I am visiting my friend Robert Amram in La Paz, Mexico and delving into his large library.
Unexpected Journeys, a book by Janet A. Kaplan on Remedios Varo re-awakens my love for her work and my curiosity for her friendship with Leonora Carrington.
Remedios’s life seems pure romantic and creative magic with all the dramas and seductions of mystery. She was born in Cataluña but had left Spain in the late thirties to escape the civil war and be close to the Paris art scene. There she met and befriended Andre Breton and his group of surrealist poet and artist friends: the spiritual progenitors of my adolescence. If I could slip back in time, this would have been one of the perfect spots.
I grew up in Paris in the sixties and my daily diet included art and literature by Breton, Magritte, Dali, Yves Tanguy, Man Ray who had challenged reality and introduced fantasy and dreams to life.
It was a time of freedom, discovery and political upheaval; facts were instances of life to be tested: the surrealists had traced the path of a separate reality; the future was exclusively ours to create.
I was playing 'cadavre exquis’ with my friends in school, sometimes during intermission, most times during classes. We were passing little pieces of paper and writing words or drawings, each one of us blindly adding our input to the sequence.
The result was a succession of non sequitur: haphazard and arbitrary works of geniuses! Anyway; it was great fun.
The game was particularly popular in church where we passed the notes in the slots in the front of the pews where we kept our hymnals.
At the time, I did not know that Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington were part of the group and were fabulous artists in their own right: I guess hardly anybody knew about their work.
While making my documentary about Wilhelmina Holladay for the National Museum of Women in the Arts, I had read about their life in Mexico and their friendship and I was fascinated.
Both women had met for the first time in the apartment of Andre Breton. Leonora was the partner of Max Ernst. He was 27 years her senior and soon after their encounter, Ernst who was German was declared an enemy of the Vichy regime and imprisoned. Later he was arrested again, this time by the Nazis, because of his ‘degenerate art”. Leonora was devastated and flee to Spain where she suffered a breakdown. She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Santander and was given a regimen of hallucinatory drugs and electroshock therapy. A horror story that she recalled in her book
For André Breton and the surrealists who were interested in the mind inner workings and mental alterations, Leonora became the poster child of madness, the ambassador for ‘the other side’. They saw her as a seer, a witch who returned from the underworld with visionary powers.
Remedios Varo and her partner Benjamin Peret. Both had been imprisoned by the Nazis, Peret for his political beliefs, Remedios for being his friend. They managed to escape Paris and flee to Mexico. She never returned to Spain.
Shortly after escaping from the psychiatrist hospital, Leonora Carrington found refuge at the Mexican consulate and emigrated to Mexico. Shortly after she joined Remedios and they became fast friends.
The two surrealist women played games and collaborated in writing stories according to the famous cadavre exquis pattern. They invented magical recipes to cure insomnia or induce erotic dreams, created bizarre dishes in their alchemical kitchens.One day that Bunuel was visiting, the two women tinted some tapioca with calamar ink, cooked the dish in a fish broth and served it to Bunuel as if it were caviar. Bunuel sought it tasted a bit bizarre but both women insisted it was perfectly good! Leonora remembered: “We were experimenting with another reality, a hermetic reality and had daily interaction and magic... we shared many things except painting.
Octavio Paz remembered Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo:
"There are two admirable artists in Mexico, two enchanted sorceresses: they have never heard the voices of praise or reprobation from schools or political parties. Both are insensitive to social morals, to aesthetics and to money.
Both women cross our city with an air of unspeakable and supreme distraction. Where are they going? Where will their imagination and passion lead them?”
I love the idea of these two women exiled in Mexico, both lovers of surrealist poets and painters, creating art, both in a quest to discover alternate realities; studying Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, exploring esotericism, alternate realities, applied psychology and magic.
I feel very close to both women in the quality of their long-lasting friendship and their quest to understand reality through mystical and philosophical inquiries.
Somehow we read a lot of the same books: a trait d’union through time: the feet in science, the head in mystic.“