Largely unknown outside of Mexico, today Remedios Varo is still one of the many forgotten female artists of Surrealism. Just a quick glance at her work, that blends alchemy, the occult, architecture and science, will make you realize that the solitary women she portrayed were often tortured and enclosed, trapped in cages and towers – symbols of a patriarchal culture. Her art was a reflection of how she felt.
We might pat each other on the back and tell ourselves that if Frida Kahlo made it, then surely any other Surrealist woman could have gained recognition too. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Take Varo, for instance. She was born in Spain, where the influences of both her parents later came out in her art. Her father taught her technical drawing and got her passionate about both science and mysticism. Later, she would revolt against the strict Catholicism that her mother revered and that shaped her childhood.
Varo moved to Paris after she fell in love with Surrealist poet Benjamin Péret. This liaison opened the door to the Surrealist circle of André Breton, where she was quick to adopt its philosophy and subconscious imagery. Because the Surrealists saw women primarily as muses and adhered to the notion of the femme-enfant (woman-child, innocent and seductive), Varo lied about her age, claiming she was five years younger than she was. Needless to say, she felt highly restricted in the Parisian circle, reduced to being only an extension of Péret. Whether real or imagined, this feeling of oppression infiltrated her works, where time and time again she depicted women suffering in isolation. It wasn’t until she fled Nazi-occupied Paris and moved to Mexico that Varo found her voice, as she created more artworks and gradually strayed away from Surrealism, laying the groundwork for her own mystical imagery.
Completed after the Spanish artist moved to Mexico, Rheumatic Pain I shows a woman shackled to a pillar, her back turned to us, her face covered by her hair and a giant butcher knife stuck into her back. With the backdrop being a setting reminiscent of Surrealism – a checkered floor and a tall, Gothic architectural structure, like a cathedral or an open temple, amidst rose and blood-hued clouds – Varo’s rendition seems to be a rebuttal of the Surrealist fantasy where a naked or highly sexualized woman is freed by her subconscious to explore her sexuality. The shackled woman echoes Varo’s own suffering and feelings of entrapment, which the artist eventually overcame, thanks to the warm reception and the supportive environment that she found in Mexico.