Looking Through Remedios Varo’s Catedral vegetal
Catedral vegetal, 1957; gouache/paper, 38 x 27 in. Banco Nacional de Mexico
The closest I’ve come to wading the phantasmagoric realm of a Remedios Varo painting may be the time I kept my eyes open too long after swallowing an Ambien. The print in the book I’d been reading began to blur from the sedative, so I switched off my bedside lamp. My light bulb’s fluorescent coil continued to glow, though, and soon the furzy shapes of light transformed into a phosphorescent lynx. The creature hunched its albino fur in the darkness, looking both ethereal and carnivorous. I could see the individual, radiant hairs spoking from each feline ear. Above the lynx, the summer dress I’d hung from my coat hook morphed into a grim reaper. I yelped, “Patrick!” until my boyfriend crept into the bedroom to cover every visible glow (the light bulb, the alarm clock) with T-shirts so the room’s objects would stop animating. When I recall that Ambien-tinged landscape—part dark fairy tale, part haunted psychological projection—I’m reminded of the magical worlds of my favorite painter, the Spanish-born Mexican Surrealist Remedios Varo.
As it happens, Varo titled two similar paintings Catedral vegetal. Both works portray a cathedral comprised of tree-trunks and a vaulted canopy of branches and leaves as well as two figures seated inside a carriage pulled by a chimeric bird. In one of the paintings, Varo uses a range of warm colors (mostly umbers, oranges, and yellows) and exudes a whimsical tone. The other piece appears decidedly foreboding because one of the figures looks more ghoulish than humanoid, and because Varo employs only a single hue: a spooky, tea-colored sepia. I’m especially drawn to the starker, monochromatic piece—that forest scene layered in vapory shades of umber gouache. A wraithlike female figure forms the painting’s focal point, and her narrow chin and long nose hint at Varo’s interest in sly self-portraiture. The figure sits like a witchy, Spanish countess inside a slender, three-wheeled carriage—a kind of Elysian Ur-tricycle pulled by a giant pheasant. The bird—a hybrid creature—glides forward on a single metal wheel instead of two feet; its wings have been replaced with the white sails of a ship; and its breast and neck bear the carved, angular planes of a ship’s prow.
For the longest time, I’d stared at Catedral vegetal without noticing the second figure in the painting. I’d sent my mother a photocopy of the piece, as I was thinking of reprinting the work on the cover of my second poetry collection, and I wanted her opinion. Over the telephone, I could hear the steam rising from the spinach she’d been wilting in olive oil, and she murmured, “It’s beautiful, dear, but the ghost is…disturbing.” I couldn’t believe I’d missed it! Varo’s pale, willowy maiden leans from the carriage’s left window, and from the right side peers a wide-eyed, black apparition whose form is almost entirely blurred among the deepest shadows.
Varo was raised a Catholic by a devout mother and an agnostic father, and she attended school at a convent run by nuns. The rigid routine of life at the convent, however (all those prayers, confessions, meals, classes, and sewing sessions), clashed with Varo’s rebellious spirit. She broke the rules and stayed up late reading Edgar Allan Poe, Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, and the literature of mysticism. Afraid of tattle-tales, Varo sprinkled a thin dusting of sugar outside of her bedroom door, hoping to catch the dark footprints of spies.
It’s no surprise, then, to find that Varo breaks all sorts of rules when painting a cathedral: her structure refuses to follow either the laws of science or architecture. Instead, she creates a land of myth and magic where a whole forest assembles into the telltale shapes of a cathedral. It’s as if the mere presence of the woman and her weird ensemble triggers the woods’ response.
Throughout the painting, tensions teem between wispy, natural phenomena and the hard, architectural realm: Varo’s pheasant is part bird, part ship, and part unicycle; her tree trunks’ parallel lines morph into hefty Romanesque columns; the trees’ high branches tease a Gothic cathedral’s ribbed vaults from the vegetation. In the slanting angles of the carriage windows I see the umber shapes of flying buttresses, and even the sharp points of the forest’s canopy curve into an ogival arch. In architecture, every arch delineates a void.
In the great Anglo-Saxon elegiac poem, Beowulf, the anonymous bard frequently uses a kenning to describe the human body in architectural terms: banhus (“bone-house”). This ancient metaphor makes concrete the division between the physical body and the intangible spirit. In Varo’s Catedral vegetal—those spiritual woods—the border between internal and external gets trickier to pin down. Here, animals combine with objects, and cathedrals rove like open-air carnivals.
