Saturday, 27 September 2008
Remedios Varo is probably one least known of the great Surrealist painters, even though she is rumored to have taken classes together with Salvador Dalí. Born in Spain, in 1942 she moved to Mexico City with her husband, Benjamin Péret, to escape the Nazi occupation of France. It was in Mexico that she painted many of her finest images, working tirelessly in the decade before her death at the age of fifty-five.
Hers is a feminine (and feminist) Surrealism, in which we see deep into the filmy layers of the Unconscious. All her images seem to be a kind of self-exploration, an inner quest imagined through a vivid, personal psycho-mythology. Everywhere there are frail, huge-eyed girls whose faces echo the artist’s own features. Vertiginous, cutaway buildings contain hunched, elongated figures raptly engaged in some mysterious activity. These dream-like people are personified psychic fragments, possessing purpose but not consciousness. We see into buildings and figures, who open themselves out like ingenious medieval reliquaries, revealing mechanical innards. Often a kind of feminine alchemy seems to be at work, so that we see an owl-woman using instruments to construct living birds which promptly flap away through an open shutter. Life is revealed as a mysterious perpetual-motion machine of interlocking gyres. (Varo’s father was a hydraulic engineer.) Through turbulent, misty swirls, and eerie, Twilight-Zone distortions of perspective, events of great significance seem to be occurring. In ‘The Exploration of the Orinoco River’, an androgyne navigates a cramped, flooded forest in a floating rickshaw which doubles as a semi-mechanical fish. (Gliding along, no doubt, powered by the little pair of wings wittily pinned into the figure’s hat or attached to the back of the seat.) S/he approaches a little dovecote-like, hollow tree, inside which waters pour from a shallow bowl, undoubtedly forming the very river up which the figure has sailed. The inside of the tree seems to spiral back on itself, forming a maze in defiance of normal perspective: we are in the world of myth and fairy-tale, where going the wrong way around a well can cause the waters to overflow.
Elemental catastrophes always stand for inner realities in Varo’s work. Crescent moons hang trapped in birdcages, women weave their own alter-egos from bolts of red cloth, half-moth, half-bat people run through woods whose solidity is unclear. Her work is the visual equivalent of Borges’ eerie, labyrinthine metafictions. Like Borges, Varo’s presentation of dreams, scientific imagery and occult symbolism is entirely fantastic. And like him, her work is skin-pricklingly strange, witty and enigmatic. She presents us with a transfigured inner landscape, irrigated by unconscious waters.