Remedios Varo - Bordando el Manto Terrrestre / Embroidering Earth’s Mantle (1961)
I first heard of this painting in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.
Oedipa, perverse, had stood in front of the painting and cried. No one had noticed; she wore dark green bubble shades. For a moment she wondered if the seal around her sockets were tight enough to allow the tears simply to go on and fill up the entire lens space and never dry. She could carry the sadness of the moment with her that way forever, see the world refracted through those tears, those specific tears, as if indices as yet unfound varied in important ways from cry to cry. She had looked down at her feet and known, then, because of a painting, that what she stood on had only been woven together a couple thousand miles away in her tower, was only by accident known as Mexico, and so Pierce had taken her away from nothing, there’d been no escape.
And she thinks:
what really keeps her where she is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all… if the tower is everywhere and the proof of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?
I’ve read a couple of analyses of Pynchon’s treatment of the painting, and they both made a point of how he’d overanalysed and read too much darkness into it. The idea seemed to be that Varo’s paintings are just supposed to be ‘playful’ and light-hearted in their surreallity, not deeply symbolic and disturbing. Given that even her wikipedia page cites mystics and occultists such as Helena Blavatsky, G. I. Gurdjieff and Meister Eckhart as her philosophical influences, this is a fairly ignorant stance to take.
I wonder if the response would have been the same if she’d been a man (women of course being superficial creatures not given to deep thinking /sarcasm). How do you look at paintings full of Masonic checkerboard floors, Egyptian obelisks & pyramids, eyes, butterflies, owls, clocks, astrology and alchemy and not see the occult significance? One critic even claimed that the prevalence of cats (CATS) in her art shows its merely light-hearted nature. What do you say to that, I mean really.
Pynchon’s book is, fittingly, all about seeing deeper meaning in things; seeing patterns and connections where others don’t see them, and about how that leads to both mystical experience and paranoia. The only thing I agree with these guys on is that Oedipa’s fatalistic interpretation of the painting (basically, a set of prisoners compelled by the robed figure to ‘fill the void’ with the tapestry-world, creating another prison) strays too far towards paranoia. But not because these women aren’t imprisoned in a tower creating the world - they are. Varo’s paintings are full of women who are trapped in some way. But in this painting they do have power to affect their reality. As Varo herself points out, one of the women has ‘embroidered a trick [into the tapestry] in which one can see her together with her lover’.
Which, when you see the parallel with the artist herself, surrounded by arcane tomes, creating these surreal worlds within worlds, is pretty damn deep after all.