a stable world but an utterly reasonable critique of a world gone mad. Varo’s fantastically detailed dioramas do not exclude the real world–they reveal its inverse, investigating the repressed forces that determine our so-called rational decisions.

The surrealists were not aesthetes: they participated in the Spanish civil war, the French resistance, and the international meetings of the communist party. Rejecting the Catholic church, they substituted what French poet Andre Breton called the “marvelous,” a magical “absolute reality” that transcended everyday life. They connected banal day-to-day order with Nazism; the tedium of trains running on time was inseparable from the logical, efficient organization that mobilized the German troops and produced death camps.

Varo, born in 1908, discovered surrealism in art school in Madrid, where she refined her impressive technical skills. After graduating in 1931 she traveled–often unwillingly because of the wars–back and forth between Barcelona and Paris learning about surrealism, playing the famous surrealist games, and becoming romantically entangled with many men, eventually gaining access to surrealism’s inner circle through an affair with French poet Benjamin Peret. In 1941 Varo, Peret, and other controversial artists like Breton fled Europe for Mexico. (There’s a compelling photograph of these three and other surrealists in Marseilles in Janet A. Kaplan’s biography Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys: they’re auctioning their artwork to one another outside a hotel, making sure everyone has food and shelter while they wait for passage.)

Contradictions haunted postwar artists and intellectuals: taking any position could implicate them in a maze of argument. The 1950s, when Varo produced most of her mature work, were notable for their turn inward, as artists produced images of existential loneliness and embattled individualism in the wake of civilization’s great failure. The surrealists, however, did not abandon the marvelous for the absurd, and magic, eroticism, and a sense of possibility continued to inform their work; female surrealists in particular tried to retrieve their connection with an alternate history.

Varo was not a feminist as we would define feminism today. But she and other surrealist women artists–and there were many, since it was a movement particularly open to women–did explore socially imposed divisions of gender, not to gain independence from men but to participate in a radical revision of perception and experience. Artist Leonora Carrington–who came to America with Max Ernst (escaping the Vichy government) and worked with Varo in Mexico–Leonor Fini, Dorothea Tanning, and Kay Sage not only painted but wrote poetry and fiction documenting their investigations into the feminine unconscious during the 40s and 50s.

Varo’s exile in Mexico–which lasted until her death in 1963, when she suffered a heart attack–proved a fertile, productive time for her art. While cold war politics defined foreign relations and sometimes shut down progressive ideas in the United States and Europe, Varo perfected a detailed architecture of the feminine consciousness. At first her works seem less surreal than fantastic, more a disturbingly well-wrought eccentric fantasy than a marvel dependent on chance juxtaposition. Walking through the exhibit is like touring a somewhat melancholy, frightening dollhouse. Her paintings depict sorcerers, alchemists, bird people, and many variations on an autobiographical character who experiments with causality and the forces of nature. Using such surrealist techniques as pressing paper over wet paint to form a texture and making patterns with the smoke of a candle, Varo sought not to subvert conscious control but to give her mysterious spaces an organic depth, producing curious affinities among walls, flesh, and forests–a merging of categories. While the paintings seem precise illustrations of an alternative world, that too was part of surrealism; when Varo died, Breton made Varo’s place in the surrealist canon perfectly clear: “Surrealism claims totally the work of the enchantress too soon gone.”

In a 1956 painting called Vuelo magico o Zanfonia (translated in the catalog as “Magic Flight”), Varo appropriates and inverts the story of Icarus, redefining women’s nature. Varo pictures Icarus as a woman in a tailored cutaway suit with wings, flying like a kite at the edge of a ruined roofless building, connected to the earth by strings spiraling from a musical instrument in the lap of a woman seated on the ground. Her flight, unlike Icarus’s, seems tentative and mothlike rather than exhilarating. The sky over the building is inky black–no sun to melt her wings–and the flight takes place inside rather than outside the building’s labyrinth. The woman attempting to fly is graceful, with a tiny waist and feet and tiny hands in white gloves, and her serious expression indicates that she’s not being carried away with the thrill of flying as Icarus was.

