The quest motif in Arthurian literature is traditionally a male paradigm, but some contemporary women writers and artists have been creating a counter tradition of "revisionist mythmaking"--a re-writing or re-visioning of the quest that foregrounds the female implications of traditional quest/grail imagery and addresses specifically the relations among women, nature, and the creative imagination. Scholar Estella Lauter claims that the fantasy and female-centered art of Remedios Varo reveals the same stages found in traditional quests: the Separation, the Initiation, and the Return. See what you think as you view the following images accompanied by selected quotations from Lauter's Women as Mythmakers: Poetry and Visual Art by Twentieth-Century Women (Indiana UP 1984).
Born in 1908, Anglés Cataluńa Spain. Died 1963, Mexico City, Remedios Varo is probably one least known of the great Surrealist painters, even though she is rumored to have taken classes together with Salvado Dalí. Her presentation of dreams, imagery and symbolism has a unique style all its own, entriely fanatastic, yet still full of subtle wit and enigma.
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 works.
[Page 89] "One of Varo's first paintings . . . shows a cloaked and hooded female descending a walled flight of steps from an imposing building, under the ominous gaze of six human figures. She walks straight toward us with . . . her hands folded in resolution. . . . Her garment suggests that she is leaving a convent; its folds, however, suggest the vaginal shape that surrounds several questers in Varo's later work."
[Page 81] "[In Solar Music] . . . a woman plays a stringed sunbeam with her bow, and the music releases the birds in nearby trees from their cocoon-like capsules. Where illumination from the sun falls, it makes both the forest floor and her mantle green; but [Page 83] it is her own music, rising in arcs from the point where her bow touches the strings, that releases the birds from their torpor. . . ."
[Page 90] "[This painting creates] an image of female nurturing . . . . The protagonist is seated at a table inside an octagonal enclosure in the sky. She is grinding the food from the stars and feeding it to the moon in its cage. She is at once powerful and impotent. Because the moon is waning, it seems likely that she is saving it from death. . . . A closer look at her setting reveals the source of her ambivalence; although there are steps leading from her enclosure, she could not take them unless she could walk on clouds. . . . [She] is as caged as the moon. . . ."
Creation of the Birds
(Creacion de las aves)
[Page 84-5] ". . . [T]he protagonist has assumed the form of an owl in order to paint birds who will come to life and take flight for the first time. . . . She dips the brush, attached to her own violin (in the place of her heart), into paint from an alchemical alembic where the substance from the stars is stored. With her other hand, she holds a triangular magnifying glass to intensify the light from the moon. . . . The woman/owl gives wings to her visions of the birds."
[Page 91] ". . . [This] is her image of what will be required if human creators wish to make a world in which all the species of life can survive. Her choice of the owl, always a figure of wisdom, is clarified by the information that the pre-Hellenic, Cretan Athena was a patron of the arts and a goddess of renewal . . . ."
Exploration of the Sources of the Orinoco River
(Exploracion de las fuentes del rio Orinoco)
[Page 92] "In the midst of all these images of the transformed or the stymied quester is Varo's most explicit image of a journey. In Journey to the Sources of the Orinoco River, an amazon dressed in army fatigues and a bowler hat nagivates a womb-like egg-shaped vessel . . . riveted together and equipped with modern instruments for navigation. The journey has ended in a primeval forest which has drowned in the water that spouts from a goblet-fountain on a table in a hollow tree-trunk. . . . This may have been a sacred place of origins, but now it is nothing more than another landmark of civilization."
(Nacer de Nuevo)
[Page 92] "The moment of discovery in Varo's rendition of the quest occurs in Born Again. It is the discovery of the grail, which eluded all but three of King Arthur's knights. The naked female breaks through a wall into a sacred space that contains the grail, miraculously full and containing the reflected image of the crescent moon. . . . It is an ecstatic moment, . . . entirely feminine because of the ancient association of the woman with the vessel and the moon, and because of the vaginal imagery presented in the tearing wall. . . . [T]he protagonist has become her own fate."
