The fructifying bonfire of trauma and death
As an individual and as an artist, Remedies Varo worked, as each of us does, with the unfiltered experiences of her life. As we have seen, prima materia is a term the alchemists used to refer to the basic components of one’s life. From a Jungian perspective, the first matter of a person’s life draws from instincts as well as from dream images and other fantasies, emotions, conflicts, and feeling-toned complexes, as we engage in the psychological work of individuation.
Remedios as remedy: The replacement child and a search for identity
For Varo, the first matter of her personal life includes a psychological challenge that may have begun the moment she was born. Remedios was so named by her mother, Dona Ignacia, “in dedication to the Virgen de los Remedios as a ‘remedy’ to forget an older daughter who had died” (Kaplan, 1988: 11). Did Remedios Varo know she was a replacement child— “a living child who comes to take the place of a dead one?” (Abramovitch, as cited in Schellinski, 2020: 21).
We do not know the dynamics of the family system into which Varo was born. Something we do know, however, is that when a child dies, parents can become overcome with grief. Replacement children are often conceived in an unconscious attempt by parents to assuage the grief they feel at the loss of a child who has died. “Rather than seeing the unique new being,” Kristina Schellinski wrote, quoting John Bowlby, “parents may ... ‘mislocate’ a lost person and seek it in the presence of another” (2020: 51). Were these dynamics involved in, or related to, Varo’s lifelong experience of loneliness and alienation, and her restless existential search for self-discovery? In addition, was the experience of being a substitute for a missing sister related to Varo’s prominent fear of death, an image featured in the artist’s dream of the executioner?
Our study of Varo’s paintings offers evidence that the artist may, in fact, have used art as a way of working out identity issues related to her deceasedolder sister, for Varo’s imagined worlds often include ghosts, hidden beings who reach out from behind walls or peer at her from below the floor. Are these figures expressions of a lost sister? Perhaps they are. “In an adult replacement child,” Schellinski wrote, “the unconscious can be contaminated, even poisoned by the vestiges of the missing other” (2020: 157).
Remembering that images are multifaceted in their symbolism, it is also possible that the hidden beings in many of Varo’s paintings could be symbolic depictions of the artist’s search for self-discovery. “The challenge for [an adult] replacement child,” Schellinski argued, “is the healing of its inner image of other-, moving from a representation of missing inner other towards a representation of an alive-and-present inner other that can then allow for fulfilling relationship^] with other human beings” (2020: 153, emphasis in original). Psychologically, effecting such a shift “requires becoming conscious of projections and ceasing compensatory attempts of finding other on the outside rather than within. Finding an inner image of the inner animus/ anima, alive and well, is necessary for connecting with the true self” (153). Perhaps these dynamics are one way of accounting for the importance, in Varo’s dream of the executioner, of weaving her destiny with the man to whom she wished to be connected “for all eternity” (Varo, 1997/2018: 96). According to Schellinski, adult replacement children feel compelled to discover images of the contrasexual other (as Jung referred to the anima and animus) within their own soul.
Many, if not most, of Varo’s painted characters are explorers; they are searching for something. From a Jungian perspective, we can consider Varo’s imaginal explorers as projected expressions of the artist’s “true self” in the process of coming “back to life" (Schellinski, 2020: 11, emphasis in original). In other words, through painting Varo may have been working to reconstruct her identity. She may have been working to shape an authentic and embodied sense of self that had been overshadowed, perhaps even occluded, by the specter of the missing other, that is, the dead, and therefore lost, sister. On a personal level, there is a powerful transformation at work in Varo’s art. From a Jungian perspective, painting, for Varo, becomes a path of individuation, an artistic practice she engages in to express the voice—the music—of her soul. With the dynamics of the replacement child in mind, for Varo, painting helped the artist image a journey of transformation, a transit in which she traveled from the emptiness of non-being into a living sense of herself as a person in her own right.
At the risk of making too much of psychological dynamics that may or may not have impacted Varo’s well-being, there is another aspect of the experience of the replacement child that is worth looking at briefly in the context of the artist’s dream of the executioner and of her death by heart attack in the fall of 1963. When a living child substitutes for a dead one, the replacement child is forced to deal with “two archetypal forces, the most profound pair of opposites, of life and death ... mingled at the beginning of life” (Schellinski, 2020: 135, emphasis in original). “To reckon with images of the archetype of death,” Schellinski observed, “is a difficult, if not impossible task for a child; it is often later, as an adult, that a replacement child will see a need to consciously enter into a dialogue with images of these archetypal forces” (135). Through painting, Varo seemed to face and integrate aspects of the shadow archetype. “An adult replacement child,” Schellinski wrote, “needs to find the positive shadow, the unknown parts of its identity in those cases when its life force was overshadowed when parts of ego consciousness and unconscious parts of self were contaminated by elements of a disappeared person” (136, emphasis in original).
From a teleological perspective, could the psychological dynamics of the adult replacement child have uniquely positioned Varo in her unfolding and deepening exploration of the numinous Feminine to take us, as we continue to follow the artist through her painted images and dream of the executioner, into a relationship with life and death, not as opposites but as spiraling, creative partners?