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Remedios Varos ... Essay by "clever clogs" Brad Epps ...

 BRAD EPPS    Essay on Remedios Varo without the extras.


Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2, 2003

The Texture of the Face: Logic, Narration, and Figurative Details in Remedios Varo



“El tema secreto de su obra: la consonancia — la paridad perdida.”

Octavio Paz

“Pintó problemas.”

Max Aub


 Countering Logic 

I might wish, contrary to all logic, that the images of Remedios Varo could speak for themselves. 

Contrary to all logic, I might wish that language were capable of drawing; that what can be said could be seen, not just as letters but as pictures, and that in speaking, in writing, the voice and the body could be brought forth and recorded in all their substantive complexity. I might so wish, contrary to all logic.  For to wish so is to wish what Remedios Varo herself supposedly wished. 

Varo, in this view, makes visible the desire to do the impossible and to fuse what cannot be fused entirely: the spiritual and the corporeal, as in Las almas de los montes (1938); the internal and the external, as in La lec¸on d’anatomie (1935); the spectacle and the spectator, as in La hermosura (1958).  



Las almas de los montes (1938)



La lec¸on d’anatomie (1935)




La hermosura (1958).  

Fusion—or indeed synthesis, union, or harmony—is one of the most conspicuous objectives of Remedios Varo’s art. Such, at any rate, is what many critics maintain as they invoke Varo’s desire to capture the unity of nothing less than the cosmos, a desire ostensibly given form in, among other works, Papilla estelar (1958), in which a woman spoon-feeds a caged crescent moon with ground stardust.

Another view, however, is less triumphant: the desire to capture cosmic unity and to fuse what cannot be logically fused presupposes a lack, even a limitation.  To wish, or desire, that Varo’s images speak for themselves is thus to suggest, in the words of Juliana González, that “ningún ‘discurso’ o explicación conceptual agota la significación de la imagen y que el valor estrictamente pictórico, estético, es en verdad irreductible”. 

But if images cannot be reduced to words, neither can words be reduced to images. Accordingly, to wish for such articulate imagery, for the fusion of word and image, for something like the disappearance of one into another, is to signal not only a differential rift, but also, just possibly, the impossibility of overcoming it. It may be to signal, that is, the impossibility of thinking contrary to all logic. 

The problem of logic, fusion, and (im)possibility that I have been delineating is motivated by the history of Varo’s production and its critical reception.  In 1936, Varo participated in the “Logicophobic Exposition,” sponsored by the Amics de l’Art Nou (ADLAN) and celebrated in Barcelona. 

 According to the artist’s niece, Beatriz Varo, the logicophobic group “tenía como punto de partida el horror a la lógica y a la razón, como lo corrobora la palabra lógicofobismo.  Los teóricos de la exposición, [Magí Albert] Cassanyes sobre todo, parten de la dialéctica de Hegel.  La finalidad última era plasmar el mundo metafísico, es decir, el lado interno y espiritual del hombre” — and, I might add, of woman.  For Beatriz Varo, the Hegelian inflected fear of logic was “el punto de partida [de Remedios] hasta el final de sus días”. 

Now, two things, at least, merit mention: the Logico-phobic invocation of Hegel, the master dialectical logician, in order to resist logic; and Beatriz Varo’s invocation of a teleological trajectory — which here nonetheless undergirds consistency, even self-sameness — to account for the life and art of Remedios.  The ghost of sublation haunts both the Logico-phobic desire for the fusion of the physical and the metaphysical, and, just as interestingly, a biographic impulse, not limited to Varo’s niece, that constitutes a logical delimitation of Varo’s art.  For part of the (im)possibility of thinking contrary to logic is the (im)possibility of thinking contrary to a rationale according to which the narrative of an artist’s life and the image of an artist’s face function as the graphic guarantees of figurative art. 

The abstract nature of the preceding reflections should not obscure the decidedly more concrete, representational, and figurative qualities of Varo’s art.  Through a careful, controlled, and detailed technique, almost academic in its logic, Varo points to a fusion still and always to come.  She points to fusion, as noted, by way of a visible lack of fusion, signified in the persistence of limits, borders, discrete forms, and identifiable figures.  Even in Mimetismo (1960), in which a mousy figure seated in a chair mimics the form of the chair (her arms and legs appear carved; her face, upholstered), a principle of discrimination remains in place; otherwise, it would be impossible to recognize “chair,” “figure” or, for that matter, “mimesis.” 


Varo’s technique bears an affinity to that of René Magritte, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dalí, an artist who was generally just as adamant in his rejection of abstraction as in his celebration of classical realism, mannerism, and even academicism.  Varo, who eschews the decay, erosion, and collapse that Dalí cultivated, has been more readily anthologized as a surrealist than as a logico-phobist, albeit one who “comes into her own” in the mid-fifties in Mexico—a country celebrated by surrealists—long after the first wave of surrealism. 

