Feminine, Feminist and Sinister:
Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Occult Imagery
As Subversive Narrative Strategies
Remedios Varo’s powerfully feminist work uses Surrealist imagery to upend stereotypical ideas of feminine powerlessness. According to her biographer, Luis-Martin Lozano, “She embraced a conscious revolution that allowed her to question the status quo, [and] challenge the rules…Through Surrealism, everything kept emotionally hidden could now be revealed.” Like her good friend Carrington, Varo coded these revelations in a visual language that incorporated animal avatars as emotional doubles. The animals with the greatest significance in Varo’s art are cats and birds. In the case of both animals, Varo alternately depicts them as familiar companions or in some process of hybridization. Since Varo identified deeply with occult traditions and witchcraft, it is no surprise that cats play a significant role in her iconography. As the consummate witches’ familiar, the cat has always been associated with the sinister, rebellious and feral. On the other hand, the birds in Varo’s art are metaphors for the higher mental processes involved in flights of inspiration and the mastery of artistic execution. Both of these animals reveal opposing, but equally powerful, aspects of her creativity.
Mimesis (Fig. 9), a painting created just a few years before her untimely death at fifty, is perhaps a look back at her stultifying marriage. Varo, who “flouted conventional morals” and “conducted affairs” with several men while a married woman, does not fit into the traditional mold of coy femininity. But there is evidence that her marriage to Benjamin Péret, who was significantly older and an influential Surrealist writer, hampered her artistic expression. Varo “found [herself] able to produce significant work only at a considerable remove from the circle of artists in Paris.” Specifically, her work took on its final, mature polish only after her separation from Péret, (who was known as the Grand Inquisitor of Surrealism) and his departure from Mexico. In Varo’s own words, "Mi posición era la tímida y humilde del oyente, no tenía la edad ni el aplomo para enfrentarme con ellos, con un Paul Éluard, un Benjamin Péret, o un André Breton; yo estaba con la boca abierta dentro de ese grupo de personas brillantes y dotadas… Hoy no pertenezco a ningún grupo; pinto lo que se me ocurre y se acabó." It is through this lens, that Mimesis can be understood as a “powerful study of female passivity.” In the painting, the female figure sits as if paralyzed, while the furniture around her comes to life. Her face has taken on the pattern of the chair’s upholstery, and her extremities look like turned wood, in extreme identification with the domestic scene. The cat, peeking from a magically invisible spot under the floorboards, is a symbol for all of her stifled primal urges and repressed female rebellion. With this image Varo offers a strong feminist critique against the patriarchal dominance that can extinguish artistic production.
If Mimesis represents the suppression of feminine power, Sympathy (Fig. 10) portrays its opposite in a transformation that co-opts the occult powers of the feline. Its original title, The Madness of the Cat, “suggests the other side, the anger ferocity and madness… that infects the cat and… may now be transmitting to the woman.” Varo, who in cooperation with Carrington created a “pictorial language” based on the occult, believed in the magical powers of plants and talismans. Reveling in this witchy identity, she surrounded herself with cats and “saw them as personal allies. In this painting, that identification manifests itself in the female-feline hybrid. On its surface, it depicts a light-hearted scene. A mischievous cat, jumps on a table, knocks over a glass and is cosseted by its indulgent mistress. But a glance at the details reveals its magic. Fumes from the spilled liquid, in acrid colors, rise eerily from the floor. The woman and cat emanate golden rays in a “complicated electric astrology.” Significantly, not only is the woman’s hair orange and bristling like the cat’s, under the table four cat feet can be spied peeking from the bottom of her robe. In this painting, Varo has not only released the ferocious powers of the feline from beneath the floorboards, she exults in them as she makes them her own.
