The Alchemical Self-Portraits of Remedios Varo

in Authors & Books/Magick/Spirituality/Theosophy

Two of the women artists in whose books I’ve invested are Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. I turn to both of these books when I’m thinking about magic in painting.

Remedios Varo was herself so elfin and so beautiful that you realise quite quickly that the impossibly beautiful and elegant women, with heart-shaped faces and long, waving hair are actually versions of self-potraits. Realising for the first time made me feel more secure about the way in which my imagined scenes often had what I recognise as versions of myself as characters, often the people from whose point of view action is taking place. This is very much the case for many pictures that Varo paints.

Take for example the painting ‘To Be Reborn’ (1960). The Varo character springs out of the wall, shining with light. On the table in the room she is entering is a shining grail, perhaps the Holy Grail or at least a special magical cauldron. This shines with light. Her eyes are wide open with wonder to see this vessel. The ceiling of the ceremonially angular room is open to the moon, a crescent in the road of the milky way. It is a psychological awakening of such force it has allowed her to rip through the walls,

This is one of Varo’s late works, a very prolific period for her in which she did a number of important self-portraits which not observational studies of herself in a mirror but which are otherworldly, abstracted and metaphroic. The subjects of ther paintings are symbolic equivalents of her inner character. Why did she do this, to what purpose did she redraw herself in these magical environments? It was a way to explore ideas and and aspects of her inner self changing, evolving, on the journey through life and to do this using the symbolical tools of alchemy.

Varo’s characters often are seen alone in strange rooms, disturbing rooms. In ‘Encounter’ (1959) she sits at a table and opens a box to see her own eyes inside. She is wrapped up in a winding cloth. She looks vacantly off into space, but the eyes in the box are staring directly at her. Significantly, other similar boxes are arranged on the shelves behind. I presume that there is an identity inside each one.

In ‘Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst’ (1960) she dangles from a beard or mucus thread the upside-down disembodied head of her father. She is dropping this head into a small circular well, shedding this weight, and loosening a layer of her veil. But there are many psychological layers of veil still covering her.

There is an anxiety to Varo’s characters, a difficulty that they express in their careful movements in encountering others. They are nervous pictures. She is seeking to understand herself, that’s how it seems, but this is not a liberating experience. There is always another prison behind the other. The universe is a series of Russian Dolls, one holding another and another on forever.

In ‘Star Catcher’ (1956) she has captured the moon, holds it in a cage. The most dominant element of the picture is her costume which appears to have been formed like an ink blot folded on a page with its impossible symmetry. It is glowing, exquisite, with butterly frilly expressive folds that spread out around her. But this is threatening. She has caught the silver moon which glows brightly in its cage, and stands out against her gold and dark costume. In her other hand she holds a net. The woman seems prvileged and unfeeling. A terrifying force, bent on her own desires rather than with the intention of serving others. She is a frightening character, a dangerous, unfriendly representation of a woman who expects to be obeyed, a ruthless hunter.

In another demonstration of female power the Varo heroine breaks gree from a circle of restraint. She is electrified in while against a dark brown background. She pulls the circle that holds her in. As she opens up the possibilities inside her a green forest is revealed inside her chest, where a subconcious, rich and adventurous can be revealed. In the folds of her cloak, at her feet, there is a bird, a symbol of transcendence for Carl Jung, the writer and thinker who made a deep impression on Varo. This picture is called ‘Breaking the Vicious Circle’ (1962).

Varo spent her life fascinated by the occult and and other mystic possibilities. She read metaphysical texts and in her quest for meaning looked to many hermetic and mythic traditions, seeking ideas from Blavatsky, Ouspensky, Gurdjieff, Jung, Eckhart, Chinese and Sufi mysticism and the many legends of the Holy Grail. She was brought up as a Catholic but rejected those traditions for her imagery. She was repeatedly drawn to moments of spiritual breakthrough and spiritual power. Another Varo self-portrait from this period is ‘The Call’ (1961) in which she glows orange and yellow, standing out in a soft manner against the greeny yellow archistecture. She has an alchemist’s mortar around her neck and the call symbolises that the hero has been summoned by destiny. She is propelled forwards in movement and light, in contrast to the grey, deadened figures who sleep in the walls past which she moves at speed.

But a more startling self-portait is that of ‘Exploration of the Sources of the Orinoco River’ (1959). Here she has set out on a solitary journey to find the source, dressed in a trench coat and bowlder hat). Above her wings on mechanical poles help power her strange bath chair boat. It is a playful, theatrical vehicle. But still, her intention is serious and shadowy. She sails towards a door in a tree. In the holly there is a wine goblet on a table. A magical liquid flows out of the glass becoming the source of the river on which she travels.

This creativity myth reflects Varo’s own travels to Venezuela where she visited forests flooded by the Orinoco River. She had gone with friends looking for gold. But Varo has been seeking the the true gold for an alchemist, the liquid of transformation associated with bringing forth life itself, the ability to change matter into another form.

Varo is seeking this transformation, spiritual or real, in these works.Whether characters are riding and sailing round in spirals to find the tower in which spiritual purification may take place there is a hunt in place. There is little camaraderie, if any. Merely a lonely quest.

Her attitude to science is ambigious. She was an engineer’s daughter but also a rebel against scientific reduction. In ‘Unsubmissive Plant’ (1961) she shows herself as a botanist who abuses plants in the laboratory, becoming through their process alienated from the life that she is investigating. In some ways this is a warning painting. Do not let your search divert you from the need to look after the planet on which we prey. Science’s hubris is dissected in her art.

The ultimate hope lay in the conjuction of mysticism and science with all the arts. She painted visionary scientist-artists who worked with sound, scientific ideas n the service of nature. The characters work hard, alone, eager in the search of knowledge of the deepest kind. She is looking into what creativity is.

Her last completed painting was ‘Still Life Revolving’ (1963). In this image plates whirl round a table, suspended above the tablecloth. Above it food whirls too like planets It is a joyful dining scene with animated objects, fruits that orbit the sun of the candle flame. When they collide their explode, sending their seeds to earth. It is a celebration of the year, of the cyclical forces of nature and the life-giving propertie sof light.

Remedios Varo (1908-1963) was an exceptional painter, one of the great mystic artists of the twentieth century. Born in Spain but living and working in Mexico, she was an important part of the Mexican artist community. Her outstanding voice was commemorated by the Poet Octavio Paz.

‘She does not paint time, but the moments when time is resting. / In her world of stopped clocks, we hear the flow of substances, the circulation of shadow and light; time ripening. / Forms seek their own form, form seeks its own dissolution’. Octavio Paz from ‘Remedio Varo’s Appearances and Disappearances.’

Leonora Carrington will be featured in a future article.

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