A Woman Sits at the Table
by: Alyssa Harad , January 27, 2020
by: Alyssa Harad , January 27, 2020
Remedios Varo’s Letters, Dreams and Other Writings
Translated by Margaret Carson
‘Sometimes I write as though I’m making a sketch’. —Remedios Varo
A woman sits at a table
writing a reply to a letter from her first ex-husband (who she never bothered to divorce). She begins with a gentle rebuke, ‘—oh how it hurts!—this letter of loneliness, gloomy lamentations…’ and ends by reminding him of all the unpaid work his current wife is doing. Several flights down, the traffic crawls along Mexico City’s Avenida Álvaro Óbregon. The scent of car exhaust and eucalyptus drifts in though the terrace window, mixes with the cigarette smoke hanging in the air. ‘I’ve plunged into a colossal struggle against nicotine and against smoke in general,’ she writes to another man, listed only as ‘an unknown painter.’ ‘I’ve managed a partial conquest of this matter and on good days smoke only six cigarettes. On days of longing, of depression, and when everything’s a mess, well! then I don’t know!’ Nearly every candid photo of Remedios Varo shows her holding a lit cigarette and looking like a 1940s movie star: plucked, arched brows, enormous eyes, high cheekbones and a thin, sensuous mouth under a Roman nose. She will die at at age 56, at the height of her career after surviving two wars, three husbands, innumerable lovers and would-be lovers, imprisonment, misogyny, poverty, Surrealism and exile—of a heart attack.
Shipping manifest for Remedios Varo: Letters, Dreams and Other Writings
1 (one) unpublished interview
8 (eight) letters*
1 (one) incomplete play written by 2 (two) women
2 (two) recipes/spells to induce erotic/royal dreams
2 (two) very short stories involving abesses, knights, schooners, macintoshes, humidity and various birds
3 (three) notes for future paintings
3 (three) examples of automatic writing (from 2 (two) women) on subjects including thyme, hair incense, saliva, feathers, pomegranate, ash, beeswax, mercury, cobalt, olive oil etc.
10 (ten) dreams
33 (thirty-three) descriptions of paintings by the author written to accompany photographs of said paintings mailed to her brother
8 (eight) pages of translator’s notes by Margaret Carson with commentary by Walter Gruen
3 (three) occult/mock mathematical formulae/poems using an unknown numeric system
1 (one) solar system composed of magical objects in the author’s studio corresponding with similar objects in other rooms and studios across Mexico City and the world
1 (one) small volcano used mostly for grilling
*One of the eight letters is actually two letters under one cover so there has been some dispute as to how to count them. This refusal to settle down is typical of the shipment. It is possible this manifest is incomplete. It is possible this manifest will never be complete.
A problem/A joke
It’s a problem: how to write about art. Or whether to write about it. ‘Most writing about art is terrible,’ says my friend, herself a writer and an artist. Writing about art by non-artists, she continues, is especially bad. (I am not an artist.) They leave out the necessity of the physical act, lapse into psychologizing, attribute both too much and too little intention to the artist. ‘Sometimes you simply reach for something you have at hand,’ she says, ‘and use it to fill a hole.’
I tell her that Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo’s dear friend, conspirator, fellow exile and partner in art and magic (she appears in several of Varo’s dreams and is the co-author of the unfinished play in the collection) was notorious for refusing to explain her work. I describe a video I once saw on You Tube of Carrington’s journalist cousin, Joanna Moorhead, trying to interview the artist. Carrington refuses question after question and finally shouts, ‘You’re intellectualizing again! Stop intellectualizing!’
Maybe, I say to my friend, it’s a question of translation. The art is already a rough translation of an unspeakable experience. To explain the art is a translation too far. If an explanation were possible, the art would not exist.
Or maybe, I think later, remembering the rumors that at least one of Carrington’s canvases carries a curse, art is not a translation but an action, a kind of spell that only works if it remains unmediated by language. (‘Stop intellectualizing!’)