It is on Varo’s “Mexican period” — what Fernando Martín Martín calls her “década prodigiosa” — that I will be focusing in what follows, in large measure because it is then that she enjoys the stability that allows her to devote herself to her art.  Before then, Varo was buffeted by war, exile, and some of the dominant personalities of the avant-garde; after arriving in Mexico, she spent a number of years working commercially, producing images for advertisements (as in Dolor reumático [1948] for Bayer Laboratories).  Her participation in the Logico-phobic movement bears noting, nevertheless, for it is through it that she entered into contact with an artistic milieu whose impact on her, as a woman, was arguably as stimulating as it was stifling.



Surviving as little more than a footnote in the history of modern art, Logico-phobism is consonant with a general avant-garde critique of logic and reason, all too often assimilated to surrealism, even in its failures the most successful of the avant-garde movements.  Part of the success and failure of surrealism is its attention to figurative detail and to the narrativity, literariness, or anecdote implied therein.  Many surrealist paintings and drawings are, as Antoine Compagnon remarks, literary, “favouring representation, if only that of fantasies, instead of exploring the possibilities of the medium”. 

Compagnon may be too sharp in his assertion that surrealism does not explore the possibilities of the medium, but he is right to observe the obvious: surrealism does indeed favour representation, however oneiric or fantastic.  In contrast, abstract art, which Dalı´ reviled and Varo avoided, does not only not favour figural representation, it positively repudiates it. 

As Compagnon puts it, in abstraction, “form frees itself from content to the point of becoming its own content, or better still it abolishes the distinction between form and content”.  In the same sweep, abstract art eschews narrativity by eschewing mimesis or, more precisely, by eschewing the significant details by which reality is presumably represented.  “In the realm of [abstract] art,” Compagnon declares with regards to Malevich, “the stripping away of detail is based on the conviction that truth resides in the void”.  The truth in and of the void, no less than the voiding of truth, is high-sounding, highly abstract stuff, but it does not require abstraction.  Remedios Varo also confronts truth and the void, but she does so not by obviating mimesis, stripping away detail, and eschewing narrativity, but by mining them for all they are worth.   

And yet, I am getting ahead of myself.  Before the question of the void, I had introduced the question of fusion, which in some respects is the culmination of the void, its fulfilment, or, alternatively, its deepening: in fusion, after all, the distinction between form and content is, as in abstract art, abolished.  This latter observation, in which fusion is likened to a void, should give us pause before endorsing, in any essential way, an absolute — and rather tired — divide between abstract and representational art.  That said, Varo’s art is, even in its conceptual abstractions, profoundly representational.  It may be strange and uncanny, but its strangeness and uncanniness reside precisely, as Freud well knew, in something familiar.  

The familiar involves an array of pictorial procedures, which González summarizes as “la inagotable inventiva arquetectónica, la fascinación por las perspectivas, las verticalidades, las formas geométricas, los alargamientos góticos, los ritmos de arcadas, columnas, pisos, árboles y ríos; el perfeccionamiento del dibujo, de la composición, de las luces y las transparencias, de las texturas y los acabados”.  The familiar also involves quotidian themes and interior scenes, from sewing and shopping to playing music and eating, rendered strange by all sorts of esoteric details and juxtapositions.  

Strangely familiar too is the sense of movement in many of the paintings.  For Varo’s paintings, necessarily static in their materiality, also figure fusion as an objective by evoking movement, rupture, and various modes of emergence and by problematizing the containment and the content of frame and canvas.  Movement is evoked, for example, in Varo’s last completed painting, Naturaleza muerta resucitando (1963), which depicts fruits, silver plates, and a tablecloth spinning around a lit candle.  



Some of the fruits are depicted in collision, spewing forth blood red seeds that trace a path to the floor, from which plants spring.  The depicted objects, animatedly inanimate, are centred even as they are decentred, for the candle is in the middle of the table in the middle of the canvas. Here, then, the limits of the frame of the canvas are respected, but the stillness of the still life, the death of the “dead nature,” is not. The transience and fragility of being traditionally associated with still life are maintained, but a certain vital persistence is stressed.  

The spiral formation resembles textbook depictions of the solar system, but also recalls the architectonic spirals of Tránsito en espiral (1962).  Janet Kaplan refers to the “religious tone of this cosmic resurrection … reinforced by the architecture [in the background], with its successive ogival arches capping an intimate chapel-like space”.  Emphasizing Jungian influences, Gloria Durán sees the painting as containing “the mandala symbolism of wholeness, the circle and the square (or in this case its numerical representation in the four arches)”.  



Varo painted few still lives, even in “reanimated” form.  Much more frequently, her works present humanoid figures, primarily androgynous and feminine, in apparent movement or elaborate means of movement, as in Vagabundo (1957).



In painting after painting, figures break barriers and rupture frames, leave one space to enter another, as in Ruptura (1955),



 and emerge from walls, fabrics, and canvases, as in Les mure´s (1958),



… in La llamada (1961),


… in Nacer de nuevo (1960), …



… and Luz emergente (1962)  

I will come to some of these figures, but first I want to linger on other figures, figures of impossible, yet ever so evocative fusion.  