The moth-colored suit jacket seems masculine, as if gender were a garment put on as demanded by the occasion. Yet there’s something feminine about the wings, which are like a cape fitted with struts extending from the coat’s collar: this flight seems less a feat of engineering than of costuming. These days many think of gender more as a performance than as an innate difference, but for Varo to see matters this way in 1956 was a radical feat. Though there’s a sweetness to her dollhouse world, the longer we examine her images, the more apparent her critique of received notions becomes.

The woman on the ground playing the musical instrument, shaped like a lute though it has a crank, is dressed like a gypsy in similarly moth-colored clothing, here figured with fleurs-de-lis, her head and upper body draped. Her face is a moonlike disk of mother-of-pearl on which Varo has drawn or incised features–it’s so tiny it’s hard to tell. A 1959 drawing in silky graphite and red chalk, Aprendiz de Icaro (“Icarus’s Apprentice”), replaces this mothlike gypsy woman with actual moths, confirming Varo’s reformulation of the myth. The space in the drawing is much tighter: the apprentice–clearly the same androgynous woman as in the painting–is in a hallway that narrows behind her. She’s supported by strings attached to nine large moths surrounding her. In one arched window is a lighted candle on a table, in another is a dead tree branch; roots seem to be growing through cracks in the walls. Not only does Varo conflate the themes of Icarus and the sorcerer’s apprentice–another hapless initiate into the mysteries of power–she inverts the Icarus myth from day to night and connects it with nature rather than engineering. One can’t help thinking of Robert Graves (The White Goddess was a favorite of Varo’s close friend Leonora Carrington), who argued that conflicts between the female (earth, moon, Hecate) and male (sun, air, Apollo) energized Greek mythology. One wonders if the woman is being drawn to the flame by the moths, an Icarian fate of sorts perhaps determined by her gender.

Varo’s cosmos sometimes seems dark, precise, limited, and arcane. But many paintings both embody her themes and motifs well and are open enough to allow even the uninitiated viewer access. Naturaleza muerta resuscitando (“Still Life Reviving”), from 1963, is a very strong image. A round table in the middle of a round room (a Varo favorite) holds a single candle. Eight elliptical white plates and various fruits arrayed in concentric circles are whirling in a vortex above the table. A pomegranate and some other fruits have burst open, and two halves of an orange come together; tiny plants sprout where seeds have dropped on the floor. The tablecloth (Varo uses cloth and drapery in many images, notably in a painting where a group of ethereal ladies are sewing the earth’s mantle) is moving in a clockwise spiral and floating up at the edges. Animating the cloth, Varo challenges dualistic ideas about animate beings and inanimate objects. And by aligning the spiraling fruit like the solar system or an atomic diagram, she connects it with her other paintings that refer to astronomy and physics: Creation of the Birds, Phenomenon of Weightlessness, Weaving of Space and Time.

During the years that Varo was painting her ruminations on science and energy, U.S. schoolchildren were crawling under their desks in preparation for atomic bombings. Yet Varo set her paintings in an old world. The table with its whirling revivified fruit and plates sits in a tight space with ogival arches and a spiral staircase, perhaps a tower or subterranean passage in a cathedral. Varo in her way returns to the church, seemingly intimating that the drama and mystery of the cosmos and the self can still be found within its architecture, social forms, and premodern vision of space and time. The Spanish phrase “naturaleza muerta” originally referred to the genre of still-life paintings that portrayed dead game, and Varo’s wordplay implies that our narrow vision of the cosmos has suffocated objects that have an unseen, uncanny vitality.

It’s not a new idea–alchemists, magicians, poets, mystics, and even some contemporary scientists have held it. But Varo fashioned a complex, fastidiously detailed world from her ideas, delicately and deftly represented in her symbols and motifs. Her subjective vision might seem merely eccentric if it weren’t for the fact that she was working with others to explore a repressed feminine consciousness and liberate the imagination, using a means suppressed by Western rationalism.