In this brief but potent collection of her writing, Remedios Varo suggests a third possibility: explanations kill the joke. Therefore, the best way to write about art is to make more jokes. Consider her description of her 1958 painting Be Brief (Sea usted breve): ‘Nothing much in particular is happening here. That lady is strolling along with a talisman in her hand; her hat is a little cloud that keeps leaving scraps behind itself; on the first story of the house in back, on the right, lives a horse.’ Or her description of The Knitting Woman of Verona (La tejedora de Verona), 1956: ‘What’s happening here is obvious: that lady who is knitting fisherman’s rib is making animated characters who leave through the window.’ Or my favorite, her description of Fellow Feeling (Simpatia), 1955: ‘This lady’s cat jumps up on top of the table creating the havoc that is usually tolerated if one likes cats—as I do. As she strokes him so many sparks leap up that they form this whole, very complex electrical contraption. Some sparks and electricity fly at her head and are made use of to get a quick permanent wave.’
A woman sits at a table
not writing, exactly, but opening a small casket, which is not unlike writing given what is inside the casket. As Varo puts it: ‘This poor woman, full of curiosity and expectation as she opened the coffer, encounters her own self…’ (Encounter, 1959, used by Wakefield Press as the cover illustration for the collection.)
When Remedios Varo pulled a prank, her third husband Walter Gruen tells us, she would ‘twist her imaginary mustache.’ If I had to choose a single gesture to describe Letters, Dreams And Other Writings it would be this one—mischievous, dapper, pleased, gently self-mocking and ever so slightly gender-bending. Though her paintings often express melancholy, isolation, fear, estrangement, and a kind of mystical ravishment, in this collection we rarely see Varo keep a straight face. A letter to Gerald Gardner, English author and populizer of Wicca, begins as an earnest fan letter, but soon spins off into a story about solar systems and the gradual appearance of a small volcano, a tale that Varo seems to be telling solely for her own amusement, though she maintains the pretense of asking for Gardner’s advice (1). Other letters, written to strangers under a pseudonym, dare the recipient to attend a New Year’s Eve party, satirize Varo’s well known attachment to magical objects, and claim, nonchalantly, to be from a seller of French perfumes who is ‘only a Sunday painter.’
There are two notable exceptions: the dreams, which, according to Gruen, Varo recorded as a kind of exercise in self-analysis, and the double letter to Doctor Alberca, a Spanish psychologist, professor, and friend of Varo’s brother, who wants to lecture on her work. After a brief note explaining why she can’t send the requested photographs of her paintings until after the holidays (the post office ‘turns into an informal swarm of letters, packages, and cards flung into space in approximate directions’), she begins a second letter which, she tells Alberca, ‘you should regard as written by my double.’ ‘It’s the first time,’ she continues, ‘I’ve written to a psychiatrist in an open and unmasked fashion, for I’ve already done so in a veiled and mysterious fashion three times, without getting any results.’ (In the notes on Varo’s letters to anonymous strangers, Gruen suggests Varo may have chosen her ‘random’ recipients from the psychiatrist section of the phone book. See also, Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst, 1960.) ‘Ah! I’m forgetting to tell you,’ Varo says, pausing in her story of the other letters, ‘that I’m interested in seeing a psychiatrist because I suffer greatly from a permanent sense of guilt. Since I haven’t been able to improve anything on my own, I thought I needed someone’s help.’
This brief, direct request is soon buried, like the smallest Russian doll, in a series of inside jokes. The double letter is actually a triple letter, for Varo includes one of her previous letters to strangers (‘It turns out I’ve kept a copy…’) which she ‘signed with the somewhat pretentious and Machiavellian name of Gradiva.’ Gradiva, the Greek bas-relief of a woman walking that featured as a figure of obsession in the German writer Wilhelm Jensen’s novel of the same name, was adopted by the Surrealists as a kind of ur-muse, a figure standing in (or walking on) for all the cool girls, femme enfants, madwomen and criminals they worshipped, feared and abused, and for the world of dreams, sexuality, irrationality and the unconscious that they twinned with the feminine. Varo had done her time as a muse. (Surrealist muses invariably aged out of their role if they managed to remain sane and alive. Many did not.) But surely she also knew the name Gradiva would be catnip to any psychiatrist worth their salt: before Gradiva was claimed by the Surrealists she was made famous by Freud in his essay, ‘Delusions and Dreams in Jensen’s Gradiva,’ (1907) in which he suggested the possibility of a cure through love.