Alchemy and esoteric sciences, Sufi mysticism and Zen Buddhism, mythology, magic, and mathematics, the psychoanalysis of Jung and the philosophy of Gurdjieff: all inform Remedios Varo’s art.  For some, the references may amount to so much “pseudoreligious gobbledygook”, as Compagnon says of Mondrian.  But for others, including Varo, these modes of knowledge give a measure of what the artist called “[la] interdependencia de los objetos”.  Such objective inter-dependence encompasses the technical, physiological, and symbolic lens — most notably, the eye, but also microscopes, telescopes, magnifying glasses, spectacles, and other visual aids—through which an object is recognized as such by a subject.  Varo gives shape and colour to the interdependence of objects and subjects.  

As in Mimetismo, in many of Varo’s works, the limits between one thing and another are blurred, though never erased.  A hooded pilgrim carrying a walking stick assumes the form of a rocky landscape (El camino árido, 1962); 


… another is a shadow (Fenómeno, 1962)

...  and still another, a spinner, is wrapped up in a floor (La ciencia inútil, o El alquimista, 1958).  

Some personages, sucking watermelons, roses, and tomatoes, hold a bizarre relation with what nourishes them (Vampiros vegetarianos, 1962),


... and another, in a bizarre relation with what he studies (Planta insumisa, 1961).

In this last painting, the scientist’s hair and all but one of the plants’ tendrils are mathematical equations and numerical expressions.  Against one lone, resistant flower, logic seems both fearful — it reduces living, beautiful things to formulas — and risible: out of the flower issues a tendril that reads “dos y dos son casi cuatro.”  

Logic cannot account for these images, and yet without the phantom of logic the game of images would itself vanish.  As Kaplan summarizes, “[i]n her paintings Varo constructed tightly planned narrative dramas based on coherent, if surprising, logic”.  Logic, then, is the ghost that keeps the narrative game in motion, as in Homo Rodans (1959), an “anthropological” object made of chicken bones in which the spinal column is curved into an impossible wheel. 


Logic is also the ghost that allows for pictures like Exploracio´n de las fuentes del rı´o Orinoco (1959) in which the artist’s trip to the Venezuelan river informs a fanciful means of movement.  Simply put, logic enables movement even as it obstructs it.


Tripping Narrative

The importance of the suggestion of movement in a static picture is as critical as it is complex.  Movement implies displacement, if not succession, and thus a temporality crucial to narrative.  For some, the mere suggestion of movement, let alone narration, entails a falling away from the artiness of art.  And yet, if movement may be suggested in Kandinsky’s swirls, Mondrian’s lines, Pollock’s splashes, or even Rothko’s rectangles, it is not of the same order as the movement suggested by figural representation.  With respect to the marvelously mimetically oriented Varo, movement is most compellingly materialized in a triptych of sorts from 1960 to 1961.  The three yellow-grey paintings that comprise it attest to Varo’s interest in telling stories through images.  In the “triptych,” moreover, the depicted story is not confined to one frame, but is effectively unframed, displaced, and imagined from one canvas to another.

In the first painting of Varo’s “triptych,” a painting titled Hacia la torre, a group of seven young women dressed in the same uniform grey and surrounded by grey-toned birds appears to be leaving what Varo calls a “casa-colmenar.” A man and a woman lead the group (on improbable cycles whose form resembles the curved spine of Homo Rodans) to a place that, within the frame of the painting, remains invisible.  This yet to be visible place is double, for it is the tower to which the group is led — the tower announced, but only announced, in the title of the painting — as well as the second painting in the “triptych,” one titled Bordando el manto terrestre.


The tower that occupies the center of Bordando el manto terrestre is occupied in turn by ostensibly the same group of young women (less one), at work under the gaze of a partly masked figure, holding a book and stirring a concoction, and accompanied by a second figure playing a recorder or English flute.  It is a disturbing picture, disturbing in its seeming serenity.  The young women work, apparently without rebelling, each one like the other. As Kaplan remarks, “[t]heirs is the traditional work of the convent, where needlework was deemed a skill appropriate for cultured young women”. Uniform feminine acculturation, then, and yet, if we tarry, we can discern some significant differences that bear on the very act of seeing. For in Bordando el manto terrestre, one of the young women occupies, within the tower and from our admittedly unfixed perspective, a special place.  In the left-hand corner of the tower room, a woman looks askance, the same woman whose work in process we can most clearly see. 

As Kaplan notes, a similar sideways look — what González calls a “mirada de búsqueda” — marks Hacia la torre, where all but one of the figures look in the same direction.  The one who looks in a different, sideways direction is, as Varo comments, the only one who resists the generalized hypnosis of the others.  Interestingly, it is this resistant young woman with the different look who might be seen as looking at us, the spectators.  We, in turn, look at her, though we may not necessarily see her, at first glance, as different.  In the specular play between personages and persons, we find, furthermore, that we run the risk of losing the image of individuality, generalizable to be sure, if we do not attend to detail.  In Varo’s painting, uniformity is a lure, for in it difference is folded. 