Gaston Bachelard tells us in The Poetics of Space that the house is a shelter for imagining. Upon a first glance, Catedral vegetal seems to contain only a single, childlike image of a house. The white carriage has flat, rectangular walls and a simple, triangular roof. After a closer look, though, the dark woods around the carriage begin to refract, like a hall of mirrors, multiplying the number of architectural shapes in the painting as well as intensifying their spiritual significance. Just watch as the imposing trees in the painting’s foreground and the middleground flank the carriage—the elements unite to form the façade of a Gothic cathedral. Such façades mean to stun approaching worshipers with architectural magnificence and impress upon them the grandeur of God.
Furthermore, central to the façade is the cathedral’s main portal. In the arch of the portal’s doorway, one usually finds a richly carved statue of the Madonna and child. Varo’s Madonna figure in the portal, however, holds no infant deity. Instead, the secondary figure seems more of a representation of the woman’s own ego: a double, a shadow, a grotesque and fearful twin. The symmetry of the two figures within the carriage resembles the two sides of a mirror, although the images do not in fact reflect each other—they’re opposite in both color and tone (and species).
In 1914, Otto Rank writes at length of the concept of the double, and first applies it to psychoanalysis. Freud takes up Rank’s notion of the doubling of consciousness in his own concept of the uncanny: “that form of terror that leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” “The double,” Freud continues, referencing Heinrich Heine, “has become an image of terror, just as, after the collapse of their religion, the gods turned into demons.”
The word “cathedral” originates from the Latin cathedra (“seat” or “chair”), and may be defined as a Christian church that contains the throne of a bishop. In such a place of worship, there’s a clear hierarchy reinforced by the vast and vertical architecture: God’s “up there” and we’re “down here.” In Catedral vegetal, however, the vaulted tree-dome is a porous sieve—not a stone—and instead of a single bishop’s seat, there’s a shared power dynamic between a woman and a shadowy apparition. Varo not only displaces the patriarchal structure of the Church of Spain through her central female character, she challenges and complicates the Christian iconography by making her forest-dwelling figure more of a pagan fertility goddess, a Demeter or Gaia. Her spiritually-charged woods also shake up Catholic conventions, this time through conjuring the sacred groves of historical Druidism as branches seep through the cathedral, defying and softening its boundaries.
Varo’s father, Don Rodrigo Varo y Zejalbo, was similarly skeptical toward the institution of the Catholic Church. According to Janet A. Kaplan in Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varo, one story the artist liked to repeat about her father involved his irreverence toward the church’s pomp and ceremony. “As she remembered it,” Kaplan writes:
Don Rodgrigo was riding one day in a carriage when he noticed a crowd gathered alongside the road. On being told that they were awaiting the arrival of a bishop, he promptly stopped the carriage and, impersonating the prelate, he solemnly blessed the pious crowd himself, then slowly rode away.
Although Varo wasn’t especially close with her father, his legendary shenanigans seem in keeping with the subversive narrative at work in Catedral vegetal. Also, Varo’s memories of Don Rodgrigo’s drawings—those meticulous visions of space and structure he created as an engineer—may well have provoked her vibrant imagination.
My earliest memory of the uncanny involves a woman named Dawa, the Tibetan ayaa who helped care for my sister, Rebecca, and me as we grew up in New Delhi, India in the mid-eighties. Although Dawa wasn’t fluent enough in English to read to us from our beloved British storybooks, she had an imaginative knack for twisting familiar fairy tales into grotesque and frightening hybrids. The fairy tale Dawa called “The Three Little Pigs,” for instance, was grafted onto portions of “Cinderella,” Frankenstein, “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Maiden Without Hands,” and possibly some gory Tibetan folktales meant for more mature ears than my four-year-old sister’s and my seven-year-old brain.
At bedtime, Dawa would let us sip from her salty butter tea as she improvised a tale. In her story, three little pig sisters live beneath a princess’s pink canopy bed. The princess treats the pigs poorly, making them scrub the floor and embroider her various ball gowns. (I’m not sure how a hoofed being embroiders anything, but that’s beside the point.) She also starves them, so each night the pigs gnaw on the haughty princess’s fingertips while she sleeps. Soon the princess wakes with white skeleton hands—her palms and fingers have been entirely picked clean of flesh. When she realizes she now looks monstrous, she runs through the castle yowling and tearing at the oil paintings, golden harps, and velvet cushions with her bone-talons. Needless to say, the mangled princess drives away all of her suitors, excepting three princes, who decide the three tenacious pigs are most certainly worth marrying. By the end of Bizarro Storytime with Dawa, my sister and I would hug each other, trembling beneath our bedposts’ gauzy mosquito netting.
