Textual and Visual Strategies in the World of Remedios Varo
It is impossible to see or read the works of the Spanish surrealist
painter-writer Remedios Varo (1913-1963) without reflecting on
the words that André Breton wrote in his first Surrealist
Manifesto: "Le merveilleux est toujours beau...il n'y a
même que le merveilleux qui soit beau." (24) (The
marvelous is always beautiful...only the marvelous is beautiful).
It is a special, strange, unique beauty, in which things acquire
a new dimension, that stamps its own form of being that discovers,
invents or recreates them (Rodríguez Prampolini 18 ).
The surrealists believed that any object, no matter how common-place
it might be, could become a marvelous object
one can never see the object in itself; it is always illuminated
by the eye that contemplates it; it is always shaped by the hand
that caresses, squeezes, or grasps it. The object, placed in
its illusory reality like a king in a volcano, suddenly changes
its shape and is transformed into something else. (Paz 33)
The object is changed beneath the gaze of him/her who contemplates
it, but it also rebels against the role traditionally assigned
to it and it displaces itself, or let us say, it escapes and
enters into another reality. Imagination subverts reality and
causes the surrealist object to appear. It become an object which
Salvador Dalí defines as "all that which is out of
place, used for purposes other than those for which it was designed
and whose use is unknown" (Somolinos Palencia 24) and (Duran
On of these marvelous surrealist objects is the umbrella,
sanctified in the history of surrealism since
its surprising appearance in the Chants de Maldoror by
Isidore Ducasse. In this work the Count of Lautréamont
succeeds in causing the unusual to appear by placing an umbrella
on a dissecting table beside a sewing machine. Remedios Varo,
years later, has us meet humanity's first umbrella, an unusual
and controversial object. Its strangeness defies us and in this
challenge there is no weapon more powerful than humor: the conscious
mind answers the world's absurdities in kind, and humor establishes,
in this way, a type of connection between subject and object.
The essence of humor is precisely that unusual adjustment between
divergent realities. The unusual, the terrain of the surrealists,
can terrify or repel (like Dalí) or it can provoke laughter
or illuminate, like Varo.
I should like to venture into Varo's inventive game, into
her surrealist "amusements" through her De Homo
Rodans. From a literary encounter with the unusual, I shall
proceed to the visual discovery of several marvelous objects
that inhabit Varo's paintings.
Concerning Umbrellas, Wheels and Other Apparitions
Under the pen name Halikcio von Fuhrängschmidt, a German
anthropologist, Varo composes a series of new theories on the
origin of humans and their ancestors.  Varo's work, directed
at a scientific community of anthropologists and archeologists,
uses, as its main source, the anonymous Multimirto Cadencioso,
a fictitious collection of poems and songs that date from the
year 2300 B.C. She gave the title De Homo Rodans to this
scientific document. It is dated 1959 and was published in 1970.
Varo wrote it in Spanish with frequent quotations in Latin that
she made up and which she herself confessed she didn't understand.
 The cover of the treatise depicts the figure of the object-sculpture
that Varo made with chicken, turkey, and fish bones wired together.
Let me cite some fragments of the text  so that you may familiarize
yourselves with the anthropological reinterpretations of Von
Before approaching this material, allow me to remind you of
those words which the venerable and wise Cardinal Avelino di
Portocarriere spoke in the famous Council of Melusia: "...et
de fragmentus oseus lumbaris non verbalem non pensarem, conditionae
humanitas Luciferica est. Et de pensarem ou parlaviem lumbarismus
pericoloso et cogitandum est..."
...and now let us proceed to the historic analysis of the
bones.(...) In the first place I believe it very much to the
point to remind the reader that the majority of what are considered
great discoveries, anthropologically speaking, have occurred
when one has put aside the current mistaken concepts about Myths
and these ideas have recovered their time significance as Myrtle.
In antiquity Myths were called short fables which Babylonian
muses often related to children. None of them has been handed
down to us.
Myrtle was the name given to a tale of stupendous deeds, objectively
verifed and transmitted either by written document or verbally.
