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Remedios Varo: A Cure for Magic Out of Chance

Secret leylines connect the mundane objects in a room; a slight ill-advised interruption in this powerful network will bring on unforeseen disasters. The mail service is a web of magical communication that abolishes Chance: letters addressed to strangers concerning fictitious events can influence the future. The earliest hominid life was a one-wheeled biped – Homo rodans; naturally, there has been a cover-up. These and other outré cosmologies can be found in a selection of fugitive texts by the great Spanish painter Remedios Varo, just published in a superbly-translated collection by Margaret Carson as Letters, Dreams & Other Writings. Here is a recipe from it (‘translated from the Arabic’), to be used ‘to dream you are the king of England’:

1 dozen rams’ legs

20 eggs

40 bricks

3 ½ meters of raw silk

A large soft-sable hairbrush

Alas, the ritual instructions fizzle out to gunshot ellipses and the fool that follows them this far is left covered in fat and sulking in a large vat. The induction of dreams fascinated Varo. She didn’t need rams’ legs, lizards’ legs and owlets’ wings to make owls and eggs appear in her own map of sleep. In her paintings, the leylines are gossamer strands and the eggs sit in mortal cups perhaps first seen by dreaming eyes.

But sleeping is hard when you’re the run from nightmares. Remedios Varo fled Franco first, then the Nazi Occupation in Paris. She ended up in Mexico City in 1941 (her friend Dali swore he’d never go back to Mexico because he couldn’t “stand to be in a country that is more surrealist than my paintings”), where she died at age 54. She was friends with Rivera and Chagall – and most notably, a collaborator and confidant of the great Leonora Carrington. Carrington crops up a lot, in simple anecdote and dreamside, which shows how deeply their palimpsest universes overlapped. This book also preserves a singular and suitably brief picture of the Mexico City milieu at the time, where the living and the dead and the dreamed-up passed along the length of magic circles.

Given her life, perhaps her paintings of witchcraft, cryptozoological entities, and sinister labyrinths reflect and contort the mechano-spiritual world the Nazis had stitched together from bankers’ briefs, hack folklore, and hairshirt suburban lugubriousness. Likewise, the paranoia of secret police and spy networks is parodied in Varo’s letters-game as a series of loopy coincidences and falsified accounts, dependent on reaction and absurdity. Most of these missives were sent to people chosen at random in the telephone book or to well-known people who might share her obsessions. The notes are are cryptic but not frightening; nonsensical but not implausible. If there were any replies from the mystified recipients, they haven’t come down to us.

Mail has long been a passion of people given to games, chance and the possibilities of remote influence. A year after the world upheaval in 1848, De Quincey wrote his great essay on the English Mail Coach. It was the “electric sensibility of the horse” which carried correspondence and news with such marvelous speed, a phrase which gives the strange impression of a half-horse half-lightbulb creature moving in the industrial Victorian void. But Remedios Varo might have imagined that the hideous Air Loom – an early mind-control device James Tilly Matthews described from Bedlam Asylum – was directing the mechanic centaurs and vultures in the late 1930s. Picasso painted Guernica in 1937, two months after Franco inspired it. That same year, Varo moved from Barcelona to Paris with Esteban Francés and Benjamin Péret. The lightning war continued, directed by an airy blast beasting from Berlin. Warfare is spiritual and physical, as the preachers say. Dream has a shadow like a steel coat.

The dream-diary section contains intimations of a genuine magic; that is, a suspicion of a truly alien influence beyond the need of proof. Much of the dialogue in her dreams refers to things that occur slightly off-stage or remain mysterious to the dreamer, while other dream-inhabitants understand them instantly. There is an extraordinary play on her name Varo, which begins in real life with her son and then travels through a dream, then to Borges, then to Ancient Rome and Spain via a series of three other Varos (one is the Emperor Varus) and wordplay coincidences. The famous Egg-shaped chair in Exploring the Sources of the Orinoco River shows up in a lovely dream which also includes the literal weaving of wooly fate, a favorite concept of hers. Some of these dream-elements appear in Leonora Carrington’s stories – before or after they were written, it is not clear (for example, the carnivorous rabbits in White Rabbits are meat-gorged cats in Varo’s dream). In the end, her dreams sound little different than her waking life. The same flights of occasional reality drift mildly over the more-than-real. Perhaps this is all best summed up in her description of Harmony, her ‘pedagogic’ painting of ’56:

“The figure peeling away from the wall… represents chance – but objectivechance. When I use the word ‘objective,’ I understand it to be something outside our world, or rather beyond it, and which finds itself connected to the world of causes and not phenomena, which is our own.”

It also serves as a good definition of Varovian Chance. Later in a mock-catalog for an exhibit, she hits on the chance-related idea of describing figures that she forgot to paint or rejected for various reasons. Why not? Who but a fool would describe something that is right before one’s eyes?

The problem with occult systems is that their philosophies are never anywhere near as beautiful as their images. The crude and thrilling art illustrating tedious books of alchemy still look ageless, vivid and utterly foreign. Their silly didactic allegories look like the work of honest muralists, detailers, and shop sign painters. This is because lurking behind the ‘illustrations’ of stodgy Neoplatonic metaphors, the best poetic elements of occultism are finally freed by the same anarchic images that must always serve them literally. The result is a totally ‘literal’ presentation of the hermetic that must be betrayed. Literalism is rightfully suspect, and suspected on everybody’s part. Literalism is surrealism. For Remedios Varo, when images are finally invested with those chaotic spirits toward whom they would call, the symbolic utility of an occult image is irrevocably shattered. This is how occult forms are able to retain their strikingpresence in the modern world, as autonomous images lightening over the visible outlines of concrete things. A true sorceress is given over to the image in deficit to the powers summoned, whether devil or angel (this is also partially true of Faust). Her vision is heretical, perhaps especially for the heretic who clings to his parables. A carnivalism of demons, sylphs, floating cities, and owl-headed scribes… Return of the solitary and the cultic, against the House rules. And the most terrible demand made on this kind of heretic is to remain amusing and playful even when, as if by accident, ill omens appear in real life from out of the tables of dreams.

Remedios Varo is far better known in Mexico than in the barbarian lands north of the border. This revelatory little missile will make at least a little hole in the infernal stupid wall, and perhaps even in the clouds of tear-gas. Until the partisans arrive, will outpouring creatures gnaw to pieces those border guards and camp guards, silly repetitions of the thugs Ms. Varo saw last from the dock of Alcudia? The constant theme of water in her art and letters can be attributed to the fact that her maternal name was Uranga, which means ‘someone who lives near water or a lake’ in Basque. It also sounds like ‘orange’.

 

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Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

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