Letters, Dreams & Other Writings
Translated by Margaret Carson
(Wakefield Press, 2018)
Like her paintings, Remedios Varo’s writing is delicate and assiduously unhinged, both giddy with the possibilities of the impossible and curiously prim—outlandish, but just right. In Varo’s work, the clashing forces of magic and science deliquesce: witchcraft, chemistry, fairytales, anthropology, mathematical formulas, astronomy, Freudian psychoanalysis—all is grist for the imagination. Wakefield Press, maintaining its admirable commitment to translating and reprinting minor Surrealist works, published a slight tome of Varo’s writings including dream diaries, correspondence, dream recipes, a questionnaire, and a pseudoscientific satire—most intended for herself or her orbit of friends, many of whom were fellow Surrealists. Letters, Dreams & Other Writings, deftly translated by Margaret Carson, is the first compilation of the painter’s prose in English. As with her paintings, Varo’s writing is a wily escapism, flouting the ordinary to bring us closer to the everyday.
She was born María de los Remedios Alicia Rodriga Varo y Uranga in 1908 in Catalonia, a remedy to her mother, who was mourning another daughter. Hers was a youth defined not by escapes from reality, but from cities. First, she fled Madrid amid the Spanish Civil War, moving to Paris in 1937 and eventually falling in with André Breton’s Surrealist clique. During the German Occupation of Paris, Varo fled again, this time immigrating to Mexico City. She considered it a refuge and remained there until her untimely death from a heart attack in 1963. In Mexico, Varo formed friendships with many artists and writers, but forged especially close bonds with fellow Surrealist émigrés Kati Horna, the Hungarian photographer; and Leonora Carrington, the British painter—the latter of whom would become an exquisite corpse collaborator (and whose own twistedly gorgeous writings were posthumously released by Dorothy, a publishing project, in 2017). The women were referred to by some in the city’s art world as the three brujas. Yet despite the community she found in Mexico City, Varo’s fabulism glows with a certain loneliness and solitude.
Papilla estelar (Celestial Pablum, 1958),my favorite Varo painting, depicts a woman sitting at a table in an attic. Her left hand grips a crank that grinds stars into dust, pulling the stars down through a pipe in the roof. With her right hand, she spoon-feeds the powder to a lambent, blue crescent moon that floats in a tall birdcage. The picture—preposterous in its tenderness—is one of numerous examples of how Varo re-envisioned activities and settings associated with domesticity into occasions for cosmic influence. She does this, too, in her writing, where cooking and keeping up correspondence (some of it sent out to strangers) allows her to deepen a relationship to the supernatural world. In a letter to Gerald Gardner, the British Wicca popularizer, Varo delightfully recounts her and her friends’ knack for organizing “the little solar systems in the home,” how through a just-so arrangement of her living room’s leather armchair, earthenware pitcher, diamonded pipe, and crocodile skull, she is able to rig the best course of cause and effect. That is, unless a meteor hurtles into this galaxy. “The meteor is none other than my cat, but little by little I’ve been able to master this haphazard factor, since I’ve discovered that by feeding the cat nothing but sheep’s milk, his trajectory generates almost no effect,” Varo explains (or doesn’t).
In her writing, souls leap from cats to quartz rocks, only to be freed by bolts of lightning. Erotic dreams are achievable with the right ingredients, which involve two fake mustaches, a whalebone corset, a mirror, and garlic. There’s a scientific parody written in the voice of “Hälikcio von Fuhrängschmidt” about Homo rodans, a ludicrous, rat-descended precursor to Homo sapiens, as well as an unfinished theater piece. A handful of meticulous descriptions (some automatic) suggest that writing served as a way for Varo to ideate paintings. In her words: “I sometimes write as though I were making a sketch.” A fragment titled “Pomegranate” comprises a not atypical sentence:“You see, what a thing, if you have time you can be in two places at once, stepping on only the cracks in the sidewalk, I believe, but I’m not sure and that’s why it’s best to go into the small shop, surreptitiously, and begin once again, she not only had a broad face, but was also covered in a soft, agreeable fur, and when sneezing scattered around her hot and pretty sparks, I don’t believe it’s a good thing.”
Most of the volume was handwritten in household notebooks, found among shopping lists, guest lists, and expenses. That they were never intended for wider readership somehow sweetens them, though we’re also left to wonder how, if she had lived a longer life, her skills may have developed. Varo’s imagination outperforms any aspect of literary style, but there are in her pages—which so lightly stir the mystic into the mundane with both a comically genteel, gothic sensibility—the echoes of Borges, of Clarice Lispector. Ideally, Letters will bolster scholarship around Varo’s output and acquaint readers with her paintings, which seem to be slowly gaining recognition in the U.S. But their simplest rewards reside in the dozens of images Varo evokes: a stone wrapped in blond hair; a butterfly asleep on a silk shirt; a woman buried in honey; an enormous, self-enclosing egg woven with ribbons; a volcano sprouting up in a friend’s courtyard; and Varo herself, like one of the women in her paintings: making miracles out of whatever was around her.