They chose the name Myrtle due to the consumption of this plant
in ceremonies and intellectual gatherings. The corruption of
the word Myrtle dated from the year 850 B.C. when a scholar and
learned man, Abencifar ebn El Mull (whose treatise "Mirtitrología
Necrófila" [ Necrofilic Myrtleology] is an example
of scientific objectivity) delivered his famous lecture on the
ancient myrtle called "Concerning the ambaric uses in the
villages of Tulzur." The venerable Abencifar ebn El Mull
was suffering from sniffles and a hoarse voice and when he began
his allocution "and this myrtle about which I am going to
speak to you in order to propagate and impel the post trepanatonial
use of amber, in its presolid, elastic state...," his voice
was far from clear, so that some scribes, who had come from Calcarea
to take note of his words, misunderstood him and wrote down the
word "Myth" instead of "Myrtle". From that
time on, there has existed great confusion, since some statements
concerning the meaning of "Myth" have continuously
been transmitted without clarifying its limited and specific
use among the nurses of Babilonia. (85)
Von Fuhrängeschmidt continues his discvourse of the particular
situation in which science currently finds itself with an analysis
of the word evolution, which he considers "with its content
of ideas and errors concerning the possible alteration of things
in a mechanical form deprived of any transcendental will"
(85) like the cause "of prevailing ignorance and confusion."
For the German anthropologist, the known universe is divided
into two clear tendencies: "...one which tends to harden
and the other that tends to soften," but in spite of this
duality, there is a "unanimous tendency towards hardening"
(85). We are, then, dear listeners, approaching the encounter
with the first umbrella, a unique event which occurred "in
the Lilibian excavations in Mesopotamia, when, after bringing
to the surface from a depth of 25 meters the famous coffer carved
in hypogenic stone, which contained the clay tablets with the
cuneiform diary of Queen Fol," (86) our unique object appeared
two meters further down:
This object, presently in the British Museum, occasioned many
controversies. There have been a total of 32 essays that have
tried to clarify its origin and nature. They are all mistaken.
Some claim that it's not an umbrella, but a rather complete and
well preserved wing of a young pterodactyl; others assert that
it is an ordinary umbrella. (86)
The scientists paid little attention
to the fact that precise object was "surrounded by carbon
1/3 35 3 and by no fewer than 50 lumbar bones, all belonging
to the same creature" (86). The scientists forgot (perhaps
because of the tremendous impact of the discovery) that it was
precisely in that period of carbon 1/3 35 when man began to walk
upright on two limbs and decided to use a stick like "a
third limb for locomotion." (86) The writings of the German
anthropologist become more and more fantastic:
These sticks were so important that their dark transcendental
desires were fulfilled little by little, (...) but when their
use was abruptly terminated most of them, by now violently frustrated,
became petrified. Some, with a stronger transcendental capacity,
abandoned the leg as a model and goal, and quickly found other
ideals of displacement and locomotion...(86)
The Umbrella, a Typical Surrealist Object With a Symbolic
The umbrella was born of the sticks' rebellion against oblivion.
For many sticks the goal became not terrestrial movement but
flight. These sticks aspired to acquire "the powerful wings
of the pterodactyl." (86)
And thus the transformation of the stick that wished to have
wings; the umbrella-like cane became the first real umbrella.
The rebellious umbrella is often repeated in Varo's paintings.
Varo visualizes the marvelous qualities of the object and introduces
it into many of her paintings as an accomplice of those human
beings who wish to escape a "petrified" destiny. The
umbrella is like a bridge leading to another world. In "La
huída" ("The Escape", 1962), the third
picture of a triptych painted for "Hacia la torre"
("Towards the Tower", 1961) and "Bordando el manto
terrestre" ("Embroidering Earth Mantle", 1961),
Varo shows one of the young weavers, who appeared in the previous
paintings, and who has rebelled against the uniformity of her
world and her embroidering. As the artist herself described it:
"a subterfuge in which we see her together with her loved
one with whom she has succeeded in fleeing. They leave in a spatial
vehicle across a desert, towards a cave" (Paz/Caillois 174),
instead of the oceans, mountains, and beings that the Great Teacher
has ordered her to weave.
The "spatial vehicle," to which Varo refers, is
an inverted umbrella, a winged boat whose rudder resembles a
stick which the young dissident handles as if she were altering
the speed of a car. The umbrella, in addition to being an accomplice
of universal rebellion, is also an accomplice of love. Love is
one of the paths which for the surrealists was also a bridge
to another world not restricted by the foreseeable three dimensional
The other painting by Varo
which attracts my attention in relation to the presence of the
umbrella is "Los caminos tortuosos" ("The Twisted
Roads", 1958). In this picture we see a man who, hidden
behind a wall -the scene seems to take place in the street-,
is able, by some magical power, to make one of the points of
his mustache stretch out and extend a lazo to a woman who is
passing by on the other side of the wall. Varo depicts the woman
like a kind of hybrid mechanical human whose legs have been replaced
by a wheel that is very similar to the one in De Homo Rodans
about which we will speak in greater detail. The woman wears
a weather-vane on her hat and another one on her umbrella. In
spite of her mechanical parts, the encounter with the man is
as Kaplan pointed out, "expressed in very human and personal
terms. The man looks malevolent, the woman tense" (155).
