I stumbled upon Remedios Varo‘s art by accident. A happy accident. While I was in grad school (the first time, back in the early 2000s), I came across a surrealistic novel by Leonora Carrington called The Hearing Trumpet. The book’s cover was amazing:
So I looked into the cover artist’s background. It turned out that the writer of the novel had also painted the cover. I’d never heard of Leonora Carrington before, so I quickly began looking through the university library stacks to investigate further. It was in one of the books about her and her work that I discovered Remedios Varo, who was one of Carrington’s best friends. Before I knew anything else about Varo and her work, I knew her by the image of just one of her paintings that the writer of the book on Carrington had included when she made mention of their friendship. It was called “Creation of the Birds”:
And it was after I saw this painting that I quickly forgot about my research on Leonora Carrington. For a while at least.
I had never seen surrealist art that looked like this before: so precise, as if the artist was not so interested in tearing apart reality, but creating a new reality instead. Modernist surrealism was more about distortion and alienating effects. It walked the line of grotesquery, transfiguring reality and the received notions of reality we all have into a strange, often uncomfortable scenes of breakdown. I’m thinking of Dali at the moment, and his famous melting clocks in a desert landscape, for instance. An arid world where time no longer matters. That, in a way, was really typical of surrealist art at the time. But Varo, who was making art at the same time, didn’t seem interested in the breakdown of concepts like time or landscape or the human body. She seemed interested more in the creation of new notions of time, landscape, and in the invention of character and narrative in her paintings.
I was immediately hooked by her, and my research on Carrington went to the side temporarily, so I could seek out more and more of Varo’s work.
As mentioned, I was working on a Master’s degree at the time, and was in my second semester, taking a poetry workshop with the poet William Greenway, who had focused his workshop on the process of ekphrasis: the writing of poetry in response to paintings or visual art. I spent a lot of time that semester looking at paintings and writing (mediocre) poems in response. But I was really invested in the process I was learning. I was excited, even if my poems wouldn’t have seemed exciting to anyone who read them. I’m not a poet, and while I appreciate and love poetry, I always feel like I’ve been strait-jacketed whenever I’ve tried to write a poem. I’m more inclined to prose and narrative, and so, when it came to the final project for the class, I asked Will Greenway if I could write a short story in response to the visuals of Remedios Varo, rather than doing a series of poems. Will gave me permission, and it was then that I started to put together a story in a very different way than I ever had prior to that course.
Because Varo’s work is so character and place based, with inferred narratives clearly occurring within each painting, I felt like I could easily access those stories. I’d been looking at her paintings for several months by that point, and several revealed themselves to me as somehow being connected (though, really, all of Varo’s paintings feel connected to me, as if they are simply windows onto different personages and places in the fabulist landscape she created).
The first was “Creation of the Birds,” pictured above.
The second painting that felt like it was the inverse of “Creation of the Birds” was “The Star Catcher”:
In the first painting, it was clear to me that the Owl or Bird Woman of the painting was using celestial light to create, whereas in this one, the Star Catcher was imprisoning and collecting celestial bodies. They seemed to me like the perfect oppositional personages. They would be my protagonist and antagonist, respectively.
The third painting that I decided to utilize for the creation of my story was “Spiral Landscape”:
This is a small image, so I’m not sure how easily viewable it will be on-screen, but essentially it presented me with my setting. And because I’m often inspired by setting as more than just the background wallpaper of a story, but as a thematic or sometimes conflict-driven aspect of narrative, I was attracted to “Spiral Landscape” as a potential embodiment of the conflict of cyclically toxic relationships, which the story presents. Opposites like the Bird Woman and The Star Catcher do attract from time to time, and they tend to have explosive relationships and histories that are hard to escape. The setting for these two characters would itself become part of their conflict. (I also just thought it would be pretty cool to live on a spiral shaped island).
So I had a setting and two characters with a relationship problem, which might have been enough. But I wanted to do more with it. I wanted to inject something into the narrative that also was indicative of modernist surrealism and the culture that surrounded it at the time. Since I was going to write about an essentially bad romance and relationship issues, I thought it might be fun to dig into psychoanalysis, Freudian thought, etc, which was so prevalent in the circles these artists ran in. And luckily, I discovered the fourth painting that I would work into the fabric of my story when I saw Varo’s “Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst”:
I loved the idea of leaving a psychoanalyst with his head (head shrinking), his thoughts, his interpretations of your problems, rather than your own. In the painting, the woman’s hair is completely twisted, and she’s about to drop the psychoanalyst’s head (as I interpret it) into a well. Good riddance. I didn’t utilize this painting in a direct equation in my story, though. I placed the Bird Woman instead in this position, and created a third character, the Psychoanalyst, who she seeks help from to resolve her relationship issues with the Star Catcher. He serves to be a bit of a comic character in my story, and a good “extra” that allowed me to get outside of the Bird Woman’s interior space every now and then, as he literally becomes a “talking head” in my story.
I’d never conceived of a story in this way before, and it was really one of the most fascinating processes I’d ever gone through at that time in my experience as a writer. I’d been used to writing from within my own interior/emotional imaginative landscape. This process compelled me to absorb someone else’s world, to inhabit it, to figure out how it might “play” in a prose narrative. I still needed to invent, but I had to work with materials borrowed from a visual artist.
A picture is worth a thousand words, they say, and I discovered that was pretty much true, though sometimes a picture can take more than a thousand words. The story I made, “The Creation of Birds” (just a bit different from Varo’s original title), was a bit over six thousand words in length, made from these four paintings filtered through my imagination.
Note: I’ll be back in a couple of days to talk about Leonora Carrington, who I returned to after my research into Varo.