That the difference at issue is feminine, and that it hangs on the perception of detail, on detailed perception, is not insignificant. Naomi Schor has argued that the detail has been dismissed as inimical to classical idealism, focused as it is on the privileging of the general and “the censure of the particular”.  This “anti-particularist aesthetic” is linked, according to Schor, to the “promotion of the sublime” and by implication to universalizing conceptions of beauty and truth. 

Without entering into the relation between the sublime and sublimation, suffice it to say that the detail, which is presented in ironically general terms, tends to be “more at home” in realism and surrealism than in idealism and abstraction.  But there is something more at stake.  According to Schor, the detail is “bounded on the one side by the ornamental, with its traditional connotations of effeminacy and decadence, and on the other, by the everyday, whose ‘prosiness’ is rooted in the domestic sphere of social life presided over by women”. These two sides need not be mutually exclusive.  In fact, the ornamentation of the everyday marks many of Varo’s paintings, inasmuch as in them the everyday is maintained, but decorated with a profusion of inventive combinations and minute flourishes by which the familiar is rendered unfamiliar. 

A number of surrealists are implicated in this dynamic of the ornamental and the everyday, but something different seems to be at work in Varo’s deployment of the detail.  We are, remember, concerned here with the detail of the look or gaze and with the ways in which it relates not merely to individuation, but to feminine individuation.  I refer again to Naomi Schor, for whom “[t]he detail does not occupy a conceptual space beyond the laws of sexual difference: the detail is gendered and doubly gendered as feminine”.  In other words, part and parcel of the idealist dismissal of the detail, the particular, and the real, is the dismissal of the feminine as classically constructed.  Accordingly, to attend to the feminine, to the detail(s) of difference, is to fold back into the web of reality.  

Schor’s reading of detail is itself prone to generalization, but nonetheless provides an intriguing way of viewing Varo’s “triptych.”  For in the “triptych,” the place of femininity — its generalities and particularities, uniformities and individualities — is complicated by telling details such as the gaze.  And what the detail tells is not just the importance of vision in painting (which is so self-evident as to go often unnoticed), but also the importance of “telling” in painting.  

As already intimated, purists of the visual, like purists of the linguistic, repudiating any desire for (im)possible fusion, would reaffirm the divide between words and images, as if the slightest hint of something other or mixed were an affront to artistic integrity. And yet, Varo’s paintings are paintings not despite their narrativity, but because of it as well.


A similar claim, mutatis mutandis, may be made for literature — including Varo’s own forays into it — where visual imagery may be supportive rather than crippling.  The literary quality of Varo’s painting is, as indicated, pronounced in the “triptych,” where the significant detail is the (sideways) gaze or look itself.  It is this detail that threads one canvas into another, impelling a story not only to the tower but from it as well.  The third and final part of the “triptych” is La huida.  Despite its title, it is distinguished not by movement, but by an ostensibly amorous mode of movement.   

In La huida, a lone feminine figure with a sideways look apparently flees the tower, the centered and semi-enclosed space of the second painting, in the company of a lone masculine figure.  The couple travels in a fur-covered umbrella-boat that recalls, as Georgiana Colvile notes, “Meret Oppenheim’s famous surrealist object Fur Breakfast” (Beyond, 50).  The couple seems to hie to a site that reinforces the sexual allure of the boat: a rocky cliff cleft with a dark oblong space or hole.  Whimsically sexual as both transportation and destination may be, one might assume that flight is the fruit of serious masculine intervention and that the woman flees not just with a man but also thanks to a man.  

Such an assumption doubtless pays homage to established narrativity, spinning a story in which female liberation is an effect of male heroics (the man rescues the damsel in distress), but it loses sight of the specific form of this pictorial narrative.  It loses sight, that is, of the sideways look that at once frames and unframes one of the feminine figures as the protagonist of a story that might be called her own.  As noted, it is through the look that one of the figures acquires a certain relevance or individuality.  Simply put, it is through the look, the gaze, the eyes, that individuality may be perceived as meaningful, that a meaningful individuality may be perceived.  

The imbrication of (the) sight in the painting and the sight of the painting is not accidental.  Nor is it new; every pictorial representation of the face and the eyes—even when they are blind—implies a similar dynamic.  The intricate visual web in which the spectator becomes entangled in the spectacle may be what at times makes portraiture so appealing and yet so unsettling.  What distinguishes the imbrication of sights here is, however, its place in a narrative of feminine liberation that is not dependent on masculine power but that is instead effected in the very work that is at the centre of the classical tale of the domesticated woman. 

The work, rendered craftily on canvas, is embroidery, weaving, spinning, and sewing, the “feminine” arts of thread and cloth associated with Penelope, who weaves and unweaves as she awaits the return of her man, and with Ariadne, who gives her man the thread by which he escapes the labyrinth.  Beatriz Varo mentions Isis, “la diosa lunar [que] fue la primera en aplicarse a la tarea de tejer,” and also “las parcas y las hadas [que] son hilanderas, crean formas y texturas hilando sin descanso”.  Weaving and its cousins are also associated with futurity, destiny, fate, and the interconnectedness of all things.  

