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Sara Potter
UTEP, 3 March 2012
Strapping It On: Alchemy, Play(s), and Technological Extensions in the Work of Remedios Varo
Though born in Spain, Surrealist artist Remedios Varo is widely accepted and embraced
as a Mexican artist, since it was in Mexico that she had the space and peace she needed to work.
It was also the place that offered her the most artistic and economic success, and where most of
her work and personal papers are held to this day. Her paintings exhibit a deep, powerful, and yet
playful connection with technology; she was strongly influenced by her father, a hydraulic
engineer, and also by her profound interest in alchemy and the occult. These interests manifested
themselves in a number of hybrid beings in her paintings, many of which combine organic and
mechanical elements. In this paper, I will examine the disconcerting machines and hybrid
creatures in her paintings and sculptures as well as in her written works, most of which were not
published in her lifetime. I suggest that these strange creatures and her playful, deliberately
absurdist approach to art and to writing comprise a unique and subversive contrapuntal response
to discourses of avant-garde, gender, and technology in the male-dominated intellectual
community while Varo was in Mexico. In this way, Varo liberates herself artistically and
intellectually from the European Surrealist community that took refuge in Mexico during the
Second World War, as well as from the Mexican intellectuals debates on nationalism and
identity from the same time period.
When I speak of strap-ons, the sexual implications are inevitable. Varo definitely had a
picaresque side, and her sexuality, while not particularly evident in her personajes or even in her
few self-portraits, is unmistakable in her writing in a way that it is not in her paintings. [I suggest
she had a reason for not stressing sexuality in her paintings, but I will discuss that further later on
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in the paper.] I also use the term strap-on to refer to and encompass prosthetics, technological
extensions, and body-machine meldings and fusions in her paintings. Some of her paintings are
intimately connected to her writing, and two of themAu bonheur des dames and Homo
Rodans--you can see on your handout. In her writing, Varo plays with a variety of tones, of
words (many of her own invention), of styles. Invented words, invented names, invented
quotations and sources, all appropriated for the sake of play, of communication, of rebellion, of
self-expression. These, too, are her strap-ons.
Do I mean that shes trying to be like a man with these strap-ons, or to abandon a sense of
femininity, to write or paint like a man? No, not at all. A strap-on, for my purposes here, at
least, in what I hope will remain a family-friendly paper at 9:30 on a Saturday morning, is that
which is used for purposes of penetration. To define what I mean by penetration, I will be taking
as a springboard a quote from Minge and Zimmermans article Power, Pleasure, and Play, in
which they suggestively declare that penetration is desire passed between, into, through, and
with bodies (331). The quote then begs the question: which desire, whose desire, and which
bodies? While the Minge and Zimmerman article referred largely to physical human bodies, I
would like to expand and this definition for my purposes to include bodies of text, bodies of
discourse(s), and, since we are talking about Remedios Varo, bodies of art. In this sense, Judith
Butlers Bodies That Matter is extremely useful to me here, particularly her initial discovery that
she could not fix bodies as simple objects of thought (103/6134). The idea of the body as a
slippery signifier is no longer new, of course, but Butlers ideas regarding boundaries and the
transgression (or maybe just traversal) of those boundaries is profoundly connected to the very
conception of that body. As she observes, Not only [do] bodies tend to indicate a world beyond
themselves, but this movement beyond their own boundaries, a movement of boundary itself,
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appeared to be quite central to what bodies are (103). This integral connection of a body to
a world beyond [itself] which, Butler pointedly reminds us is a body that comes in genders,
(111) has very suggestive connections to many of Varos studies of alchemy and esotericism. As
such, I argue that Varos presentation of bodies in her writing and her pictorial art imply
subversive and ultimately liberating connections to other possibilities and other planes of
existence for these bodies.
These four works are drawn from what Kaplan, Arcq, and other scholars refer to as the
Mexican years in Remedios Varos life: 1955-1963. I will be discussing Homo Rodans and
Animal fantstico along with the accompanying text, De Homo Rodans and I will address the
ways in which the two paintings below, Au Bonheur des dames and Visita al cirujano
plstico serve as visual, contextual, and thematic bookmarks to the Homo Rodans series. I will
attempt to show the relation and deliberate non-relation between the bone sculpture and the text;
the recreated skeleton serves as a distraction to continue a discourse established in Varos
previous paintings, and also allows her to insert a critique on gender norms and behavior, albeit
couched in absurdist terms of a pseudo-scientific discourse. I will also argue (very briefly, as
Homo Rodans will take up more of my time than Id expected) for a continuation of her previous
ideas and concerns on gender and the body in Visita al cirujano plstico.
Though she arrived in Mexico in late 1941, her work produced during those years can be
divided into two eras or categories: an incubation period from 1941-1955 (the term comes
from Teresa Arcq), which was a period of adjustment and evolution that included intensive study
of alchemy and esotericism and a two-year stint in Venezuela painting ads for Bayer. In 1952,
she married Walter Gruen, which Arcq, Andrade, Castells, Kaplan, and others agree marked
another turning point in her art, since, as Tere Arcq observes, this union provided her with the
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economic means and safe environment that would allow her to focus her activities exclusively on
her painting (22). Three years later, she had her first solo exhibit at the Galera Diana in Mexico
City, which was a resounding success and which marked the true punto de arranque of her
artistic career.
