When most people think of women and surrealism, they inevitably think of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. But Frida wasn’t the only female artist working in dreamscapes (or nightmare escapes) in Mexico. Spanish painter Remedios Varo and English artist Leonora Carrington also found refuge in Mexico after running from the Nazis in Vichy-occupied France. It’s a story that is not as well-known as Frida’s – or other official Surrealists – but Claire McMillan brings it to life in her forthcoming third novel Alchemy of a Blackbird (Atria Books, 2023).
Told mostly through-out from the point of view of Remedios Varo, she and Leonora Carrington become friends in France at the start of World War II. They met because they were both in relationships with well-known male members of the Surrealists movement, Remedios with French poet Benjamin Péret and Leonora with German painter Max Ernst. The book opens with Remedios deciding to learn how to read Tarot cards with Leonora, strengthening their friendship through its study.
Remedios struggled with her treatment by the [mostly male] Surrealists, as well as exploring her own creative voice. Remedios, in particular, was dismissed as an ingénue; they thought of her as merely the woman who was sleeping with Benjamin Péret. In truth, she made ends meet for herself as well as Benjamin by forging paintings of other established painters.
Suddenly, most of the Surrealists were on the run from the Nazis. Remedios and Benjamin fled to Southern France and then to Mexico. Leonora eventually found her way to Mexico too, after a prolonged stay at a sanitarium. Along the way in almost every alternating chapter, other characters tell the story from their points of view (when they are represented by Tarot cards). It’s a story of creative discovery and the importance of female solidarity and support.
Elisa: What made you decide to tell this story about Remedios Varo? What made you decide to focus on Remedios rather than telling the story from Leonora Carrington’s point of view?
Claire: The impetus of the whole book was that I had started studying Tarot maybe 10 years ago, for my own personal exploration and self-discovery. I never thought I would write about the Tarot and never thought that it would come into my work. I saw a reproduction of Remedios’ painting “The Call” (it actually hangs in the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington DC). When I saw it, it was so captivating to me, and it rearranged something inside of me in an instant, and I thought: “I need to know everything about whoever painted this.”
So, I Google Image searched it, found out it was a Remedios Varo, and then just started ordering all these books about her, again, with no idea that I would write about her. The painting had moved me, so I needed to know about it. As I started reading about her life, her life was so extraordinary. Remedios was influenced by the Tarot and esotericism; these two kinds of interests of mine started to dovetail. I also read about her lover Benjamin Péret and Leonora Carrington (her best friend). I think it was just seeing Remedios’s work, it spoke to me first, and was the reason why I wanted to tell her story.
Tarot cards are very central to the story, both as a jumping off point at the beginning as well as the structure of some of the chapters that depict Tarot cards corresponding to different characters in the story.
Claire: Part of the decision to include the Tarot cards was just that the Tarot has been such a useful tool for me, for self-illumination. There are so many myths around Tarot. I was kind of using it was not so much to predict the future, but I feel like when Tarot cards are really working, what they’re doing is helping you illuminate something that’s going on, emotionally, that has not come up to the surface yet, or that you can feel but you can’t put words or language to it.
In my kind of study of the Tarot – I’d studied with famous teachers, and with local people here in Cleveland – my kind of approach is just a hodgepodge or mishmash. I wanted to put my spin on the cards out there; using each card introduces the point of view of a character who’s in the scene, which gave me additional perspective on Remedios’s story. I wanted those chapters, obviously, to move the plot forward, but also give the reader an outside perspective on what Remedios is telling you in the other chapters.
It’s interesting how you talk about her relationship with Benjamin Péret. There’s a part when Benjamin admits to taking Remedios own words and incorporating them into his poems, and how everyone focuses on him – treating her like a groupie – whether they are in France or Mexico.
Claire: I think in reading both her and Leonora’s histories, it’s so rare that Leonora is mentioned without Max Ernst also being mentioned, and there was an age gap between them too.
Remedios really didn’t start painting the paintings that she is famous for until Benjamin was out of her life. I don’t think he was some great oppressive force, personally, in the dynamic of their relationship. But I think of those times, and the age difference between them, and the general surrealist view of women (which was either you’re what we would now call a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” or you’re a Madonna). There was no room to navigate between these poles.
When I try to explain to people who Remedios and Leonora really were, I call them “Surrealists,” but officially they aren’t. But I don’t know how else to describe their work to people unfamiliar with them.
Claire: I agree. I think they are often called Surrealists, but I really do believe that Remedios and Leonora created their own semiotics, their own language, their own viewpoints. It’s not surrealist in the way that we think of it as very male, like Man Ray or Marcel Duchamp or Max Ernst, or Salvador Dali. All of these male visions were super rigid.
When you look at paintings by Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, and Remedios Varo, there is such feminine energy and perspective.
But when you look at paintings by Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, and Remedios Varo, there is such feminine energy and perspective. I do think they’re quite mystical in a way that traditional Surrealism… to me, traditional Surrealism doesn’t have a mystical aspect.
It’s interesting how you include Tarot cards in the story when they are constantly diminished in the book and the real world. For example, Max Ernst dismisses them. I realize that there may be a gendered aspect to Tarot cards; women tend to be interested in Tarot rather than men (generally speaking). It made me wonder if the reason Tarot cards are denigrated is because they are associated with women.
Claire: I think a lot of men and women will view them as sort of wacky too, like a Ouija board (no shade on Ouija boards). But you look at someone like Carl Jung (the psychiatrist) who was obsessed with Tarot cards, and wrote about them extensively, or Alexander Jodorowsky (the filmmaker), who wrote a huge book on Tarot. I think it’s been inspiring artists forever.
But you’re quite rightly pointing out that it’s kind of looked at as a wacky “woman thing.” In some ways, I wonder if there is anything women do that isn’t made to look diminutive or wacky? I studied with Rachel Pollack, who wrote this great book 78 Degrees of Wisdom, which got me into Tarot. I went and studied with her for a week in New York, and the room had probably 75 people, who were in that room to study Tarot for a week. I’d say probably two thirds were more professional Tarot readers (that was how they made their money). And of that, there were maybe a dozen men in the room, but the majority of the Tarot readers were definitely women.
What do you want people to take away from Alchemy of a Blackbird?
Claire: I’d love it if people viewed the Tarot as a potential tool for self-discovery, and not a wacky “out there” thing. Of course, I’d love it if people who didn’t know Remedios Varo’s work were compelled to look at it and appreciate it. I just wanted to write about female friendships that were super supportive, because that’s something that I’ve been blessed with in my life. Sometimes, I don’t know where I’d be without them.
Remedios and Leonora were both painters. And, as far as I can tell, they were not competitive with one another. Not that competition is bad, but they were so supportive of each other; they had a very similar visions and worldviews, but they each made such different art even though their art has similar themes. It’s very validating and satisfying to me when I read of good female friendships.
In the art world, there are all these stories of male artistic collaboration, like Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. You don’t really hear as much about female artistic collaborations like Remedios and Carrington, where they really inspired each other. You couldn’t have had one without the other.
I did love that their story didn’t devolve into jealousy and competition, but was like a mutual lifting up.
© Elisa Shoenberger (9/1/23) – Special for FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Check out Claire McMillan’s amazing book Alchemy of a Blackbird.
Learn more about The Art Institute of Chicago’s recently opened Remedios Varo show: Science Fictions.
Visit the Leonora Carrington collection at MoMA (NYC).
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
“Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle” by Remedios Varo in the Tate Modern “Surrealism Beyond Borders” exhibition, London, United Kingdom. Credit: Wirestock, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2JKTK5D
Photo provided by Claire McMillan & used with her permission. All Rights Reserved.