(or, The One Who Is Called; La llamada)
[Page 92] ". . . [T]he quester is dressed in an incandescent flame-like garment. Her[Page 94] red hair reaches up to and wraps around the largest celestial body in the dark sky. She moves forward swiftly, carrying a vial of precious fluid and wearing an alchemist's mortar around her neck. The citizens, so immobile that they have become part of the city walls, indicate no awareness of her presence. No one acknowledges her triumph, her apotheosis as a goddess of fire or as a spiritual alchemist who has produced the elixir of life."
Woman Coming Out of the Psychoanalyst's
(Mujer saliendo del psicoamalista)
[Page 94] ". . . [T]he woman, wearing a green cloak, holds her father's head by the beard and prepares to drop it into the well. . . . Her vision has enabled her to discard her father's head (the most powerful embodiment of all that is threatening to her) along with other elements (a clock, a key, a pacifier) that Varo labels 'psychological waste.' Part of her mask has slipped in the process, but her mouth is still covered."
[Page 96] "Far from achieving atonement with the father, she must dispose of his head and assume the ultimate task of creation, the resurrection of nature, by herself. . . ."
Still-life Being Resurrected
(Naturaleza muerta resucitando)
[Page 86] "[This painting] shows plates of fruit being set in motion by a candle in the center of a table, and spiralling upward and outward until the fruit smashes to release its seeds, which become plants and flower immediately . . . . Varo's creator must now resurrect vegetable life. . . . Perhaps this is the most radical image of human creativity we can imagine--this god-like responsibility for the continuation of inanimate life."
“In Mexico City they somehow wandered into an exhibition of paintings by the beautiful Spanish exile Remedios Varo: in the central paintings of a triptych, titled ‘Bordando el Manto Terrestre’, were a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world.”
Thomas Pynchon – The Crying of Lot 49
National Museum of Women in the Arts : The Magic of Remedios Varo
Review by: Marilyn Millstone
Step inside the gold-and-marble grandeur of the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), and you'll find on view the remarkable surrealist paintings of Spanish artist Remedios Varo.
Varo, who was born in 1908 and died of a heart attack at age 55, devoted herself to painting only in the last decade of her life. Seventy-seven of her most famous works are on display at NMWA, many for the first time ever in the U.S.
The exhibit is aptly entitled "The Magic of Remedios Varo," for the word magic conjures an aura of whimsy, unpredictability and a bit of spookiness. Varo's paintings deliver exactly that: images, juxtapositions and allusions so fantastic and haunting that audiences have been entranced by them since her first one-woman show was held in Mexico in 1956.
Passionately interested in the sciences, the occult and the place of women in the world, Varo uses a wide array of subject matter in her work. Sometimes, she depicts women in traditional roles like weaving, though, characteristically, her depiction veers toward the fantastical. In "Weaver of Verona," an ashen woman seated in a dim room knits what is perhaps her alter-ego -- a winged woman in a bold red dress who is flying toward the light of the open window, her face turned enigmatically toward the viewer. In another piece called "Weaving of Space and Time," Varo interprets in delicate, swirling strokes the meaning of Einstein's theory of relativity.
The exhibit elicits a lot of "oohs" and "ahs" from viewers. "I've been to most of the famous art museums in the world, and I've never seen one of her works, or even heard of her," said one young Hispanic woman visiting the exhibit. "She's just wonderful."
Thematically complex and technically superb, Varo's challenging paintings take time to fully absorb and appreciate. You'll want to give yourself at least a full hour to experience the richness of the exhibit. A word of advice: be sure to follow from the beginning of the exhibit the beautifully written text panels offering insights that will enhance your understanding of Varo's work.
"The Magic of Remedios Varo" runs through May 29. The National Museum of Women in the Arts is located at 1250 New York Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20005, and is open Monday through Saturday 10-5 and Sunday 12-5. Admission is free; donations are requested.
-- Marilyn Millstone