Within this rich mythological tradition, so important to certain strands of feminism, the central painting of the “triptych” is situated.  Here, of all the embroiderers, the one who looks askance is also the one who introduces into the work of the world a token of her liberation.  Varo herself calls it “una trampa”, and, indeed, embroidered, sketched, and painted in one of the many folds of the earthly mantle is the trap or trick: the image of a loving couple that will supposedly come to the fore in La huida.  

Interestingly, Varo wrote a little story in which the love-struck protagonist explains to her executioner “que yo amaba a alguien y que necesitaba tejer sus ‘destinos’ con los mı´os, pues una vez hecho este tejimiento quedarı´amos unidos para la eternidad”.  

In the central canvas of her “triptych,” however, the story of interwoven destinies becomes discreetly visible.  Inverted and minute, a woman and a man stand face to face, perhaps gazing into each other’s eyes.  Somewhat more visible, but as tiny as the couple, is a figure beside the door of one of the houses that also spill out of the mantle and whom Peter Engel designates as the young woman’s “secret lover”.  There is, however, no visible guarantee that the diminutive male figure is the woman’s lover or that the female figure couched in the folds of the mantle is a self-portrait of the female figure more clearly depicted in the painting, let alone a self-portrait of Varo.  Such speculation is motivated, again, by the criticism.  Kaplan, who is unquestionably one of the world’s authorities on Varo and her art, asserts that “[m]ost of Varo’s personages bear the delicate heart-shaped face with large almond eyes, long sharp nose and thick mane of lively hair that marked the artist’s own appearance.  The personae she created serve as self-portraits, transmuted through fantasy”.  

As persuasive as such resemblances can be, they remain speculative (in the fullest sense of the word), part of the visual and narrative imagination of the viewer. The same speculation holds for the lovers’ face-to-face position, for we cannot see their eyes, and hence we cannot see them gazing, or not, into each other’s eyes.  While the miniaturized gazes can only be of our imagination, the ties between this couple and that of the third painting in the “triptych,” while also invisible, are supported, even overdetermined, by an extensive tradition of heterosexual romance.  In relation to a painting titled Armonía, Varo speaks of “el hilo invisible que une todas las cosas”. 

In the “triptych,” the invisible thread unites figures and canvases in a way that complicates the neat unfolding of traditional heterosexual romance.  For in the cloth of the canvas that is Bordando, a woman weaves her flight from the (phallic) tower; she does not wait for a man to free her, but instead frees herself, in part, imaginatively.  As Kaplan so aptly puts it, “she has used the most genteel of domestic handicrafts to create her own hoped-for escape”. Representing herself in a situation more amorous than laborious, the woman partly eludes the surveillance of the central figure. 

Bordando el manto terrestre thus projects itself towards La huida, propelling a narrative movement on the basis of scarcely visible details.  It might seem that the trajectory elaborated in the “triptych” is linear, that from the first to the third paintings progression is straightforward: the woman borne to a semi-enclosed space bears herself, by virtue of work and love for a man, to a more open, loving space.  

Carlota Caulfield likens Varo’s work to a Bildungsreise, or educational journey, and the description holds, in general, for the “triptych.”  And yet, a linear trajectory leaves little room for the folds, creases, and inversions that comprise the deceptive surface of these canvases: deceptive, not because truth lies elsewhere, beyond the image, but because the folds are themselves illusory, mere effects of pigment.  The same may be said of the women and the men, the bicycles and the ships, the rocks and the towers.  But this illusory quality, this deception intrinsic to figurative art, lends itself here to narration.  And said narration, or self-narration, far from being linear is also profoundly abyssal.  The cloth in the canvas that purports to be the entire world includes the space of its own production, the tower.  It includes, if we follow this line of logic, the going to the tower and the flight from it. 

This line, then, folds back on itself, figuratively entangling us.  In so folding, Varo’s “triptych,” comprised of three canvases, holds more than a nominal relation to the established definition of the triptych.  For a triptych is an artifact composed of three panels on which something is written or painted and which are often hinged together in such a way that the lateral panels can fold over the central panel. Varo did produce at least one such triptych, titled Īcono (1945), in which two hinged, painted wooden panels alternately conceal and reveal a central panel which depicts a circular tower mounted on a winged wheel and attached by pulleys to two moonlike spheres.  That a tower is depicted on the central panel of a “true” triptych allows for an interesting relay to Bordando el manto terrestre and its companion pieces.  

The three paintings here under consideration are not literally hinged together, but are connected figuratively, through the smallest of details, and so the definition of the triptych is accordingly resonant for them as well.  And what is most resonant is that a triptych is foldable, articulated in such a fashion that a linear projection can be turned on itself, closed up and concealed, given up to a circular, spiraling void.  