In this picture the umbrella balances the woman's body and
allows her the necessary movement that will help her to escape
from the danger represented by the man. In the painting, the
protagonist finds herself "in an explicitly psychological
and spiritual quest" (Lauder 88-89). In spite of the fact
that the woman seems to feel threatened by the man, he does not
seem to be an overly fearsome adversary. Varo depicts him as
"hidden," as though awaiting his prey, while the woman
appears in the foreground entirely ready to defend herself. If
we accept Cirlot's idea that the umbrella is a paternal symbol
representing virility, in a phallic sense, as well as protection,
we may well conclude that the woman in this painting has gone
beyond (surpassed) the psychological and socially traditional
model and is proposing a new search for the feminine.
Concerning The Wheel: More Than Movement, Its Symbolism
Halikcio Von Fuhrängschmidt believes that relegating
the Multimirto Cadencioso to oblivion has hidden the light
which should have illuminated the mystery of evolution. We found
that, contrary to public opinion, "Homo Reptans" never
existed -in spite of what traditional scientists assert- before
"Homo Sapiens". It was the curious "Homo Rodans,"
a being gifted with wings, who, instead of legs, had a wheel
that permitted him to move about. This curious creature was perhaps
a descendant of one of the anti conformist sticks that, without
completely renouncing earth, tried to acquire the option of walking
We don't find in De Homo Rodans, Varo's writing piece,
a detailed description of our marvelous rolling than crawling
link, as people previously believed. The text sends us to yet
another text, the Rhythmical Multimyrtle for a description:
"and not only his description but also a drawing that is
so precise that I will limit myself to reproducing it" (87).
Varo "illustrates 'him' in a sketch used on the cover of
the published paper and in a photographic detail in the text
of a related sculpture she had made" (Kaplan 144). Homo
Rodans, a creature with a head, neck, and spinal column, owes
his movement not to the erect position of his body, but to a
spiked wheel that completes it.
Many of the characters in Varo's paintings have, instead of
legs, a wheel for movement. But the wheel, although we view it
as absurdly comic, is the symbol of rebellion against "the
anguish of time, the anguish of the body tied down by gravity"
(Cueto 30). Varo's wheels are a metaphor of flight"
of the spirit more than of the body. The wheel as a symbol of
escape from the world and of a search for a psychological and
different spiritual reality had appeared in the picture "Los
caminos tortuosos" ("The Twisted Roads") which
we already analyzed when we spoke of the umbrella's symbolic
meaning. In "Au Bonheur des Dames" ("To the Happiness
of Women", 1956), a work prior to De Homo Rodans
we again find this obsession for the wheel. Here it is not a
single woman who possesses the capability of movements with a
wheel -"her imagination and spirit in freedom"- but
several women whose bodies multiply the mechanism of the wheel.
The picture's theme humorously plays with the idea of the wheel
as a metaphor for flight discussed previously, and its opposite:
confinement to the earth, mechanization, loss of identity. Humor
acts here like "a gently undulating line that joins and
separates the two terms of the Tao, the flexible line that harmonizes
opposites: insanity-reason, serenity-astonishment, exhalation-restraint,
pleasure-anguish, heaviness-lightness and much more" (Cueto
30). The women in this painting feel a powerful attraction, as
though drawn by a magnet, to a replacement shop "Au bonheur
des citoyens" ("For the Happiness of Citizens"
that displays in its windows the latest models of wheels.
The architecture of the place
is also, as in "Los caminos tortuosos" ("The Twisted
Roads") and in "Ancestors" ('Ancesters")
about which we will speak shortly, similar to the building of
a cloister with its arches that enclose "a deep cosmic and
spiritual feeling (...) considered like a space equivalent to
a transcendence" (Cirlot 94).
The wheel appears again in :"Ancestros" ("Ancestors").
In this pencil drawing we see a woman who is fleeing rapidly
through a narrow tunnel, thanks to the wheel that acts like feet.
The woman wants to escape from the strange figures that look
at her in a threatening manner and extend their arms from the
walls of the tunnel in order to grab her. The tunnel is also
made up of arches. Kaplan makes an interesting analysis of this
drawing and tells us that "The succession of archways leading
back into deep space suggests the past out of which she comes
-a corridor of memory from which she seeks to flee, menaced by
the wraithlike 'ancestors' lurking on either side" (149-150).
