Tethered to the Future

Remedios Varo, trans. Margaret Carson, Letters, Dreams and Other Writings

Wakefield Press, 128pp, $14.95, ISBN 9781939663399

reviewed by Elisa Taber

Letters, Dreams and Other Writings is a collection of Remedios Varo’s writings translated into English by Margaret Carson. Varo, a Spanish-born painter, was a prominent figure of the Surrealist movement in Mexico. An ongoing exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MAM), Adictos a Remedios Varo (Addicted to Remedios Varo), which was preceded by a retrospective of the work of her close friend, Leonora Carrington, hints at her prominence in her adopted country. Varo’s texts are mythical and surrealist, ranging from a pseudo-scientific monograph claiming human beings evolved from rats to a recipe for a brew that induces erotic dreams, following a narrative thread weaving dreams and reality together to grant meaning to the inexplicable. Decrypting the logic that underlies her pictorial and prosaic universe, readers may transcend the stagnant sense of awe to interact with the beings and things that populate it, all of which are seen to be alive. In ‘Inventory of a World,’ a text on Varo’s work, Roger Caillois instructs the reader or viewer to ‘accept her facts the way you would the kingdoms, genus, species of another universe.’ Characters are defined by contacts through which they complement or repel each other amid a time and space of coincidence that might belong to a dystopic or utopic future or past.

The experimental care with which her androgynous protagonists handle beings and things is an essential characteristic of Varo’s paintings and writings. Picking up a tea cup is like disturbing a sleeping lion. In the painting Mimetismo (Mimicry), 1960, the central figure merges into the armchair where she is seated. On the obverse of a photograph of this work, included in Letters, Dreams, and Other Writings under the heading ‘Comments by Remedios Varo on Some of Her Paintings,’ she writes, ‘her hands and her feet are already as if they’d been lathed.’ Her hands resemble the ornate armrests of the chair and her feet, the delicate ends of the chair legs. Most impressive in the image itself, and in the artist’s description of it, are focus on the contact, or lack of contact, among flesh, wood, and metal. The tips of woman’s feet barely touch the wood-panelled floor, and her hands hover atop the armrests, while the leg of the table beside her wraps around the leg of her chair, and the leg of another chair picks a cloth out of one drawer of the wardrobe behind her. The animation of the room contrasts with the inanimacy of the human figure and the lively eyes of the cat peeping up through a hole in the floor.

Varo’s letters and dreams offer insight into her conception of humane phenomenology and the biographical elements in her paintings. In reference to the latter, the focus is not on events but on defining people by the way they interact with each other. In the letters she says as much explicitly, while in her dreams it is made clear through body language, rather than dialogues. For Octavio Paz, ‘she does not paint time but the instances in which time is still . . . she paints slowly the sudden apparitions.’ In a previously unpublished interview, Varo describes her working method: ‘I visualize it before I begin painting, and try to make it conform to the image I’ve already fashioned . . . I sometimes write as if I were making a sketch.’ Her texts become premonitions of ideas and her paintings their execution, and in this way recall Breton’s invocation, in his first Surrealist Manifesto, of ‘Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express-verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner–the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.’

The texts in which she describes herself alone reveal Varo’s self-identification as a witch; today might consider herself a feminist. She outlines her ‘humane phenomenology,’ slightly ironically, in ‘Letter 7’, addressed to Mr. Gardner, the author of Witchcraft Today: ‘I don’t believe I’m endowed with any special powers, but instead with an ability to see relationships of cause and effect quickly, and this beyond the ordinary limits of common logic.’ Of lava, which acts independently rather than reactively, she expresses a ‘desire to understand it in order to, if possible, help it on its flight toward a less dense world.’ This element acquires particular biographical importance through its constant presence in Mexico, whose inhabitants track circular time to predict the next eruption, and where it defines the very features of the landscape.