While the roots of her artistic and intellectual development are in Europe (primarily
Madrid, where she trained, as well as in Barcelona and Paris), it was only after her arrival to
Mexico as a refugee from the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War that she had the
time, space, safety, and resources to develop her art in a way that was influenced and inspired by,
yet increasingly distant from, the two intellectual currents in which she was most heavily
involved: Surrealism, which enjoyed a healthy process of transplantation to Mexico via a small
but active expatriate community of European artists in the late 30s and early 40s, and studies of
esotericism and alchemy, principally as found in the work of two esotericists that profoundly
interested Remedios: George Gurdjieff and P. D. Ouspensky. It is important to note, however,
that she never completely renounced either: Janet Kaplan aptly notes that Varo maintains a
double allegiance that valued the Surrealists subversive/parodic energy while critiquing its
negative attitudes. As might be expected, Varos critiques were most pointed around issues
regarding women (Kaplan, Catlogo razonado, 38-9). In the same vein, Varo was clearly
inspired by the ideas presented by Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, but, as with Surrealism, tended to
use their tools and ideas to her own ends. While she never took on Breton or Gurdjieff as
explicitly as her friend Leonora Carrington did, Varo tends to use the masters tools
techniques or ideas particular to either movement or currentand then use those tools out of the
original ideological context and put them at the service of her own aesthetic, artistic, or spiritual
intentions.
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Au bonheur des dames, the first painting, is accompanied by a short text, which Varo
wrote on the back of a photo of the painting that she then sent on to her brother Rodrigo in
Venezuela. She describes them to him as:
Criaturas cadas en la peor mecanizacin; todas las partes de su cuerpo son ya
ruedecillas, etctera. En la tienda venden las piezas que se deseen adquirir para
sustituir las usadas. Criaturas de nuestra poca, sin ideas propias, mecanizadas y
prximas a pasar al estado de insectos, hormigas en particular (Au bonheur des
dames, 1956).
In Gurdjieffs thought, any man (he does not include women in his writings, though most of his
followers in Paris were women) who is unenlightened or unaware is nothing more than a
machine, an automaton. Man (and Im using this term deliberately) must first be aware that he is
asleep, then take steps to awaken, to work on balancing the parts of the self (the physical, the
mental, and the intellectual) to reach a new level of self-awareness and connection with the
universe. Varo addresses this idea using frottagea Surrealist technique that is supposed to lead
to automatic paintingbut around the splotches, the rest of the painting is extremely detailed,
orderly, and well thought outthe polar opposite of Bretons exhortation to engage in psychic
automatism in its pure state [d]ictatedin the absence of control exercised by reason, exempt
from any aesthetic or moral concern (10). (And thats from his First Surrealist Manifesto in
1924, so shes going against the very foundations of Surrealism in using frottage this way. This
may not sound terribly transgressive, but Breton had kicked artists out of the group for far less.)
Furthermore, Varo goes out of her way to name the department store Au bonheur des citoyens,
and her wheel-creatures are clearly male and female. Departing from Zolas novel as well, the
only implied romance is with consumption, and all of the subjects are equally at fault, equally in
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need of self-discovery and awareness. While Varo never mentions Mexico, and while her
critique could apply nearly anywhere in the First World during this period, she does paint this in
1956, in the middle of the decade that Joseph, Rubenstein and Zolov refer to as a Golden Age of
consumption, and thus belonging (10), with a patriarchal culture at its essential core (12). I
Varo develops the wheeled creatures to more satirical and more critical ends a few years
later in her most complex work, which I will treat as one work in three parts. Homo Rodans
refers to the painting and the sculpture you see in figures one and two, respectively. De Homo
Rodans is the part to which I will devote most of my energy, mostly for the sake of time, and
also since the text hasas far as I can tellbarely been discussed critically. It was one of only
two texts that Varo intended for publication; the others, most which have since been compiled by
Isabell Castells, Janet Kaplan, and Edith Mendoza Bolio, were short texts that read precisely as
Varo herself described them in the title of Mendoza Bolios 2010 critical compilationlike a
sketch, a boceto. Her paintings were planned, re-planned, and then planned some more; by the
time a finished work was produced, she would have made a number of preliminary sketches and
often paintings as well to achieve precision in terms of angles, symbols, use of color, etc. In her
writing, she was much more relaxed, and one can get a far more complete idea of her sense of
humor, which could be quite sharp, dark, or even bawdy, which none of the men who write her
elegiesWalter Gruen, Octavio Paz, Andr Breton, Alberto Blanco, etc.ever seem to
recognize.
De Homo Rodans is a clever spoof on archeological discourse, as others have noted.
