A new book gathers the private writings of Spanish Surrealist Remedios Varo (1908-63). The Mexico-resident artist has gained a supportive following for her paintings and this book brings her writings to new foreign audiences. The publisher is Wakefield Press, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is a specialist publishing house producing literary texts in translation, including some rarities of Surrealism. This small-format paperback edition is attractive and comfortable in the hands, with a few transcriptions of text and images. It is the first English translation of the Spanish language edition published in Mexico in 1994.
The artist was born in Anglès, Girona. She studied in the Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid, graduating in 1930, just a few years after the golden generation of Dalí, Lorca and Buñuel. In the mid-1930s Varo became engaged by the art and ideas of the Surrealist movement. She was friendly with Óscar Dominguez and had a relationship with Esteban Francés, both Spanish Surrealist painters. In 1937, concerned about the Spanish Civil War and the progress of the Falangists, Varo left her homeland and moved to Paris to join the Surrealists officially. Her art was published in journals and she exhibited at a number of major displays of Surrealist art.
In 1941 Varo fled Europe for Mexico, where she would spend the rest of her life. During her time in Mexico City she became close to Leonora Carrington. Varo’s painting and literary fantasies share much with Carrington. Although they came from different backgrounds, their outlooks largely converged and found common ground in Surrealism, fantasy, dreams, allegories and fables. Carrington appears in some of Varo’s recorded dreams and Varo is a character (Carmella Velasquez) in Carrington’s novella The Hearing Trumpet.
The texts in this collection seem to have been private writings not intended for publication. Some were found in Varo’s daily notebooks, surrounded with mundane lists and calculations, and published posthumously. There are letters to identified or unidentified recipients, logs of dreams and unpublished written interviews. Few are dated; the translator suggests that they were written in the last years of the artist’s life. Varo’s papers and art were preserved and promoted by her last partner, Walter Gruen, whose efforts have contributed to Varo’s sustained reputation. The translator’s introduction will help newcomers to Varo’s art and writing; notes identify some individuals mentioned in the texts.
Varo’s writing is full of playful wit. She sends ciphers to a painter colleague and reminds him of shared paellas past. In a letter to a stranger picked at random, she invites him to spend New Year’s Eve at another random stranger’s house. The amusing and disarmingly self-deprecating letter recalls the acts of arbitrary mischief that Surrealists advocated; the combination of precision, pointlessness and whimsicality has charm. In other letters she comments to supporters about her art.
One of Varo’s most notable art works is Homo Rodans, a skeletal construction of a fantastical creature with a wheel-like lower portion, presented as a museum specimen. Varo wrote a parodic scientific paper on the Homo Rodans, complete with Latin quotations and pseudonymous author name. Project for a Theater Piece is a story of theatrical quality and dreamlike interactions. It is regrettably short and its potential seems unfulfilled. It shares a fragmentary quality with the other pieces here. There is some automatic writing (Surrealist practice of writing images or words in free association, as derived from psychoanalytic practice) and fantastical recipes including one with ingredients of horseradish, garlic, honey, a brick and two false moustaches.
Ten dreams are described. There’s certainly more than a little curiosity value to a personal friend of Carrington and Wolfgang Paalen who records their appearances in her dream logs.
“I sat down to write two very important letters and left them (before putting them into their envelopes) on a table, and when I went back to retrieve them, I saw with annoyance that Eva’s gentlemen friends had dunked one of the letters in the oil-and-vinegar dressing of a salad they were eating and the other letter was soaking in the juices from some pieces of stewed meat on another plate.”
The most pleasing dream story is one where a condemned Varo metaphorically weaves a man into material of herself, making a woven egg-like structure, allowing her to die satisfied.
There is a compilation of allusive and short comments on the personal meaning of her paintings had for her. All of the paintings are late recently made paintings. The references Varo makes indicate the significance she attached to astrology, science, cooking, mythology, literature and history. While her literary style is not ornate or sophisticated, the writings have the appeal of being made for her own pleasure rather than being produced for an audience. They have lightness and humour without striving too hard for comic effect. This enjoyable collection will spur some readers to investigate Varo’s art and it gives us a glimpse of Varo’s character and the frames of reference for her as a creator.
Remedios Varo, Margaret Carson (trans.), Letters, Dreams & Other Writings, Wakefield Press, November 2018, paperback, 128pp, mono illus., $14.95, ISBN 978 1 939663 39 9
© 2018 Alexander Adams
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