At the end of the first chapter of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas looks at a painting and cries. The painting is by the exiled Spanish artist Remedios Varo and depicts
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. (CL 13).
What upsets Oedipa is that she identifies with these girls, not only their sense of captivity, but also their impotence. It is with terror she thinks that
what really keeps her where she is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all… if the tower is everywhere and the proof of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else? (CL 13)
But when I look the painting above, I don’t see anything to justify this kind of fear or paranoia. It’s something Oedipa brings to the painting. The rest of Varo’s work doesn’t have this tone either. It’s more playful, more interested in the surreal than in being allegorical.
Please note the cat in the floor.
Remedios Varo (1908-1963) was born in Spain and educated in Spanish convent schools. Her father was a hydraulic engineer, which had a recurring influence in her work. Her artistic training was strict and academic, from which she fled into Barcelona’s bohemian artistic circle. She was married to the poet Benjamin Peret, and her widower, publisher Walter Gruen. She moved to Paris where she became involved within the Surrealist movement. Forced into exile by the Nazis, she settled in Mexico City where she died of a heart attack at 55. There only seems to be one biography of her in English, Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varo (1988) by Janet Kaplan, and I have a feeling she isn’t that well critically thought of (there’s a lot of snobbishness about ‘fantasy’ art, sometimes with good reason). But to me there’s something distinctive about these pictures that elevates them from a lot of stuff that’s come since. The trouble is that the waters have been muddied so much.