ReligionVisual Art

Remedios Varo: Spiritual Confinement and Escape

Not a lot of words from me this time: just three pic­tures. This con­cep­tual trip­tych by Spanish/Mexican painter Remedios Varo is too beau­ti­ful not to share, and just a sample of her impress­ive body of work, rooted in European sur­real­ism, but with a dir­ec­tion all of her own.

The three works, in chro­no­lo­gical order, are: Toward the Tower (1961), Embroid­er­ing Earth’s Mantle (1961), and The Escape (1962).

Instead of giv­ing my own view, I will repro­duce Janet A. Kaplan’s ana­lysis here, taken from her excel­lent bio­graphy Unex­pec­ted Jour­neys:

Toward the Tower

In the first of the series, Toward the Tower of 1961 […], Varo shows her self-por­trait char­ac­ter as one of a group of identical uni­formed girls bicyc­ling away from a bee­hive tower in which they were being held cap­tive, led by a “Mother Super­ior” fig­ure and by an omin­ous man from whose bag fly birds that hover over­head as a guard­ian cor­don. […]

In the cent­ral panel of the auto­bi­o­graph­ical trip­tych, Embroid­er­ing Earth’s Mantle […], Varo offered a closer look at the life of a con­vent stu­dent. The same young girls, here cap­tive in a tower, work as in a medi­eval scrip­torium, embroid­er­ing the mantle of the world accord­ing to the dic­tates of a “Great Mas­ter.” This hooded fig­ure reads from the cat­ech­ism of instruc­tions while stir­ring a broth boil­ing in the same alchem­ical ves­sel from which the girls draw their embroid­ery thread. Each girl works alone, embroid­er­ing images onto a con­tinu­ous fab­ric that spills out from table-height bat­tle­ments around the facets of the tower. Together they cre­ate a land­scape with houses, ponds, streams, boats, anim­als, and humans, all nestled within the folds of the fab­ric. Theirs is the tra­di­tional work of the con­vent, where nee­dle­work was deemed a skill appro­pri­ate for cul­tured young women.

Embroid­er­ing Earth’s Mantle

Char­ac­ter­ist­ic­ally, Varo treated such tra­di­tion with irony. Among the girls work­ing dili­gently, each at her own table, guarded by a com­ical veiled fig­ure who lurks in the back­ground play­ing a flute, Varo’s rebel­li­ous heroine has “embroidered a trick in which one can see her together with her lover” […], their ren­dez­vous subtly vis­ible in a ren­der­ing hid­den upside-down within the folds that flow from her table. In a mas­ter­ful vari­ant on the myth of cre­ation, she has used this most gen­teel of domestic han­di­crafts to cre­ate her own hoped-for escape. Unlike Rapun­zel and the Lady of Shalott, Varo’s young heroine imprisoned in the tower is not merely a meta­phor for con­fine­ment, but also an agent of her own lib­er­a­tion. […]

The Escape

The title of the third panel, The Escape […], attests to her suc­cess. Here she is shown with her lover flee­ing to the moun­tains. […] In Varo’s fanci­ful depic­tion, the couple flees in a magical vehicle that looks like a furry inver­ted umbrella float­ing on a foggy mist. Their capes bil­low out behind them, catch­ing the wind and act­ing as sails. 

[Janet A. Kaplan, Unex­pec­ted Jour­neys, p. 18ff]

I might be post­ing more by and about Varo here, or on my tumblr, but for now, I hope you’ve enjoyed these.