Such a view is that of Oedipa Maas, the protagonist of Thomas Pynchon’s novel, The Crying of Lot 49, published in 1966, shortly after Varo’s death in 1963.  Pynchon’s interest in Varo may be an indication of Varo’s select visibility in an international market, but it is the literary description of the central panel of Varo’s “triptych,” the way in which Varo’s painting is folded and unfolded in narrative fiction, that I would underscore here. In Pynchon’s novel, Oedipa is traveling with her lover:

In Mexico City they somehow wandered into an exhibition of paintings by the beautiful Spanish exile Remedios Varo: in the central painting of a triptych, titled ‘Bordando el Manto Terrestre,’ were a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world.   

Oedipa’s reaction to Varo’s canvas, considered by some critics to be emblematic of Pynchon’s novel, is ambiguous: “Oedipa, perverse, had stood in front of the painting and cried”.  Oedipa cries because it is through a painted image that she realizes that the entire world is a fabric of illusions, fantasies, deceptions, and desires.  Earth, canvas, text: all are invisibly intertwined, parts of a whole whose wholeness we perceive only partially, in so many tatters and threads.  Pynchon, through Oedipa, posits responses to the view of the abyss that range from superstition, to the practice of a “useful hobby” such as embroidering, to madness.  Some of these responses, or questions, are formulated by Varo, but with at least one noteworthy difference.  The difference is nothing less than the relation between the artist and the work of art.  Whatever the ties between Oedipa Maas and Thomas Pynchon before Varo’s painting, whatever our own ties, the “threads” that run between Varo’s painting and Varo herself are of another order, moving from the realm of representation to that of self-representation.  

David Cowart, studying the painting and the novel together, declares that “[t]he little girl fleeing … is Remedios Varo, escaping her tower”.  Peter Engel maintains that the “triptych” depicts the artist’s passage from a convent school to the Academy of Beaux Arts and, subsequently, to amorous and artistic adventure.  Janet Kaplan, in her excellent biography of Varo, corroborates by affirming that Varo was an expert seamstress who made her own clothes and who complained that male fashion designers did not understand the female anatomy.  Beatriz Varo, for her part, declares that Remedios “teje en su obra la trama de su vida de la misma manera que cose sus vestidos”. And Juliana Gonza´lez asserts that “[l]a vida infantil de Remedios transcurre como en el castillo-colmenar del primer cuadro de su tríptico”.  They, and many others who write on Varo’s art, underscore the presence of an imposing auto-biographical will that is continued in criticism as a no less imposing biographical will.


Facing Painting

Remedios Varo — or Remei Varo, in Catalan — was born in Angle`s, in the province of Girona, in 1908.12  She studied in the Escuela de Artes y Oficios in Madrid and later, in 1924, in the Academia de San Fernando. She proved herself to be adept from an early age in the use of the tools of art, mastering perspective, understanding technical and scientific drawing, and appreciating visual detail.  In 1936, as indicated, she participated in the Logicophobic Exposition in Barcelona.  In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, she fled to Paris, where she entered into contact with the surrealist group.  In the late 30s and early 40s, during the Nazi invasion, she fled to the south of France, then to Casablanca, and finally to Mexico, where she lived until her death in 1963.  There, she dedicated herself first to commercial art and then, towards the end of the 1950s, to her own, by now most recognizable, work.  

In Mexico, she associated mainly with European exiles and became a close friend of the English painter and writer, Leonora Carrington, linked for a time to Max Ernst.  Varo herself was married three times, one of them to the French surrealist poet, Benjamin Pe´ret.  Varo’s life is marked by relations whose dramatic quotient seems to captivate those who study her work.  The same, however, does not necessarily hold for those who “simply” see her work. By this, I mean that although biographical information of the sort I have just reproduced may contribute to an understanding of the artist’s art, it may also serve to control it, even domesticate it: as if behind every painted face lurked the once fresh flesh of the painter.  

The gaze, which functions as a sign of differential identity in the “triptych,” is set in a face that is, according to virtually all of the critics, that of the painter herself, photographs of whom frequently accompany the images that she painted.  Recourse to photographs is logical, because virtually all of the critics also recognize that Varo is little known outside of Mexico, and that she has been eclipsed, like many women artists, by the figures, if not the faces, of painters like Dalı´, Magritte, Miro´, or Ernst.  The certainty with which the resemblance between Varo’s face and the faces of many of her painted figures is proffered is perplexing, however, even when it is substantiated by declarations by the artist herself. 

Whatever the ethical, political, and artistic value of coming to see an artist, the price of seeing her art in biographical terms, of seeing Varo’s face and ultimately only Varo’s face in the faces of her painted figures, is, in part at least, that of narcissism, a condition insistently tied to autobiography, self-portraiture and, more distressingly, femininity.   

It is not a problem exclusive to Varo.  The art of Frida Kahlo, intensely fixated on the gaze, face, and body of the artist, is distinguished, for some, by its narcissism, and a masochistic narcissism at that.  Such an assessment of Kahlo’s self-portraiture is problematic, but with regards to Remedios Varo, less known than Kahlo, less “successful” in the contemporary traffic in images, and less clear in her self-reflection, the problem is different.  Many of Varo’s figures often appear masked, as if it were only possible to reveal the face of the artist, if such it actually is, by concealing it.  I will return to one such masking in due course, but first I want to heed some explicitly narcissistic winks.

