by MaureenTeresa McCarthy
As a student in Mexico City, I chanced upon the work of Remedios Varo. I can’t remember where, but the memory is still vivid. The paintings transfixed me, the colors and the texture, the vivid images, the women not of this world.
Each painting held a depth and richness that took me in, led me down wandering paths and into almost hidden spaces. I couldn’t choose a favorite, I responded in some way to almost every piece. Later, back in the states, I researched Varo but found that little had been written about her; she was nearly invisible. She was an outlier, for she did not conform to the emphasis on grotesque common in many surrealists. Instead, she explored other realities, myth and alchemy, surrealism and science. My fascination with her work endured, though I did not have the words to explain or express the connection. I knew only that I could lose myself in a Varo painting as intensely as I could in a novel.
Over time, a few studies of Varo appeared, and in 2000 the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington DC, sponsored a major exhibit of her work. Over 70 pieces filled the galleries, and I spent three days there, entranced. Then of course, I went back to real life. Family, friends, teaching, filled my days. But Varo stayed with me, came to mind at odd times.
Then a close friend gave me a copy of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, a work rich in double narrative, doubled characters, complexity on the page. Your kind of read, she said, a thick old-fashioned novel. She was right, I loved it, but also found it somewhat disappointing. Byatt weaves a dense tapestry of character and story, colorful threads of words, water, searches. The novel is quest, adventure, mystery, romance, all in one. The main characters Maude and Roland find lost letters, follow clues to a fountain that’s a central image of rebirth and renewal, solve a mystery, and are blessed by new love. It is a traditional ending, complete with past and present love affairs, happily ever after. It is just too neat.
My dissatisfaction with Byatt’s safe and predictable conclusion endured, but so too did many of the images. All that green, new life, the fountain, the search led me back to Varo, whose work seemed layered with never ending story. Many of her paintings are set in water or sky or rooms that hold both.
I remembered Exploration of the Sources of the Orinoco River, the intensity of the single figure, the rising water, the fountain. Varo’s 1959 work illustrates the quest journey in a manner not often seen. A woman dominates, she is the central image, and she is in control, calm but determined. She floats the river in a pink egg-shaped vessel with wings and a rudder, which she controls through a series of ropes and strings. The wings flare, water flows, she is moving on. She wears a safari dress and a man’s bowler hat for the water journey. The dress is the same tan as the bark on four trees which surround her, while the hat is actually a part of the egg/boat. Two dark birds peer from two of the trees.
Traditionally it would seem she is approaching the end of her quest, for she has found the source of the river. It is not the source we would expect. It is a crystal goblet within a huge hollow tree, clear and continued illusion, a world in water. Beyond the overflowing glass is an open archway leading to a shadowed tunnel. There is no suggestion that she will return; the tunnel beckons. Her determined gaze suggests that she will go on, she will continue. The painting’s title is Exploration, not discovery.
The entire painting is a marvel of color, shape, form, image and allusion. The layers of color and image are as complex as Byatt’s novel, although the novel gives us many characters and the painting a single one. Both writer and painter explore time, place, allusion and illusion. Both see woman as hero, setting off on the hero’s journey. Byatt uses the double, the story within a story, as does Varo. However, the novel ends in romance, with happy couples and career success. The painting illuminates the individual: one woman being born again, in the presence of four trees, two blackbirds, one goblet and one open tunnel.
MaureenTeresa McCarthy has published essays with Fairview and University of Michigan Press, drafted a civil war novel, and has always written poetry. Her poems have appeared in Civilization in Crisis, Comstock Review, Months to Years, PenWoman, Tiny Seed, and others.