Raveling: Varo and the transformation of cultural complexes powered by patriarchy

With these depth psychological dynamics in mind, increasingly nuanced reflections on the alchemical transformation Varo painted into Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle can be made. Consciously or unconsciously, the artist paints a moment of transformation: on the stone floor in the center of the tower, a cauldron bubbles, the broth being brewed an alchemical image of a complex, or complexes, suffering dissolution. We cannot know the precise nature of Varo’s psychological makeup. What we can surmise, if we follow the artist into the story that unfolds in the image of the young women at work in the tower, is that Varo has painted the very moment when the suffering and trance-like condition imposed by an unconscious complex dies from a disidentification with the complex and an awakening to its destructiveness and the possibility held within its archetypal core. Boiling in the cauldron in the tower is a broth bringing both the end of what has been and the beginning of what can be. From a Jungian perspective, the tension of opposites Varo imagines in Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle is easy to see, but more difficult to put in perspective.

Varo, a master miniaturist, has embroidered into the world’s mantle a new possibility, perhaps even an emerging cosmos. In her essay on Varo in an anthology on Latin American women artists, Janet Kaplan highlighted the host of factors that combined to create Varo’s singular style. “Not only are her images rich with echoes of El Greco, Bosch, Goya, medieval Spanish architecture, and North African costume,” Kaplan wrote, “but her style is that of the illuminated manuscript, that document of obsessive belief in the transformative power of seeing the whole world in the finest moment of detail” (1998: 124).

Throughout her jewel-like compositions, there is a meticulous, even obsessive attention to the elaboration of fine detail that marks Varo’s as a miniaturist’s hand ... There is ... an essential theatricality to such miniaturist vision, in which tableaux become dollhouse-like stage sets framing an enclosed world. (124-5)

Concealed in the fold of the garment that spills from the tower in Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle are the tiny forms of the young woman and her lover. Here, in the finest of detail, Varo may have imagined the move beyond servitude—to parents, to patriarchy, to destructive unconscious complexes. With attention to the minutest, most difficult to detect detail, while also imagining an expansive and emerging cosmos, Varo depicted the depth and intensity of deep suffering as well as the spacious flexibility of increased awareness and expanded possibilities. Once trapped, like Persephone, in an underworld of despair and deadness, the young woman sewn into the fold of the fabric of the emerging world can now leave the tower to weave the threads of new experience.

As a woman exiled and uprooted first from Spain, during her country’s Civil War in the 1930s, and later from France as Germany occupied Paris during World War II, in her mature work Varo

found a way to create a world over which she could exercise total control. In carefully constructed narrative tableaux, rich with obsessive detail, she set her often solitary characters into a world of timeless interiority. It is a transcendent time in which she could negate the flux of lived reality.

(Kaplan, 1998: 125)

Poet and literary critic Susan Stewart explored the miniature as a metaphor for interiority. “The miniature,” Stewart wrote, “linked to nostalgic versions of childhood and history, presents a diminutive, and thereby manipulatable, version of experience, a version which is domesticated and protected from contamination” (1984: 69). Metaphorically exploring the dollhouse as an example, Stewart commented on how the miniature transforms the time and space of everyday experience “into the infinite time of reverie” (65).

Occupying a space within an enclosed space, the dollhouse’s aptest analogy is the locket or the secret recesses of the heart: center within center, within within within. The dollhouse is a materialized secret; what we look for is the dollhouse within the dollhouse and its promise of an infinitely profound interiority. (61)

Stewart marveled at the ability of the miniature to bring microcosm and macrocosm into such a small space. “Worlds of inversion,” she wrote,

of contamination and crudeness, are controlled within the dollhouse by an absolute manipulation and control of the boundaries of time and space... Unlike the single miniature object, the miniature universe of the dollhouse cannot be known sensually; it is inaccessible to the languages of the body and thus is the most abstract of all miniature forms. Yet cognitively the dollhouse is gigantic. (63)

Varo’s depiction of containment in enclosed or isolated spaces—a tower, cages, a tiny house in the clouds—reflects the alchemical vessel as

a symbol for the attitude which prevents anything escaping outside; it is a basic attitude of introversion which, on principle, does not let anything escape into the outside world. The illusion that the whole trouble lies outside oneself has come to an end.

(von Franz, 1980: 87)

Within the vessel of a painting, Varo enacted a concentrated psychological treatment; projections onto the outer world are withdrawn and contained within, which intensifies the process of coming into increased awareness. Fingering these same threads, Kaplan wrote,

in so much of Varo’s work, a dollhouse effect of cut-away architecture establishes a frontal framing and a shallow theatrical stage on which dramas of personal and cosmic discovery are enacted. Small in size but monumental in scale, Varo’s miniaturized visions project an intensity of power and rigorous focus that is both highly intellectual and magically charged. (1998: 125)

Through her introverted projection of unconscious content into the microcosm of her paintings, Varo’s miniature worlds engage the personal, cultural, and archetypal layers of her psyche, each of which, while contained with the individual, implies that the psyche is always relational and interactional. Depth psychologically, then, the alchemical vessel relates to the transitional space envisioned by pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott as the

“in-between space” ... a meeting-ground of potentiality and authenticity, located neither within the self nor in the world of political and economic affairs. In this space, one finds the most authentic and creative aspects of our personal and communal existence.

(Praglin, 2006: 1)

In her work on women’s psychology in the 1970s, psychiatrist and feministjean Baker Miller challenged the patriarchal paradigm that has infected Western psychology with a definition of a healthy self as one that is independent and nonrelational, stable and unchanging across domains (1986). More recently, “in multiple contexts of research and theory, older ideas about independence and separation-individuation are giving way to a view of the person in more relational, interdependent terms” (Fishbane, 1998: 41). This underscores psychologically the feminist refrain, “The personal is political,” popularized by Carol Hanisch, who argued that women’s experiences are traceable to their position within the patriarchal hegemony (1969: title).

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