Encuentro (1959) presents a figure that contemplates her face, duplicated and displaced, in a little coffer, a Pandora’s box of sorts.  The concept of self-reflection recalls a previously mentioned painting, La hermosura, in which a woman’s face is depicted in and as a mirror.  Another, more elaborate version of the same concept is titled Los amantes (1963).  This painting, reworked by none other than Madonna in her video Bedtime Story (Let’s Get Unconscious), shows two figures who face one another in, and as, mirrors.  The specular play, whereby the self sees the self and only the self in the other, is as witty as it is disquieting. 

These works at once thematize and ironize narcissism — little wonder that Madonna finds them so compelling — by presenting it openly, even ostentatiously, to the viewer.  The deployment of Varo’s images (if not Varo’s image) in a work of popular U.S. culture — far removed from questions of fusion and logic, mysticism, metaphysics, and pictorial materiality — brings us closer to facing what is so often masked: the commercial value of aesthetic value, the work of art as commodity, the figure as fetish.  Along with the details of narrative movement, the details of commercial movement also merit attention, for the critical desire to reassess surrealism, the avant-garde, national traditions (here, of Spain and Mexico), or women’s art, dovetails reappraisals of a more monetary sort. 

There is, to be sure, yet another kind of movement here. Amid the various figures that populate Varo’s paintings, some are suggestively insistent.  They are figures made as half-made, as if in a state or process of emergence.  In La llamada (1961), a luminous lunar figure appears to pass between other semi-immured figures that do not enjoy, at least not yet, the same freedom of movement.  With her hair curled around a star, the figure carries, around her neck, a mortar and, in her right hand, a sort of miniature still.  It is, accordingly, a figure enlightened by obscure knowledge, ancient and modern at once.  



From the same year is Mujer saliendo del psicoanalista, in which a figure, significantly less luminous than in La llamada, is presented exiting a building that bears a little sign: “Doctor FJA,” an amalgam, as Varo herself explained, of Freud, Jung, and Adler . 

The figure’s face is half-(un)covered with a greenish cloth beneath which a mask seems to be slipping.  In one hand, she carries a small basket containing a watch, threads, and a pacifier, what Varo calls “desperdicios psicolo´gicos,” remainders of an infantile past.  In her other hand she carries, by his beard, the upside-down head of an old man, the father.  A sense of rupture and liberation seems obvious, as does an ironic, ambivalent engagement with psychoanalysis, but less obvious is the feminine figure’s face, the face that has been identified elsewhere, in general, as the face of the painter herself.  And so, we return again to the question of self-representation and narcissism. 

To my eyes, these figures suggest a perception and reception somewhere between the affirmation and negation of biography and autobiography.  For even if they are replications of the painter, even if they do admit particular, historical references, they are also refractions of the painter, figures whose history, whose story, is more ample, encompassing, and suggestive.  

In Luz emergente, the lamp-bearing figure that emerges from the sexualized folds of a partition might be seen as Varo, but it is also always more and less than Varo, a view reinforced by the presence of a face peering from a hole in the floor.  The smaller, slightly darker face, which Colvile calls the “woman protagonist’s second face”, destabilizes, in its very vigilance, the unicity of face of the emerging figure.  

Even as it permits a resemblance internal to the painting (the “protagonist’s” second face), it allows for, and obviously undercuts, a resemblance external to the painting (the painter’s face).  Colvile’s use of “protagonist” instead of “painter” may be a subtle effect of the prospect of a proliferation of faces by which identity is mobilized, reiterated, deferred, and displaced as ever receding or, better yet, as ever emerging.   

Regardless, the status of the self is in question.  The aforementioned Armonía (1956), in which two figures emerge from walls while a third attaches multifarious objects to a musical staff, was also once titled Autorretrato sugerente, which would seem to secure the connection between the artist and the represented figure(s). 

Then again, a title’s ability to anchor a work is necessarily suspect.  Here, the title suggests that self-portraiture is suggestive.  If Armonía once was presented as a suggestive self-portrait, it is thus a self-portrait that is far from sure.  There is more, of course.  In both of these paintings as well as in Nacer de nuevo, the figures that emerge, surrounded by symbols, are feminine.  

This does not mean that, as Andre´ Breton declared, Varo in her painting is “la feminité même,” which remits to the historically masculine notion of the eternal feminine.  Instead, Varo’s figures emerge, as Kaplan, Lauter, and others have pointed out, from crevices, folds, and slits (like the folds of the earthly mantle or what Pynchon describes as the “slit windows” of the phallic tower) whose form is vaginal and vulvar.  Many of the forms are produced by way of frottage, a technique developed by Max Ernst, and give the impression, especially in Luz emergente and Nacer de nuevo, that they are emerging from the canvas, that they are breaking through and coming out of the painting itself.  They give the impression, that is, of self-generation, of rupturing the membrane of painting from within, rather than from without.  Light is emergent, not penetrating; the figure, reborn, is born a woman and of a woman. 

