The Spanish-born Mexican artist Remedios Varo was a committed student of what she called the “true practice of witchcraft.” In a letter to the English writer Gerald Gardner, author of Witchcraft Today (1954) and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959), Varo described her desire to practice authentic forms of witchcraft that still survived in remote areas of Mexico. Despite the close association she felt with these rites, rituals, and belief systems, Varo did not identify as a person with special powers but rather an individual who could perceive “relationships of cause and effect quickly and beyond the ordinary limits of common logic.”
A partially completed spell in one of Varo’s notebooks—dated October 31, 1961—inspired us to look more closely at Varo’s work this Halloween and consider a certain witchiness that inhabits her paintings, charging them with potency and suggesting a belief in unseen realities.
The huntress Varo depicted here, reminiscent of a supernova exploding with starlight, holds a net in one hand and a caged crescent moon in the other. Knowing Varo’s interests in witchcraft, mythology, magic, and folktales, the figure may read as a goddess or as a witch, or perhaps an intermingling of the two. Varo combined attributes of Diana, the Roman goddess of hunting and the moon, and Hecate, the Greek goddess of magic and the underworld. In this context, Cazadora de Astros symbolizes female divinities representing both captivity and freedom.
In the painting Nacer de Nuevo, Varo again uses the symbolism of the crescent moon, but here she depicts a moment of feminine transformation.
A nude, glowing woman steps through an opening in a wall that resembles labia, a forthright allusion to the work’s title, Nacer de nuevo (To Be Reborn). In some Wicca rituals, nudity is believed to foster a deeper connection with the Great Mother, a goddess in this tradition, who shares a profound affinity with the moon. The chalice is also a revered object in witchcraft, harkening back to ancient fertility cults also associated with the phases of the moon.
In the mid-1950s, when Varo’s close friend, artist Leonora Carrington, was working on her deck of the tarot’s Major Arcana, Varo created several works that use the symbolism of tarot as well.
In Carta de Tarot, we see a figure with a pentagram on its face and two intertwined serpents, one rising and the other descending, likely referring to the Magician the first Arcana card in the tarot. The size and format of the work resemble an actual tarot card, and the image is painted on hippopotamus bone, a significant choice considering that in ancient Egypt, hippos were considered the embodiment of the goddess in the waters of the Nile as well as a symbol of protection. It seems Varo produced a work of art that functioned as a divination device and a talisman.
A similar figure is the protagonist of her painting El malabarista o el juglar.
Here the magician’s face inside the pentagram is inlaid in mother of pearl. Varo described this painting as a juggler who “is full of tricks” and has at hand the symbols and instruments of his trade: the four elements in the form of animals, potions, plants, and herbs. He is performing in front of 21 figures wearing one cloak that joins them together. As one, these 21 figures refer to the remaining Major Arcana of a tarot deck.
Visitors to Remedios Varo: Science Fictions may have noticed an incomplete spell in one of Varo´s notebooks: “Egg No. 5” written on Halloween day 1961.
The spell reads like a recipe with a list of disparate ingredients, including fresh thyme, hair (from two women), incense, saliva, pomegranate, beeswax, stellar limb (filament), mercury (two drops), ash, cobalt (powdered), and olive oil. This partial spell joins a selection of other esoteric types of writing in Varo’s notebooks from pseudo-scripts to recipes, automatic writings, and recorded dreams. For example, the recipe “To Provoke Erotic Dreams,” also on view in the exhibition, proposes an extraordinary series of steps to achieve sensual pleasure while sleeping. One begins by making a broth from chicken and garlic with rainwater, plucking white hens, spreading honey on bedsheets, wearing a tight corset, and finally sitting in front of a mirror smiling and trying on mustaches and hats according to one’s preferences. According to Varo, when executed correctly, this recipe consistently yields positive results.
In 1959, Varo sculpted with chicken, fish, rabbit, and turkey bones, creating the skeleton of a figure on wheels she called Homo Rodans.
Among Varo’s only known sculptural works, Homo Rodans was a supposed precursor to the Homo sapiens, who roamed the earth on a single wheel instead of two legs. The skeletal sculpture Homo Rodans, was accompanied by a satirical anthropological treatise that Varo penned under the alias Hälikcio von Fuhrängschmidt. Throughout the manuscript Varo lavishly illustrated the shape of Homo Rodans, from its face to its full skeleton viewed in profile. She also used the figure in dress-up, photographing it surrounded by lush ferns and draped in elegant robes.
Like the skeletons we see at Halloween and in conjunction with the Day of the Dead, this make-believe enacted with bones likely allowed Varo a momentary confrontation with mortality, mediated in a way that softened the portents of death.
To see these works in person, visit the exhibition Remedios Varo: Science Fictions, on view through November 27. They will haunt you forever. And you will not regret it.
—Tere Arcq, Lara Balikci, Caitlin Haskell, and Alivé Piliado
For the translations of Varo’s texts previously quoted, please see: Varo, Remedios. Letters, Dreams and other Writings, trans. Margaret Carson (Cambridge, MA: Wakefield Press, 2018).
- From the Curator