Sometimes you have a hole and you reach for something at hand to fill it.
A moment of gratitude for Walter Gruen
Walter Gruen, businessman, Austrian, Jew, devotee of music and art, survivor of Dachau and Buchenwald, met Varo when she visited his music shop. He became her lover, partner, muse, manager, patron and champion. He managed her career, kept her archives, transcribed her notebooks, and devoted his life to making sure she was free to pursue her creative work. He was, in short, Varo’s art wife. The decade Varo spent with Gruen was by far her most productive. Her best known paintings date from this era, as does most of the writing in this collection. Both Varo’s reknown and the value of her paintings rose sharply as a result of Gruen’s efforts. Varo died in Gruen’s arms while they waited for an ambulance to arrive. After her death, he continued to work on behalf of her reputation until his own death, forty-six years later. He helped to mount at least one major retrospective, spearheaded the creation of three major catalogues of her work and worked together with his next wife, Anna Alexandra Varsoviana to buy back as many of Varo’s works as possible for eventual placement in Mexico City’s Museo del Arte Moderno.
The collection of writings I am pretending to review would not exist without his help, nor would many articles, documentaries and books about Varo. In the biographical sketch he wrote for the second edition of Varo’s catalogue raisonné (where I learned about her imaginary mustache), Gruen has this to say about the husband who preceded him, Surealist poet Benjamin Peret: ‘It appears that Péret loved Remedios very deeply, for all his books were invariably dedicated to her. Yet I am uncertain as to what extent he stimulated her innate creative force.’
It is possible I am a little in love with Walter Gruen. I am aware that this is an error, the classical error of lavishing praise on an exceptional man for doing what women have done as a matter of course. Still, I hope that those of you who have spent any time trying to research women artists, or be women artists, will understand and forgive me.
In footnote number seven to Carson’s introduction, she says she has ‘not been able to consult Varo’s notebooks directly’ since, ‘at the time of this writing, the archive in Mexico that will house them had not yet been decided.’ What else, I wondered, is in that archive? Surely a woman who writes sympathetic letters to her ex-husbands would have written letters to her good friends, many of whom were brilliant artists and characters in their own right? Surely a woman who doted on the children of her friends would have made up stories for them as well as for Wiccans and random psychiatrists?
Halfway through the writing of this essay, I went to Mexico City to see Adictos a Remedios Varo: Nuevo Legado 2018, a celebration of the recent donation, in 2018, from the estate of Anna Alexandra Varsoviana de Gruen, to the Museo del Arte Moderno. There were many larger-than-life photographs of Varo hung thoughout the exhibit, including one taken by her friend, photographer Kati Horna, of Varo sitting in the doorway to her terrace, smoking, her writing table clearly visible in the background. And there, untranslated and under glass, arranged so only a fraction of the words were visible, were letters and more letters and yes, a story written for Horna’s little girl, Norah. It may be a long while before any of these documents are in print but there is more. A great deal more.
A woman sits at a table
writing, or not writing exactly, but peeling the center of the table back to reveal a ruffled hole, a kind of wood-grained cunt, from which springs the ghost of a tree whose traces curl around her, wander through the room, up the stairs and down the hallway, while behind her a male face bursts from a similar hole in her chair and reaches out with a tongue to lick the nape of her neck (Disturbing Presence, 1959). A woman sits at a table, or not a woman exactly, but someone slender and androgynous, not writing, but collaborating with a woman who lives inside a wall to fit magical objects on a musical staff. Elsewhere a small bird flies toward a chair with an eye peering out of its backrest (Harmony, 1956). A woman sits at a table, or not a woman exactly but something like a woman-owl with feet and hands (Creation of the Birds, 1958), writing with a pen connected to a violin that hangs from her neck and which might be her open heart. The line she is making runs from the page into the air, and where the line ends a bird takes flight.
(1) https://mashable.com/2017/06/24/eruption-of-paricutin/ (last accessed 20 January 2020).
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