Alchemy and art as modes of deep inquiry
C. G. Jung sifted through the symbolic spaces of the soul much like an archeologist; Remedies Varo perfected an alchemical work of her own making: art as a mode of deep inquiry. For Varo, painting was a pigmented and paint-brushed search for self-discovery not only for her own benefit but for the betterment of the world around her. “In an attempt to forge a personal identity,” wrote scholar Gloria Duran, women surrealist painters like Varo “explore the archetypes of Woman as alchemist, as scientist, as spinner and weaver of mankind’s destinies, and above all as creator, spiritual guide, and visionary” (1988: 299).
Stifled by her Catholic upbringing, and later traumatized by the terror of two wars, Varo’s life took her into dark regions. Varo’s artistic response grew from the ground of her devoted study of mysticism, spirituality, and Jungian psychology. Varo was drawn to painting and to the devotional practice of working with images and symbols in a bid to engage with the numinous forces at work in the psyche and the world. In a painting she titled Discovery, for example, a group of explorers stand on a ship that has landed at a shore near a forest. In the distance, a “luminous small sphere or pearl” glows with a golden light (Varo, 1997/2018: 100). An image of wonder and reverence, the painting evokes a felt sense of a quest completed, of freedom found, a surrendered ego’s recognition that there are living archetypal forces at work in our lives.
With her image of the explorers who have found the orb, a symbol for the divine light that glows at the center of the material world, Varo worked symbolically from a lineage of alchemical practitioners who depicted change through the union of opposites. A common image used by the alchemists to express the conjunction of opposing forces is intercourse between a red man and a white woman.
“The alchemists,” wrote Dennis William Hauck, saw the process of bringing the soul and spirit together “as one of passionate lovemaking driven by the desires of archetypal masculine and feminine forces” (1999: 213). “On the psychological level,” Hauck wrote, “conjunction is the constellation of a new belief system less tied to convention and more in line with higher truths” (214).
During Conjunction, the major effort in one’s life is the creation of a unified self that is true to both inner essences and universal truths and can withstand the onslaughts of ignorance, insensitivity, and illusion one encounters in the world. (215)
According to Hauck, the “alchemists associated the operation of Conjunction with the virile bull and assigned the astrological cipher of Taurus to signify this operation” (1999: 227). Astrologically, as an Earth sign, Taurus “is symbolic of masculine strength, virility, planning, and bull-headedness. The search of the Taurian is for meaning and value in life” (227). Unwavering in her efforts to engage with the healing powers of the unconscious, Varo featured bulls as symbols of the masculine in two paintings from 1962, the year before her death.
In Tauro, Varo painted a bull with the fur of incandescent orange and yellow. Varo’s bull has wings that help the shimmering animal fly over the Taurus constellation in a mottled sky the artist has painted black with hints of gold. The sky itself grounds the painting in a depth psychological viewpoint that “sees the image of the star-studded sky as a visualization of the flickering sparks of consciousness within the dark vastness of the unconscious psyche” (“Sky,” 2010: 56). The color of the sky is also important, alchemically speaking. By painting the sky black but infused with gold, Varo brought together the density and destruction of the operation that begins the opus, the nigredo, with the purified golden aspects one aims for in the coniunctio that culminates the work.
Varo’s painting depicts the alchemical union of opposites through her inclusion in the bull’s face of feminine features belonging to his unseen mate, the cow. For Barbara Hannah, the “penetrating, puncturing and aggressive power of the horns,” along with the “toughness of the bull’s hide,” are two qualities that link the bull with the masculine (2006: 371). Psychologically, Hannah sees “in the cow the principles of serene docility, gentle acceptance, and a renunciation of the bull-headedness typical of certain men, the animus, and the ego in general” (385). From a Jungian perspective, the cow brings to the process of transformation the ability to embody “that type of docility marked by strength and integrity of character and a recognition of our own limitations” (380). “The cow,” Hannah adds, “becomes the symbol of the attitude required to reach the middle, the quiet place in the center of the tension of the opposites” (380). As such, it represents the “path to the transcendent function,” the psyche’s tendency when the tension can be held to produce a third image or idea that transcends or unifies the opposites—a crucial movement in the process of individuation (380).
In the alchemical vessel—in Varo’s case, a painting—when opposing factors are held together with the relational energies of Eros—the alchemist’s passion for transformation—the process of the transcendent function moves in the alembic. The vessel holds space for the mundane, raw matter of life-as-it-has-been and the numinous image of unlimited creative potential. As we shall see in Varo’s art, working between the two factors produces a transcendent third—neither life as it has been nor sheer unformed potential, but rather images of transformations in consciousness and the re-invention of life.