What I have yet to see is any recognition of Varos playful take on gender roles and sexuality
within that pseudo-scientific discourse. While the wheels in Au bonheur des dames/citoyens
were symbols of sleep, of automatism, and of overall repression, here the wheel in De Homo
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Rodans is far more complex in its meaning, and thus in the range of possibilities that it may
represent. De Homo Rodans is Varos most complicated and multifaceted strapon, loaded with a
hodgepodge of invented words, made-up experts, and fabricated primary texts as well as real
ones in a way that recallsat least in my readinga number of Borges stories. The author may
be real and the text a fabrication, or vice versa. Varo also creates an alternate first-person male
narrator (Hlikcio von Fuhrngschmidt) to give narrative voice to the text, thus adding extra
layers of complexity as well as gender play.
This text, Von Fuhrngschmidt tells us, is written to correct a grave error in the
classification of lumbar bones in a previous anthropological treatise. Before that can be
corrected, however, it must first be understood that nuestro Universo conocido se divide en dos
claras tendencias: la de aquello que tiende a endurecerse y la de aquello que tiende a ablandarse
(194). Worryingly, von Fuhrngschmidt notes, el enduracimiento cobra cada da ms prestigio:
msculos duros, carcter inflexible, ejercicios destinados a endurecer las superficies y volmenes
anatmicos femeninos, etc. (195). (I think you can see further ramifications of this worrying
tendency toward the female body in Visita al cirujano plstico its kind of hard to see in the
handout, but the clinic is named Clnica Plastourgencia, as if in response to plastic surgery
emergencies. Whether those emergencies result from a society that considers its women to be
deformed and in need of correction, or from the plastic surgery itself, remains to be seen.) Not
surprisingly, in Varos text this endurecimiento is closely tied in to sexual desire. Varo relates
this in the voice of von Fuhrngschmidt quoting Quintilianos (non-existent) Narraciones
Trbidas in a version of Latin that Varo herself invented. As my pronunciation of even real Latin
is shaky at best, I will read Mendoza Bolios translation to Spanish: Habase un anciano
venerable que en su camino vislumbra a una mujer impdica y turbadora, adornada con un par de
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turgentes globos que provoca que su apetito sensual arda en lujuria (trans. 57, orig. 195). This
connection between hardness and exclusively male sexual desire continues throughout the essay,
and while Varo adopts the alarmed tone of a sheltered and conservative man of science, her
underlying critique comes through clearly: she argues, in a deliberately absurd way, for the
balance of and between these kinds of binaries: hard/soft, masculine/feminine, lust/chastity.
El ablandamiento, meanwhile, also results in disaster: tenemos muchos ejemplos de los
terribles resultados del reblandecimiento transcendental de los abismos minerals cuanto stos
comenzaron a retroceder en su equivocado y audaz camino hacia la dureza absoluta (195). The
impact now has nothing to do with man and woman, but with the whole of nature. Varo
continues: Desde la erupcin de Moolookao (fake), en el frica central, hasta nuestros das,
cuntas ruinas y desastres! Pompeya, Herculano, Parfis, Moscolawia, Bois-Colombes, El
Pedregal, etc. (ibid).
In all this talk of hardness/softness, the Homo Rodans statue turns out to be a bit of a
distraction if we limit our reading to the essay and the two works of art associated with it. If we
consider the statue in the overall scheme of her works, however, Varo has established a clear
concept of this sort of wheeled being An example of this tendency towards endurecimiento, von
Fuhrngschmidt then tells us, can be found surrounding the discovery of an inexplicable
abundancia de huesos lumbares belonging to a single person (197). They had been categorized
as Homo Reptans, a precursor to Homo Sapiens. This is a grave error, we are told; there was
never a Homo Reptans but rather Homo Rodans, which s/he describes by omission: he tells us
that, along with the bones, there is a detailed description of the species (which von
Fuhrngschmidt does not include, as it is in another (imaginary) text) and an extremely precise
drawing that von Fuhrngschmidt/Varo reproduces in the bone sculpture in the photo. Von
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Fuhrngschmidt then scolds his colleage (W. H. Strudlees) for his lasciva suposicin de
reptalidad afrodisaca con intensiones procreadoras (197), as if this wheeled creature (which, in
Varos previous work, has been a symbol of unconsciousness, disconnection from self and from
others, and mindless economic consumption) lacked all sexual urges. Varos placement of the
species as a skeletonthus indicating its extinctionserves as a subtle warning against this sort
of unconsciousness and implies a redirection to a search for a different plane of existence and of
interaction with and of society. To fail to do so, she tells us in the voice of von Fuhrngschmidt,
will result in una poca de dolorosa confusin en que toda materia ser Infernalina Hbrido-
Maniaca, a neologism that Mendoza Bolio describes as a play on words to refer to psicosis
maniaco-depresiva (198). In the essay connected to this non-human, apparently genderless body
only by a title and a single short paragraph in the text, Varo establishes a playful yet serious plea
for societal integration and greater flexibility in gender roles, particularly if read in what turns
out to be a clear philosophical and conceptual line of thought that extends through the years and
connects her separate works into a series of increasingly developed and explored concepts and
critiques on society and gender.