PRINT December 1989


Remedios Varo

SURREALISM, A MOVEMENT THAT valorized a “feminine” position while at the same time defining this position in traditional terms as irrational and unconscious, gave us Woman as no-longer-placid muse. But this Ophelia unbound took flight only through her impersonation by male artists who, while they valued imagination, could not imagine female subjectivity. As in the movie Tootsie, in which the best woman is a man, or in Jacques Derrida’s privileging of the feminine position of the reader so long as femininity is not specifically ensconced in a female body, the best madwoman was a sane male Surrealist artist.

Yet the visual, formal, and imaginative permissions of Surrealism, and its sexual and erotic obsessions with Woman, opened a door for women artists. The Parisian movement, centered on an irrational female Other, attracted a group of women who were de facto others—foreigners: Leonora Carrington and Eileen Agar from England; Lee Miller, Kay Sage, and Dorothea Tanning from the United States; Meret Oppenheim from Switzerland; Toyen from Czechoslovakia; and, from Spain, Remedios Varo.

Varo’s life and work, including paintings and writings, were first brought to North American attention in Whitney Chadwick’s Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, 1985. Now, in Unexpected Journeys, the first full-scale critical biography, Janet A. Kaplan seeks to give us the larger picture, placing her subject in the context of the cultural and political realities of mid–20th-century Europe. If, in these pages, Varo ultimately remains an enigmatic figure, her story does offer a useful entry into still-perplexing questions about female creativity and its relationship to a male-defined canon.

Varo’s journey begins in what we might call a substitutional mode: born in the Spanish province of Catalonia in 1908, she was a “remedy” for the death of a previous daughter. Details of Varo’s early years conform to stereotypes of female artist biography, and are close to those of Frida Kahlo: Varo’s mother was deeply religious and family-oriented; her father, a hydraulic engineer whose work engaged the family in travel, was emotionally remote but encouraged his daughter’s precocious talent for drawing.

Varo’s geographical, artistic, and intellectual journeys reflect the centrality of Paris in European culture, and the traumatic impact of the Spanish Civil War and World War II. In the 1930s Varo lived in Madrid, Barcelona, and Paris, while involved in what seem to have been amicably polygamous relationships. In 1941, with her second husband—the Surrealist poet Benjamin Péret—Varo fled Vichy France, for Mexico. There she supported an extended network of past and present husbands and lovers by working at a variety of jobs for which her early technical training had prepared her. Her third husband, Walter Gruen, at last afforded her the financial and emotional security necessary for a remarkable efflorescence of meticulously crafted paintings. Varo enjoyed great success in Mexico in her last years but she died suddenly of a heart attack in 1963 at age 54.

Mexico provided Varo with an important remove from the dictates of Paris-based Surrealism. Yet, paradoxically, it is Mexico—which, as Péret and Andre Breton had noted, was Surrealistic in its matter-of-fact integration of magic and the grotesque into daily life—that crucially overshadows Kaplan’s project; it becomes impossible to avoid comparing Varo to Frida Kahlo—another beautiful Hispanic woman with a colorful personal life who also lived in Mexico City. It is equally impossible to avoid comparing Kaplan’s book to Hayden Herrera’s 1983 biography of Kahlo. Kaplan’s biography, as a text, misses the melodrama inherent in Kahlo’s ill health and stormy marriage. Varo lived in relative anonymity; there are few extant interviews or letters. She conducted her affairs openly and she left them out of her works. Even her self-portraiture is not as palpably immediate as Kahlo’s.

Though both artists appear to have painted with single-hair sable brushes, Kahlo’s representations are fleshy and bloody, Varo’s ethereal, bloodless, and preternaturally silent. It is precisely this element of reserve, anonymity, and scientific “objectivity” that makes Varo’s self-portraiture and narrative a valuable participant in the current debates over the construction of gender. Varo’s women should not be mistaken for passive objects or representations. These women are, instead, agents of perceptual investigation, for their intense subjectivity is marshaled to challenge “enlightened” scientific discourse. (It is interesting and ironic, then, that the only substantive exhibition of Varo’s work in the United States was sponsored by the New York and National Academies of Science, in 1986.) Her work opposes traditional science’s alienation with the evocation of an interconnected flow of nonhierarchic energy and creativity, and positions women and painting on the vanguard of this new vision. And by the very closeness of these small and minutely detailed canvases to that anathema of the 20th-century avant-garde—illustration—these works make the claim that every detail of a reconfigurated science must be rendered, even though a single-hair sable brush may not be fine enough to reconstruct femininity and Nature. All the while, Varo targets those “pseudo”-scientific disciplines whose premise is woman’s inferiority, and the results are often hilarious. She sports a veil over a notably phallic nose as she presses the doorbell of the “Clinica Plastoturgencia” in Visit to the Plastic Surgeon, 1960, or sheds a veil inscribed with her face as she is about to drop her father’s head into a well in Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst, 1961.

In other works, the Rube Goldbergian laboratory equipment of Varo’s dispassionate protagonists is not designed to lay a grid on Nature but to facilitate a fluid linkage between a variety of natural phenomena. In her Revelation or the Clockmaker, 1955, a translucent set of orbiting bubbles knocks the parts of an ancient chronometric device off a clock-maker’s table, in a green room whose tented ceiling is supported by the peaks of grandfather clocks that are the miniature stages of various historical periods. In Creation of the Birds, 1958, starlight filtered through a triangular lens, a brush attached to a violin necklace, and primary colors emerging from an egg-shaped alchemic device help the owl-faced artist paint birds so mimetically perfect they fly off the page and out the window toward the star. Painting is thus placed in a continuum of energy between nature and scientific research, mediated by androgynous women whose features bring to mind the alien travelers of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (The role of an etiolated stylization of the female figure in the works of such women artists as Varo, Carrington, Léonor Fini, and Florine Stettheimer deserves further exploration.) Imagine Pierre Delvaux’s half-naked Stepford wives dressed up in suits or monks’ robes and retooling locomotives to connect a piano engine to helicopter blades, as painted by Heloise in a lab coat, and you might have a Varo painting.

In noting the close relationship of Varo and Leonora Carrington, Kaplan points out that both artists shared a passion for the transformative pursuits of alchemy, and saw “cooking as a metaphor for hermetic pursuit.” (They often met in Carrington’s studio, once described by their friend Victor Serge as “a narrow little room in old Mexico, the most dream-saturated place I know here.”) The association of women with magic, sorcery, alchemy, or cooking may well raise the eyebrows of some feminists who deem such associations “essentialist.” But if Varo’s focus on philosophies that functioned as Other to “rational” science and enlightenment philosophy is perhaps consistent with the Surrealist project (which, in its embrace of female irrationality, was binarist and essentialist), her alchemy might also be seen as a metaphor for the transformative displacement of essences. There is no denying that Varo’s pre-Surrealist surreal affinities—with the work of Bosch and Goya, for example—distinguishes her project from that of the male Surrealists, whose impersonation of femininity is ultimately rooted in an Italian High Renaissance will to control perception and Nature (femininity).

While Remedios Varo may personally elude her biographer, her infusion of previously unexplored narratives into moribund esthetic categories, and her constructed universe of feminine alchemy and of alternative modes of time and space travel, offer much to contemporary art discourse, making Unexpected Journeys a unique and inspiring visual journey.

Mira Schor is a painter and co-editor of M/E/A/N/I/N/G, a journal of contemporary art issues.


Janet A. Kaplan, Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varo (New York: Abbeville Press, 1988), 286 pages, 198 illustrations (48 color).