In the alembic of her painting, Varo’s bull is made of more than fire and focus—it is more than masculine. Drawn to the alchemy of mixing masculine and feminine into a transcendent union or androgynous state, Varo’s orange and yellow bull sprouts two sharp silver horns, the color associated with the moon, the imagination, and the feminine. The artist has complemented the bull’s masculine ability to know what he wants and do what is necessary to achieve it (Jung, 1927/1970: para. 260) by giving him a small delicate face, curious eyes, and the playful hint of a woman’s smile. From a Jungian perspective, Varo painted into her image of the bull flying or prancing through the sky not only a union of masculine and feminine but also of the human and divine. Looking at us with its knowing, humanlike eyes, the golden bull among the stars evokes what it is like for the ego, which is usually identified with human experience and the physical body, to feel the animating presence and power of archetypal forces flickering into awareness from the unseen spaces of the unconscious. Tauro may have been Varo’s artistic attempt to evoke the psychological movement that is possible when a person collaborates consciously with archetypes, forces Varo constellated in the painting as the star of Taurus and as the darkened alchemical sky. From a Jungian perspective, both star and sky can be seen as symbolizing the immensity of the divine powers present in the cosmos of the psyche (“Sky,” 2010: 56).
What this experience may have been like for Varo brings Jung’s description of the ego’s encounter with instinct and archetype to mind. Jung understood the archetypal nature of the psyche to be the psychological or spiritual expression of instinctual life. “Jung,” wrote Kieron LeGrice, “describes contact with the archetypal dimension of the psyche as analogous to touching a high-voltage cable: One feels positively charged with life energy and intoxicating life power” (2016: 29). In Tauro, Varo painted the moment when the ego encounters the archetype, the bull of instinct, flying across the sky. It is a moment when the potency of the unconscious explodes with incandescent vitality and we find ourselves sharing the heavens with a timeless being “in a field of transcendent meaning” (2016: 28). By “capturing” the bull with attributes of his opposite, the cow, Varo painted a union of opposites and the felt sense of what Hannah calls “the heroic undertaking of a god” (2006: 360). Alchemically, the artist imagined what is below, the instincts (which depth psychology locates in an imagined direction, down in the unconscious), with what is above, the stars, glittering in the heavens as they might have at the dawn of time, during the creation of the cosmos.
The union of the bull and the cow mark mind and spirit, attributes typically associated with the masculine, brought together with the taming and transforming feminine “power of eros,” which Hannah described as “gentleness, kindness, relatedness and acceptance of others and ourselves” (385). Hannah, of course, built her reflections on the clinical work of Jung, who associated the Masculine with Logos, the principle of logic and structure. In contrast, Jung linked the Feminine with Eros, the principle of interdependence and relationship. “By Logos,” Jung wrote, “I meant discrimination, judgment, insight, and by Eros I meant the capacity to relate” (1955-56/1970: para. 224). Although Jung, and the patriarchal paradigm in which he lived, assigned the Masculine and Feminine principles to the male and female genders respectively, post-jungian thought has clarified them as fundamental qualities functioning within the world and within the psyche of all people—though our valuation of and access to them is culturally conditioned. In Tauro and Emigrants, another painting of a bull, Varo drew on the archetypal Masculine as she explored the terrain of female initiation.
In Emigrants, Varo cut away the bull’s midsection to show not internal organs but trunk space for traveling chests and a woman who appears to be retrieving an item from one of the open boxes. The skin and fur of the bull that has been cut away gathers above the opening in the animal’s body. High on the bull’s back sits a woman covered in a cloak made of the fur that has been drawn back and gathered like the folds of a curtain. In this painting, Varo again brings the masculine and feminine together in an unlikely way: the head of this bull is not that of an animal, but of a man who peers ahead with pinpoint focus while pedaling two spoked wheels with his hooves.
What are we to make of this image? Is Varo the woman riding on the back of the bull? If so, where is she going? What Varo seems to have imagined with the image is the motive power of the Masculine—or perhaps the impetus given to the process of transformation by the union of opposites, for she painted the bull as a vehicle with wheels for movement and an inner compartment where the human traveler stores the things needed for her journey. The wheels bring a powerful motif into the story of the painting. The wheel, in the context of Fortune, the tenth trump card from The Thoth Tarot,
is the profound symbol of wholeness, in constant movement and yet unchanging in its center... It is the wheel of the heavens that has constantly rotated around the earth for millions of years. The power behind the hub is the Eternal moving the wheel.
(Akron & Banzhaf, 1995: 66)
Beyond forging a relationship with divine forces, it is the working hypothesis of this book that Varo was working to change things, both in herself and in the patriarchal world around her. In these pages, we work in depth psychological ground, aware that bringing separated opposites together to reconstitute them in a new synthesis is a cornerstone of alchemical psychology as described by Jung and practiced artistically by Varo. Steeped in Jung’s way of working with symbols, Varo painted in a bid to bring new life to a troubled world. In painting the alchemical mechanics of transforming opposites into a third thing, Barron wrote that Varo
reminds us that alchemy is art, even as art is alchemy. The great artists of every age create images that serve not only their own personal transformation, but bring to all humanity the fresh images that are needed to contain, compensate for, and transform the one-sided, unbalanced Zeitgeist of the collective, and thus bring about individuation. (2006: “About the Cover Art”)