 To see these figures with their heart-shaped faces as, at bottom, Remedios Varo is to reduce them to a far too logical genealogy that does a service neither to the artist nor to the art.  To see them as “Woman” in capital letters, is to empty them, paradoxically, by stuffing them with all of the pompous fluff of patriarchal ideology.  But to see them as wavering between, beside, and beyond both of these visions — one particular, the other general; one historical, the other mythical — is to see them as truly emergent figures, in process in the otherwise static space of the painting. 

To understand the painting as a sign,” writes Norman Bryson, “we have to forget the prosenic surface of the image and think behind it: not to an original perception in which the surface is luminously bathed, but to the body whose activity —f or the painter as for the viewer — is always and only a transformation of material signs”. 

For Bryson, the “body may be eclipsed,” not only by the representations of others, but also “by its own representations; it may disappear, like a god, in the abundance of its attributes; but it is outward, from its invisible musculature, rather than inwards, from its avid gaze, that all the images flow”.  What Bryson signals is the often forgotten significance of the body that produces images without, for all that, forgetting that the body that is produced as an image, the body in and of the painting, cannot be reduced to the body of the producer, the painter.   

Bryson’s formulation of the body in visual representation is intricate, and only implicitly related to the face, but it echoes something that Octavio Paz has written about Remedios Varo.  In the words of Paz, Varo “pinta, en la Aparición, la Desaparición”.  Paz’s words bring to mind any of the various emergent figures, shadowy and star-struck, that populate Varo’s canvases, but they also suggest something else.  For what Varo paints, as in Creación de las aves (1958), is not reducible to her, as a person, nor to Woman, as a symbol, both of which come into view even as they fade away. As with fusion, the fading, or disappearance, is not total; it does not careen into something like the absence of, or indifference to, all markers of identity, those of gender included.


One of Varo’s most celebrated pieces, Creación de las aves depicts an avian creature, with a face as owl-like as it is heart-shaped, seated at a desk and busy bringing birds to life.  The tools by which the enigmatic creator makes its magic include an egg-shaped still that produces primary colors, an extended string from a little violin, a triangular glass or prism, and a ray of light.  Both the still and the ray of light pass through openings in the walls of the room in which the creature works, thereby suggesting a cosmic connection whose timelessness is reinforced by the watery threads that run between two cylindrical vases hanging in a corner.

Creación de las aves is in many respects “characteristic” of Varo and draws on a storehouse of imagery: fanciful devices and architectures, birds, stars, and rays of light, and the inanimate suggestion of animation.  For many critics, including Colvile, “the wise owl represents Varo’s ideal vision of herself as an artist, and the birds her vicarious escape through painting”.  But if the traits of the painted figures resemble those of the figure that painted them, if the painter appears in the painting, she also there disappears, and her traits end up resembling, in the play of associations, those of certain wise birds, certain masks used in popular Mexican dances.  The bird masks of Pascola bear a striking resemblance to the face of Varo’s avian sage.  

Whether Varo cultivated, or even appreciated, such a resemblance is debatable, but what is less debatable is that in evoking alchemy, Varo necessarily evokes a hope and a lure, a mythical promise and its historical failure.  After all, alchemy promised, but never produced, gold from base matter; it dangled a charm that, logically speaking, led only to disenchantment.  Varo, however, reinvests alchemy, long a “science” of lonely men, with an alluring hopefulness that folds in and out of the creative act of transmutation.  The alchemist is here an owl, and the owl is, as Colvile notes, “an ambivalent bird,” signifying all sorts of things, from life to death, to sadness, solitude, and wisdom.  In Varo’s hands the owl is ambivalent in another way, because the alchemist-owl is also a woman, or perhaps an androgyne, and hence something even of a man.  In Colvile’s words, “the alchemist was attempting to reconstitute his divided self, to integrate consciously what Jung would later call the ‘anima’ or the female element of the masculine subconscious, and thus to embody the ancient myth of the lost androgyne”.   

The alchemist was traditionally a man, but Varo reworks the tradition, con-fusing its allocation of gender roles and indicating, in the process, what Deborah Haynes, referring to Varo’s work in general, styles as “gender masquerade”.  The partial, but only partial, fusion of genders and species recalls the partial fusion of clothing, machines, and bodies, including those of birds and other animals, in a wide array of paintings and drawings.  The upshot of the interplay of mask and face is neither fusion without fissure nor fusion contrary to all logic, but rather tension materialized in painting.  It is the process of a life folded, unfolded, and refolded on the surface of the visible as well as on its inaccessible, ever so figurative underside.  It is the emergence of a mode of representation, somewhere between revelation and occultation, appearance and disappearance: an emergence that might be called feminine (in its concrete bio-historical, abstract mythical, or politically situated dimensions), but that calls forth, (in)visibly and (im)possibly, something else.



ISSN 1463–6204 print/ISSN 1469–9818 online/03/020185-192003 Taylor & Francis Ltd




186 Brad Epps