The people in Varo's paintings appear to be seeking a spiritual
dimension, similar to the spirituality the artist herself sought
during her entire life. Varo studied different mystical disciplines
and read metaphysical texts. She took an interest in the hermetic
and mystical traditions. Her unpublished notebooks contain Arabic
names and Islamic references. Varo explored the ideas of G.I.
Gurdjieff, Madame Blavatsky, Meister Eckhart, P.D. Ouspensky,
The Sufies, Freud and Jung. Medieval Alchemy, sacred geometry.
the legends of the Holy Grail, the I Ching, the Gregorian chants,
the paintings of Hyeronimous Bosch, and the novels of Hermann
Hesse, were vehicles of spiritual growth for the painter and
her work. (Caulfield 144)
In an interview between José Luis Alcubilla and Walter
Gruen, Varo's last husband, the latter replied
to the question "was she religious" in the following
She didn't believe in Christianity, but she grew up in a very
Catholic household. She became interested in oriental philosophies.
I used to tell her that if there were a spark of truth in them,
this same truth was also in Christ or Buddha. She frequently
agreed, but added that Christianity had been thrown at her from
the time she was a child and she had to swallow it, like it or
not. But oriental philosophies -she used to say- made me think
and perhaps arrive at the same conclusion. Now, she thought about
the supernatural, but she had a scientific mind. For example,
the theories about the expanding cosmos used to fascinate her.
Remedios Varo possesses, like the women in her paintings,
different spools of yarn for her weavings; some spool are made
of subtle threads of humor that mesh with other threads from
other spools of differing realities, unusual elements and marvelous
objects, accomplices in an architecture in search of harmony.
What is apparently absurd in Varo's paintings (umbrellas transformed
into wings, boats, weathervanes; wheels that replace legs; the
flower that defies a scientist) are the symbols of a new dimension
in which imagination and spirit set free assure that the marvelous
is always beautiful.
1. According to Janet Kaplan, in 1959 Remedios Varo "embarked
on a series of pseudoscholarly reinterpretations of the various
branches of science" (141). Varo wanted to bring science
into closer harmony with magic and myth. Varo left some of her
"scientific-humorous-writings" unfinished at her death.
2. De Homo Rodans was printed in a hand-lettered limited
edition by Varo's friend Dr. Jan Somolinos by CalliNova in Mexico
City, 1970. Somolinos wrote the foreword of the book.
3. In a letter to het mother doña Ignacia Uranga y
Bergareche, dated in 1959, Varo writes "...Resulta que hice
con huesos de pescuezo de pollo y de pavo, después de
limpiarlos muy bien, una figura, y escribí un pequeño
tratado de antropología (imitando un viejo manuscrito)
para demostrar que el antecesor del homo sapiens fue esa figurita
que hice (...) No te doy detalles de lo que escribí o
de la figura, pues todo está hecho imitando las cosas
y las palabras científicas que casi nadie entiende y muchas
partes del escrito están en un latín inventado
que ni yo misma entiendo, pero el conjunto resultaba gracioso"
(Beatriz Varo 227-28).
4. Varo's sculpture "Homo Rodans" (1959) was made
in the spirit of other surrealist objects, like Wolfgang Paalen's
Genius of the Species (1938). See Kaplan 257 and Beatriz Varo
5. I would like to thank my former professor Norman Miller
for providing valuable counsel and encouragement in my research
related to the avant-garde since the days I was his student at
Tulane University, New Orleans (1988-1992). I appreciate his
assistance in translating into English Varo's De Homo Rodans.
6. In an addendum to the typescript version of De Homo
Rodans (which is in the Walter Gruen's archive), "Varo
took one last swipe at the scholarly community and described
four ficticious readings of her treatise in absurd numerical
detail" (Kaplan 143):
First reading in a tenor voice before 25 listeners numbered
from 1 to 25; Second reading with falsetto voice before 130 listeners
numbered from 26 to 155; Third reading with nasal voice before
260 listeners numbered from 156 to 415, [and] Fourth reading
with honeyed voice before a press conference composed of 11 members
numbered from A to K. (Quoted in Kaplan 143)
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existe y existirá." Entrevista con Walter Gruen.
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Monográfica 12. Hispanic Travel Literature (1997):
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Cueto, Mireya. "Remedios Varo." Revista de la Universidad
de México 19 (1964): 30-31.
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Dali and Remedios Varo." Symposium XLII.4 (1989):
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Varo, Beatriz. Remedios Varo: en el centro del microcosmos.
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en México. México, D.F.: Museo Nacional de
Arte, 1986. 85-87.
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