Curiously, Varo’s given name—Maria de los Remedios Varo y Uranga—has magical and spiritual underpinnings. Her mother, Doña Ignacia, chose the name “Remedios” in honor of the Virgen de los Remedios as a “remedy” meant to ward off painful memories of a previous daughter who had died. Varo, like her mother, was deeply superstitious; and I can’t help but wonder if the faint image of Varo’s lost sister haunts the right side of the carriage in Catedral vegetal. That taboo figure slyly emerges from the dark, like the footprint of a spy showing up in a layer of sugar.
Varo’s vivid recapitulations of cathedral imagery emphasize verticality. In Gothic cathedrals, this dramatic vertical sweep encourages worshipers to crane their necks skyward and to aspire toward Heaven. Although Varo evokes verticality in Catedral vegetal (the many column-like trees, the sides of the carriage, the balcony’s posts, etc…), she subverts the other primary element in Gothic cathedrals: the emphasis on bright light. In typical Gothic cathedrals, we find openings everywhere: doorways, windows, arcades, and galleries—all of which let in an abundance of natural light. And let’s not forget those lavish stained glass windows! Varo omits any inkling of the rich jewel tones of stained glass, never deviating from her monochromatic color scheme’s tints and shades of earthy umbers. Thus, Varo’s Catedral vegetal embodies the vertical thrust of a cathedral, but not its quality of light. The light source in Varo’s forest is diffused or overcast: shadows and colors obscure in the wispy murk. Because the “ceiling” of her cathedral is a vegetable one, the branches and tendrils thwart widespread illumination. Here, light hits objects with an eerie pallor, a peculiar sepia mist.
In the German fairy tale, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” the king’s daughters sneak out of their bedrooms to dance in magical groves all night, puzzling their father with their inexplicably worn out shoes. The forests may be reached only by boat, and each one is a grove made strange and opulent through alchemy. The first forest in the tale has leaves of silver, the second one of gold, and the third one of diamonds. A prince, commissioned by the king to spy on the twelve princesses, discovers their secret groves by hiding in the bottom of one of the girl’s boats. He then makes off with a golden cup from the second forest to show the king, which wins him the hand of the princess of his choice. Varo’s magical forest seems a distant, darker cousin to the fairy tale’s golden forest. In the painting, Varo’s character undertakes a similarly fantastical journey, but instead of a prince, a ghastly specter peeps near the prow.
My ayaa Dawa fled Tibet and lived in India as an exile. As an adult, I’ve often wondered if Dawa’s stories so warped with mysterious horrors arose from her oppression by the Chinese government. What did she see that made her put carnivorous pigs under a princess’s bed? Who was the woman with the skeleton hands?
And what’s the deal with Varo’s incredible pheasant that pulls the carriage in Catedral vegetal —the one who has a single wheel growing from its body instead of two legs and cloth sails instead of feathered wings? I’m reminded of the carved prows of funerary boats from Old or Middle Kingdom Egyptian tombs, or the elaborate ship burials of ancient Norsemen. If this carriage-ship’s a funerary one, then instead of the Madonna from Christian mythology or a pagan fertility emblem, perhaps Varo’s wan lady is more of an underworld goddess, a Persephone headed toward Hades.
Because Persephone dies in the fall, descends to the underworld, and then returns to earth in the spring, her myth explains the change in the seasons. Is all this diffused, autumnal light in Catedral vegetal that “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” Keats describes so vibrantly in “To Autumn”—that time in which the flora and fauna hover tenuously on the edge of death? If we view Varo’s female figure as Persephone, the black apparition as death, and the pheasant a phoenix-like symbol of ascension, then the trio suggests the cycle of the life-death-rebirth deity.
Maybe Varo’s piecemeal pheasant embodies the zeitgeist of war, unrest, and exile that so permeated her life and her century. Maybe her bird is that “splendid derelict” the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam writes of in “The Age”:
My animal, my age, who will ever be able
to look into your eyes?