Varo’s longing to interact with elements in the way they wish to be handled and to conduct them in the direction they want to go she calls the construction of “solar systems,” alluding less to planetary bodies in movement than to the harmony among objects which, if in disarray, provoke macroscopic effects. In ‘Dream 10’, she transcends her fear of death by confessing the meaning of the most prominent recurring symbol in her paintings and writings, the woven fabric. She explains to her executioner, ‘I loved someone and needed to weave his ‘fates’ with mine, since once this weaving was done, we would stay united for eternity.’ In these dreams, she has access to a kind of knowledge that is forgotten when awake, and her accounts of them speak of a longing for lost epiphanies.

Varo’s writings bear the mark of her reading, from HG Wells’ ‘The Discovery of the Future’ to Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough and accounts of Mexican pre-Columbian mythology. From Wells, she derives the idea of an inductive epistemology that equates knowledge of the future through prediction with knowledge of the past through memory.
Two conceptions of Frazer’s, both evident in Mexican shamanism, lead Varo to suppose that everything, every form of contact, leaves a trace: homeopathic magic, in which imitations can affect the object mimicked, and contagious magic, in which acts realised on a possession can influence its prior owner. If Wells and Frazer provide the theoretical underpinning of her work, its passion owes much to the Surrealist desire to transcend the self and alter reality through the realisation of desires, and its imagery to the pre-Columbian history of Mexico, its mythology and its artworks, which she studied and collected.

‘On Homo rodans’, an account of a false archeological discovery demonstrating that human beings descended from rats, is at once a satire of a scientific monograph and a comment on myth, a way of explaining or even justifying the inexplicable, including death. Quite earnestly, she affirms that ‘“evolution,” with its content of erroneous ideas about the possible movement of things in a way that is mechanically devoid of transcendental will, is the source of the prevailing ignorance and confusion.’ Myth (‘myrtle’ in her idiolect) and witchcraft grant meaning to an otherwise not inexplicable but meaningless event. In rewriting history, placing at its enter the object-sculpture fashioned of wired-together chicken, turkey, and fish bones described in the title of the text – the only one in Letters, Dreams and Other Writings to be published in her lifetime – she posts a possibility of alternative existences beyond scientific veracity or even the critique of scientific methodology.

Throughout there are buried allusions Varo’s last painting, Naturaleza Muerta Resucitando (Still Life Being Resuscitated), the only one that does not depict a live being, human or animal, it shows a set dinner table in a castle-like interior with a lit candle in the middle. The tablecloth, plates, food, and even mosquitoes have risen to orbit the candle along paths parked out by the light in the darkness. ‘Project 1,’ from her Notes for Projects, describing the aftermath of a diner party, ‘Text 1’ from the Automatic Writing section, which defines symbolic elements like the pomegranate and describes clouds and mosquitos, and Letters 6 and 7, which list elements coupled together to create a solar system of the home, all seem to prefigure this enigmatic work. And yet it is the flame in the middle of the table and the trajectories it determines, like the ripples of a thrown stone on the surface of a pond, which is the essence of the painting. This flame refers to something less graspable than a symbol or clearly stated theory: the lost epiphanies of dreams.

Yet to reduce the texts to a record of ideas only fully realised in the paintings is to fail to see them as artworks in their own right, and risks a biographical approach Varo herself would likely have rejected. Whatever connection her symbols may have to the places where she lived and the people she lived with, the moment these elements enter her pictorial or prosaic universe, they change, they are hers, and she abandons her conventional self, transformed into one of her alter egos: those androgynous figures with wide eyes, hair floating above their heads, feet and hands hovering over surfaces, perhaps daring to caress them. The web that Varo wove around herself when she dreamt of death is mentioned again in ‘Project 3’: ‘Also the knitted fabric can be captured by someone who receives it in a purifying box (the box will be half musical instrument and will represent harmony). Naturally, the fabric is being undone inside the box.’ Whether or not Varo meant for these works to be widely diffused (Margaret Carson, her translator and cofounder of the Women in Translation Tumblr has her doubts), Varo’s preserved manuscript is reminiscent of this unwoven fabric.