Textual and Visual Strategies in the World of Remedios Varo


Carlota Caulfield
Mills College


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 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 297).

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. [1] 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.[2] Varo wrote it in Spanish with frequent quotations in Latin that she made up and which she herself confessed she didn't understand. [3] The cover of the treatise depicts the figure of the object-sculpture that Varo made with chicken, turkey, and fish bones wired together.[4] Let me cite some fragments of the text [5] so that you may familiarize yourselves with the anthropological reinterpretations of Von Fuhrängeschmidt:

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: " 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: " 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 Function

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.[6]

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 perspective.

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 on air.

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 manner:

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. (7)

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 155-165.

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)


Works Cited


Alcubilla, José Luis. "El surrealismo no ha existido, existe y existirá." Entrevista con Walter Gruen. Unomásuno 310 (October 8, 1983): 6-7.

Breton, André. Manifestes du surréalisme. Paris: Gallimard, 1971.

Caulfield, Carlota. "El homo rodans de Remedios Varo y otros textos para viajeros curiosos." Monographic Review/Revista Monográfica 12. Hispanic Travel Literature (1997): 144-153.

Chadwick, Whitney. Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1985.

Cirlot, Juan-Eduardo. Diccionario de símbolos. Barcelona: Editorial Labor, S.A., 1969.

Cueto, Mireya. "Remedios Varo." Revista de la Universidad de México 19 (1964): 30-31.

Duran, Gloria. "The antipodes of surrealism: Salvador Dali and Remedios Varo." Symposium XLII.4 (1989): 296-311.

Kaplan, Janet A. Unexpected Journeys. The Art and Life of Remedios Varo. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988.

Lauter, Estella. "Remedios Varo: The Creative Woman and the Female Quest." Women as Mythmakers. Poetry and Visual Arts by Twentieth Century Women. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984. 79-97.

Paz, Octavio. "El surrealismo." La búsqueda del comienzo. Escritos sobre surrealismo. Introducción de Diego Martínez Torron. Madrid: Editorial Fundamentos, 1974. 29-45.

-- and Callois, Roger. Remedios Varo. México: Ediciones Era, S.A., 1966.

Rodríguez Prampolini, Ida. "El surrealismo y la fantasía mexicana." Los surrealistas en México. México, D.F.: Museo Nacional de Arte, 1986. 17-21.

Somolinos Palencia, Juan. "Surrealismo y ciencia." Los surrealistas en México. México, D.F.: Museo Nacional de Arte, 1986. 22-26.

Varo, Beatriz. Remedios Varo: en el centro del microcosmos. México, D.F.: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1990.

Varo, Remedios. "De homo rodans." Los surrealistas en México. México, D.F.: Museo Nacional de Arte, 1986. 85-87.