There is something unnerving about reading books drawn from personal notes not necessarily intended for publication. Letters, Dreams & Other Writings by Spanish-born painter Remedios Varo (1908-1963), translated by Margaret Carson from the Spanish edition, Cartas, sueños y otros textos, is such a collection, based on manuscripts that Varo wrote on notebooks. The intimate nature of her writings, displaying a fascinating lack of aesthetic pretensions, are best suited to readers already familiar with her visual art or those who are curious about it.
Varo was a well-known figure in the Mexican Surrealist movement and her texts, translated into English for the first time, exhibit a whimsical, Surrealist sensibility. Letters, Dreams & Other Writings includes an unpublished interview that reveals an artist who sometimes writes “as if I were making a sketch,” as well as recipes for magical brews, notes on her paintings, imaginary experiments, letters to strangers or people Varo has created, and a pseudo-scientific monograph tracking the origin of the human species right down to rats, among other texts. This is a collection that might help unravel the biographical rationale behind her paintings — or not.
Like her equally prominent Surrealist friend, Leonora Carrington, Varo had little patience with or interest in well-established rules. For this self-proclaimed Sunday painter, the matters of the universe have only two identifiable tendencies: to harden and to soften. These tendencies draw the line between organic and inorganic matter, the former being, in Varo’s view, the more ambitious. Against such prevailing dispositions, spirits “in the habit of spitting” populate her texts, mirroring the androgynous alter egos in her paintings. She constructs these spirits in language with the same affection and attention to uncanny details that make her visual work so stunning and hard to pin down.
Varo’s writings and paintings express her appetite for realities that proudly escape constraints while. She rewrote histories and myths to accommodate a desire for an unattainable freedom and for conjuring science and magic. Hers is a written universe of climbing, self-clinging ideas that manifest as the plants and animals accompanying the solitary female alchemist (a recurring theme in Varo’s oeuvre), on the lookout for higher understandings of the metaphysical. Disobedient Plant (Planta insumisa), one of the many entries in Varo’s preserved manuscript, demonstrates her refusal of conventional notions of people by blurring the distinction between the human and everything else:
This scientist is experimenting with various plants and vegetables. He’s puzzled because there’s a rebellious plant. All the plants are already sending out tendrils in the shape of figures and formulas, except for one that insists on producing a flower, and the only mathematical tendril it sent out at first, and which falls on the table, was very frail and withered and, moreover, wrong, since it says “Two and two are almost four.” Every hair of the scientist is a mathematical formula.
Humorous and experimental, Letters, Dreams & Other Writings is a book that seems to enjoy itself just as Varo must have enjoyed herself while writing the texts, many of which seem inspired by the Surrealist technique of automatic writing. Yet, it would be wrong to assume that these light-hearted, unassuming texts are only formal experiments in thought and language or to reduce them to biographical sketches. Varo regarded the telephone as “an inhibitive apparatus, too cold for communication. But writing letters to one another is different.” Recording dreams and epiphanies, as well as the Surrealist dialogues that question common logic was fundamental to her practice. We can take pleasure in Varo’s intimate musings, but we should also acknowledge the writings as creative works that are as significant and intoxicating as her visual art.