Chance encounters, random moments, fateful figures spinning a celestial web. These are the images and occurrences that form the life and work of Surrealist artist Remedios Varo and inspire author Rym Kechacha’s own writing, especially her latest novel, To Catch a Moon.
It’s 1940 and Remedios Varo is alone in Paris. The air is choked with the imminent Nazi invasion and her partner, the poet Benjamin Peret, is already imprisoned as an outspoken Communist. She goes to the cinema with an acquaintance, the photographer and journalist Chiqui Weisz (who will, unbeknownst to her, become the husband of her future dear friend Leonora Carrington). Before the main feature, a documentary is shown – something that Chiqui happens to have filmed – about prisoners in French concentration camps. As Varo watches, she sees that one of the prisoners is her legal husband, Gerardo Lizarraga, a fighter with Spanish anarchist forces. According to his son, who told this story to Janet Kaplan years later as she researched her biography of Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys, Varo marshalled her resources to bribe and cajole the guards until he was released.
Another story from Kaplan’s biography, this one perhaps not true: finally reunited with Peret in Marseilles, Varo paid a middle man to smuggle them out of France and on to Casablanca, where they had passage on a boat sailing to Mexico. The go-between stole their money, leaving them stranded. It was later reported that the smuggler they had been due to use had murdered the previous twelve refugees he’d agreed to transport.
Reading these stories, I am struck most by the phantom people who are not present; those who were never rescued. I’m thinking about the other Spanish Republicans in the concentration camp who did not have an estranged wife big-hearted and brave enough to bribe Nazis. I’m thinking of those poor people who were killed by the smuggler, buried in unmarked, unmourned graves. I’m thinking of a Marseillais stevedore who is no one’s definition of an intellectual, but nonetheless, would quite like to live somewhere else other than Vichy France, standing at the harbour, watching boats slip away across the sea.
How often do you stop to think about the chance winds of coincidence that govern your life and that of everything that has ever existed? Not often. It is too dizzying, too terrifying. The endless branching paths in all directions of space and time leave you paralysed in the places you’ve found yourself, helpless to move or think, afraid that any decision large or small will make some great knitter in the sky drop a stitch and leave you dangling out of the (w)hole. Better to look back at the twisted threads of the tapestry you call your life and see an order. Better to take strength from that vision to make the next stitch.
Fiction writers wrestle with coincidence. Art struggles to imitate life; chance happenings that are fascinating when your friend relays them become clunky in fiction. They snip the strings that suspend your disbelief and leave you sprawling on the floor. Easier, artistically, to set up a metaphysics of order and offer your reader the idea that the human tragedy is that we do not know the pattern, not that we cannot reconcile ourselves to the idea that there isn’t one at all.
I’ve spent some time wondering if Remedios Varo thought there is an order to the universe or if she took pleasure or pain in its randomness. I think the answer is in her paintings, particularly some of the mature works created during her time of settled, contented creativity in Mexico City. She often used the visual metaphor of a somewhat melancholy figure manipulating textiles with knitting, sewing and weaving that make you think of the Fates of Greek myth or the Norns of Norse myth, spinning and weaving and cutting the lives of humans according to some ancient, unknowable pattern. The Red Weaver (1952), Three Destinations (1956), Dead Leaves (1956) and Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle (1961) all have a variation on this image. From her explorations of this idea, I can only assume that Varo believed in a tapestry of fate, perhaps even finding comfort in the idea as she looked back at the extraordinary coincidences that had kept her alive. I would. (I do). Even though I’m really not sure there’s anything but my own mind directing my blundering course through this world.
Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle is currently on display at the Tate Modern as part of their Surrealism Beyond Borders exhibition. Shown with two other paintings that form a triptych for the first time, the sequence together seems to be about freedom, rather than destiny. Freedom from a repressive, Catholic upbringing, freedom to create as she pleased, freedom in the loves that shaped her life.
What is not clear from what you see of Varo’s work on the internet or in books is the way it glows on the canvas. I have read everything I can get my hands on about her for the four years I’ve been researching her and writing my novel, but I’d never seen one of her paintings in the flesh before. I didn’t know the work would seem to be its own light source, like the painting was aflame. As I stared, entranced at the central image of six girls sewing at a rippling cloth that seems to make up the whole world, I thought about Varo working at the canvas and how many hours it took her to achieve that glimmering radiance. Despite her commitment to Surrealism, she did not leave the composition and execution of her paintings to chance. She did multiple sketches for each painting and her work was painstaking, slow, precise in its lines. She harnessed her rigorous technique to all the weirdness she dredged from her unconscious. This is one of the gifts she has given me. The permission – the imperative – to put the w(y)eird at the service of craft. Or perhaps the other way around. I’m not sure yet.
Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle is the painting that begins my novel To Catch a Moon. From the images, I’ve created a world brought to life by Varo’s surrealist play; a world where every being is ruled by a contract between earth and heaven. Events are written by a cosmic being, sung by earthly ones and then embroidered by ordinary teenage girls. Much has been written about how artists consider themselves deities and I suppose in arranging my character’s lives I am being a tyrannical goddess, ripping people apart from their loved ones for plot and killing people off when the narrative has run out of use for them. I don’t feel all that guilty. At least they know someone’s in charge.
Perhaps in arranging her figures so carefully on her canvas Varo was attempting to calm the chaos of her own life and control her fate. She was an enthusiastic and devoted student of all things esoteric from west and east. She consulted the I Ching, studied alchemical texts, used Tarot and magical herbs. She read Jung and Freud and Gurdjieff and diligently recorded her dreams. She used all this knowledge in her work, but I don’t think that’s why she spent time on her occult studies. I think she was simply trying to figure out how to live in the tapestry that she had ended up weaving.
I have found there is a tension between the freedom of the individual I, as a twenty-first century Western person am exhorted to exercise, and the comfort of believing I am merely following the threads of my destiny. I think part of Surrealism’s power as a movement is to uncover the friction between these straining parts of you and some of the power of Varo’s work lies in all the varied visual metaphors she paints to express this. I want to be free. I am terrified of being free. I am not very lucky. I make my own luck. I am ignorant as to how lucky I am.
Coincidences of little consequence: you miss a bus and the next that comes along bears an old friend; you choose one bar over another and meet a man who will break your heart; you decide not to apply for that job after all. Choices that are perhaps nothing or perhaps everything. You stitch blindly, with nothing but the occasional flash of a song, poem or painting to make the rippling silk of the world visible and all the while you search for something that will make the stitching easier to bear in the face of everything that seeks to tear it apart.
Rym Kechacha’s second novel, To Catch A Moon, is published by Unsung Stories and is available to purchase online now.
About Rym Kechacha
Rym Kechacha is a writer and teacher living in Norwich. Her debut novel, Dark River, was published in 2020 by Unsung Stories. Set between mesolithic Doggerland and a near-future UK, Dark River is about motherhood, sacrifice and awe of the natural world. Her second novel, To Catch a Moon, is based on the paintings of Spanish surrealist artist Remedios Varo and was published by Unsung Stories in June 2022. She has been nominated for two British Fantasy Awards. You can find out more about Rym’s work here: https://rymkechacha.squarespace.com and follow her on Twitter @RymKechacha
Feature image: detail from Remedios Varo’s Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle (1961), used under fair use via WikiArt.