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The difference a friendship made

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Turning from the experience of Virginia Woolf back toward our engagement with the life and art of Remedies Varo and her friendship with Leonora Carrington, we wonder: Did Varo reach a similar place in her life? What was it like for this woman artist to carry on making images meant as medicine, as artistic antidotes to personal pain but also to what Woolf called the poison of patriarchy? As seen in Varo’s weaving of the egg in the dream of the executioner and her final self-portrait in Still Life Reviving, Varo’s life and work arrived at an opus of love and creativity that left her with a peaceful acceptance of her death. Still, we might wonder, was Varo getting ready to die, giving away sacred items and other belongings, in part because she felt worn down by the weight of living in a patriarchal world defined and dominated by the disavowed vulnerability of men? During those times when she would withdraw from the world, did Varo question the value, meaning, and impact of what she was doing with her life? Poet, art critic, and curator Edward Lucie-Smith pinpointed some of what we know about the Spanish painter’s experience:

The meticulous paintings she produced during the last ten years of her life demonstrate her interest in the occult and in alchemy, and often contain hints of the alienation she felt as a woman trying to make a place for herself as a woman in a man’s world. (1993: 102)

For Varo and Carrington, the ability to creatively endure and address the trauma and alienation they experienced was cooked and nourished in the cauldron of their friendship. “Leonora ... never regarded her relationship with Remedios as collaborative or twin-like: for her, it was about sharing ideas, and she reveled in their common way of looking at the world and dealing with it,” as well as their “common vision of how life could be. And what that came down to, more than anything, was a belief in their own autonomy” (Moorhead, 2017: 218).

Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington had met for the first time in Paris, home ground to Surrealism, late in the 1930s. The women met again in Mexico City in 1942. At the time, Carrington was still reeling from her torment in the mental hospital in Spain. Varo, of course, had endured confinement in a French prison camp. In Mexico City, the archetypal forces that tore the world apart now brought Varo and Carrington back together. This time, the women were determined to live, heal, and paint. “Their marriages,” Moorhead wrote, “though an important part of their lives, never overwhelmed them: neither the high points or the low points, the romance or the rows, were ever allowed to become too absorbing or distracting” (2017: 219). Each artist, Moorhead added,

saw marriage in a way that is more common among men than women: it was part of their lives, but it had its discrete space, and it could not and would not impinge on the part of them that was dedicated to ideas and art. (219)

During the years of their friendship in Mexico City, Varo and Carrington worked alchemically and artistically to challenge patriarchal “mechanisms that silence women” (Beard, 2017: xi). The artists were barking up a tall tree. For these mechanisms, writes feminist Mary Beard, have been “deeply embedded in Western culture” for “thousands of years” (xi). As we have seen, painting, for each artist, grew from the ground of alchemical, psychological, and spiritual practices of personal growth, and from a willingness to engage as individuals in the shifting of cultural complexes that perpetuate misogyny and male domination. The women were also working in their intimate heterosexual relationships to reposition the voice of women and the Feminine. By refusing to accept the inferiority of women in their relationships with men, Varo and Carrington were re-shaping a rigid gender dynamic in both personal and public ways. The women, as artists and wives, rejected the androcentric status quo in favor of transformational ways of being that highlighted female autonomy and empowerment. Like bread from an oven, Varo and Carrington gave birth in Mexico City to a brand of feminism that served friends and family and nourished an alchemical transformation of patriarchal culture toward the embrace of women and the Feminine.


1 Woolf appeared on the cover of Time Magazine on April 12, 1937. The cover story, a review of her novel, The Years, had a scathing patriarchal tone: “She has no children. Careless of her clothes, her face, her greying hair, at 55 she is the picture of a sensitive, cloistered literary woman.”


Agosin, M. (1998). Introduction. In M. Agosin (Ed.), A woman's gaze: Latin American women artists (9-26). Fredonia, NY: White Pine Press.

Beard, M. (2017). Women & power: A manifesto. New York, NY and London, UK: W. W. Norton & Company.

Gilligan, C., & Richards, D. (2009). Deepening Darkness: Patriarchy, resistance, and democracy’s future. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Hussey, M. (2005). Preface: Virginia Woolf. In M. Hussey (Ed.), Three Guineas: Virginia Wbo/f (ix-xviii). Orlando, FL: Harcourt.

Kaplan, J. (1998). Subversive strategies: The work of Remedios Varo. In M. Agosin (Ed.), A woman’s gaze: Latin American women artists (110-28). Fredonia, NY: White Pine Press.

Lucie-Smith, E. (1993). Latin American art of the 20th century. London, UK: Thames & Hudson.

Marcus, J. (2006). Introduction. In M. Hussey (Ed.), Three Guineas: Virginia Woolf (xxxv-lxiii). Orlando, FL: Harcourt.

Moorhead, J. (2017). The surreal life of Leonora Carrington. London, UK: Virago.

Oldfield, S. (2005). Introduction. In S. Oldfield (Ed.), Afterwords: Letters on the death of Virginia Woolf (xv-xxx). Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Woolf, V. (1966). Three Guineas (M. Hussey, Ed.). Orlando, FL: Harcourt.

Alchemy in exile

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