The Creation of the Birds (Fig. 11) examines a different aspect of Varo’s identity, one that represents the wisdom acquired on her spiritual and artistic path. Varo’s interest in the occult led to a study of alchemy, and she eventually linked the mysterious chemistry of magic and spells with her pursuits in her studio. In the painting, allusions to alchemy and magical transformation appear throughout the room. In the corner, a golden liquid pours itself back and forth between matching amphorae. Next to the artist’s desk, a typically egg-shaped alchemical vessel distills the essence of night into the three primary colors of the artist’s palette. From the window, the light of the moon illuminates through a prism the colors of the bird, which comes to life through the generative power of the artist and her skill at representation. The artist herself is a bird – a human-owl hybrid, which alludes to goddess-like powers of craftsmanship and wisdom: “Her choice of owl is clarified by the information that the pre-Hellenic, Cretan Athena was a patron of the arts and a goddess of renewal… The creator must assume the aspect of the goddess in order to act.” She not only assumes the aspect of the goddess, but in identifying herself as a bird, also expresses the depth of her empathy with her subject. In her fictionalized description of another painting, the Portrait of Juan Martin, Varo describes owls as highly spiritual creatures, which allow humans to create a connection to the heavens. By painting herself as an owl – the conduit of craftsmanship, wisdom and spiritual sensibility – Varo communicates an image of the female artist at the height of her artistic power.
Remedios Varo created a highly personal narrative through a series of paintings that detail a novel type of mystical quest – one with a feminine hero. Many of her paintings explore depictions of esoteric knowledge, transformation and alchemy. At the same time, however, she uses this magical imagery to convey ideas about concrete and quotidian life events: the stifling effects of prolonged domesticity, the sense of rebellion that passivity can engender, and the heroic and magical act of painting.
 Luis-Martin Lozano, The Magic of Remedios Varo, trans. Elizabeth Goldson Nicholson and Liliana Valenzuela (London: GILES, 2006), 27.
 Remedios Varo, Cartas, sueños y otros textos, ed. Isabel Castells (Mexico City: co City: Ediciones ERA, 1997), 67
 Janet Kaplan, “Remedios Varo: Voyages and Visions,” Woman’s Art Journal 1, no. 2 (1980-81): 17.
 Kaplan, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys, 36.
 Ibid., 56.
 Kaplan, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys, 129.
 Ibid., 111; and Edith Mendoza Bolio, A veces escribo como si trazase un boceto, ed. Edith Mendoza Bolio (Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2010), 35.
 Mendoza Bolio, A veces escribo como si trazase un boceto, 33. Quote by Varo: “My position was the timid and humble one of the disciple, I did not have the maturity or the poise to confront them, a Paul Éluard, a Benjamin Péret, or an André Breton; I was openmouthed in this group of brilliant and gifted people… Today I do not belong to any group; I paint what occurs to me, end of story.” Translation mine.
 Kaplan, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys, 158.
 Remedios Varo, “Notas escritas al reverso de un dibujo o de fotografías de sus pinturas,” A veces escribo como si trazase un boceto, ed. Edith Mendoza Bolio (Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2010), description of Mimesis, unnumbered.
 Kaplan, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys, 123.
 Ibid., 217.
 Ibid., 90.
 Ibid., 123.
 Varo, “Notas escritas al reverso de un dibujo o de fotografías de sus pinturas,” description of Sympathy, unnumbered; translated in Lauter, Women and Mythmakers, 83.
 Varo, “Notas escritas al reverso de un dibujo o de fotografías de sus pinturas,” description of Sympathy, unnumbered.
 Varo, Cartas, sueños, y otros textos, 67.
 Haynes, “The Art of Remedios Varo,” 29.
 Lauter, Women and Mythmakers, pg 83.
 Remedios Varo. “El caballero Casildo Martín de Vilboa,” A veces escribo como si trazase un boceto, ed. Edith Mendoza Bolio (Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2010), 200: “Pero llegado que hubo el gran ornitólogo con sus búhos orantes… subió de nuevo una gran Espiral … [y] avergonzados los vilbohítas, tomaron ejemplo de las aves y recuperaron su alto nivel espiritual.” My translation: “Upon the arrival of the great ornithologist with his praying owls, a great Spiral once again rose up … [and] the shamefaced Vilboans took the owls’ example, and recovered their exalted spiritual level.”
 Estella Lauter, “The Creative Woman and the Female Quest: The Paintings of Remedios Varo,” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 63, no. 2 (Summer 1980): 113
 Haynes, “The Art of Remedios Varo,” 29.