Who will ever glue back together the vertebrae
of two centuries with his blood?
Mandelstam, who died an exile in the Siberian gulag, also evokes a forest haunted with imaginative possibility—for refuge, for escape. In “He Who Finds a Horseshoe,” “We look at the forest and we say / here are many ships already in the trees, masts / the red pines.”
Such journeys require marvelous sorts of metamorphoses as well as extraordinary modes of transportation—and these aren’t merely physical travels, but radical moves through the psyche. Varo’s carriage is like Baba Yaga’s fantastical cabin in the realm of Slavic folklore—that witch’s house that gets up and walks around on its chicken feet. Varo gives us a similarly magical structure: no normal carriage, cathedral, ship, cycle, or bird will do.
Varo, like Dawa, lived most of her life as an exile. Although Varo was born in Angeles, Spain in 1908, the Spanish Civil War eventually sent her and the poet Benjamin Péret (later her husband) to Paris, where Varo became part of the Surrealist crowd. The rise of the Nazis, however, sent the couple to Marseilles for a year before they gained passage to Mexico City, where Varo lived until her death in 1963. Her paintings reflect her tumultuous travels, filled as they are with images of wheels, dark paths, eerie hybrids, and angular women who bear her own distinctive features. Central to Catedral vegetal, and to Varo’s work at large, is the metaphor of the journey.
Kaplan observes that characters in Varo’s work “set out on journeys of independence, but they always seem somehow constrained.” Constraints abound in Catedral vegetal. For one thing, that shadowy apparition in the right window of the carriage isn’t exactly a comforting companion for our pale lady. And her carriage looks as if it’s been built with scraps purloined from a junkyard run by Tom Waits! Also, the vertical weeds and scraggly branches don’t look at all windblown—there’s a deathlike stillness to the woods that poses a problem for the pheasant’s sails, unless the bird’s nerves extend directly into the fabric. The nebulous and unwavering umber murk, too, makes travel through a forest a dark and fearsome adventure.
During the sixteenth century, Raphael and Giovanni da Udine utilized the style of painting called grottesche (“grotesque”) in such holy spaces as the Vatican Logge, the Loggetta del Cardinal Bibbiena, and the Villa Farnesina. Grottesche draws from the capricious, wild arabesques of Pompeian Third Style wall-painting and blends together architectural, animal, vegetal, and human motifs. All those bizarre-looking chimeras and monsters affectively appalled Giorgio Vasari, who called the decorative patterns “works of pure debauchery.”
Varo’s hybridization of cathedrals and vegetation doesn’t evoke the grottesche’s tonal airiness, although there is a dark sense of play at work in Catedral vegetal, an irreverent and deeply psychic narrative that pushes her fantastical combinations beyond the flat surface decorations of arabesques. Her precise, academic style and interest in evoking psychological journeys take the shape of something darker and more deliberately sphinx-like than the debaucherous, sensual play of the grottesche.
William Blake uses an analogy of two suns to describe the creative powers of the imagination. There are people who are slaves to reason and restraint, Blake says, who look at the sun and see nothing but a guinea, a flat gold coin. Others look at that same sun and see a golden, angelic host pouring forth from the flames. One may attain such visionary possibility by trusting the imagination and releasing its creative powers—those aspects immeasurable by the five senses. “I Question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight,” Blake writes. “I look thro’ it & not with it.”
Sometimes I look through Varo’s Catedral vegetal and I travel a long way, maybe back to Dawa and those old, slippery realms of transformation and terror. I can almost see her butter tea steaming as she peels the flesh from a princess’s hands in her story, as my sister and I shudder from her fractured tales. A broken charm has more power than a saint’s remedy, the woman in Catedral vegetal might whisper, at any moment, as she glides by on her chimera. Sometimes I look through Varo’s woods and think they’ll keep on refracting until they’re infinite.
Anna Journey is the author of the collection, If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting (University of Georgia Press, 2009), selected by Thomas Lux for the National Poetry Series. Her poems are published in a number of journals, including American Poetry Review, FIELD, and Kenyon Review, and her essays appear in Blackbird, Notes on Contemporary Literature, Parnassus, and Plath Profiles. She holds both an undergraduate degree in art and an MFA in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University. Journey’s currently completing her PhD in creative writing and literature at the University of Houston and her second book of poetry, Whisper to the Hive.