III Symbols of transformation

The golden key, the black door, and the inestimable value of the living third thing

Chapter I 5

Imaginai dialogues

Imaginal dialogues: The alchemical treasure of the Feminine

With culturally prescribed patriarchal dynamics in mind, how, we might ask, can progress be made toward softening misogynistic cultural complexes and unmaking the patriarchy? Touching on the paintings of Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, and Wifredo Lam, there is meaningful work to be done on the level of the imagination. For example, what happens if we engage with the female figures in Annunciation and The Eternal Present not from the point of view of the artist’s ego, but from the lived experience of the figures themselves? What if we invite the female forms in the paintings to speak for themselves about what they need to shift their experience?

From this perspective, imaginal space is made for Lam’s female figures to shift. As symbols of living archetypal presences, they are no longer confined within the misogynistic parameters of patriarchy. Perhaps this was Lam’s unconscious intention: to show what patriarchy does to women and to the feminine; it distorts their real shape, sometimes beyond recognition. In this way, the contours of the actual woman’s being are lost, silenced in the patriarchal man’s attempt to protect his sense of self from the threat of becoming entangled with real women and with his own inner feminine. Perhaps what Lam is symbolizing in the two paintings we have looked at is the confinement of women and the archetypal Feminine in a distorted realm in which the inherent dignity of being and the authenticity of voice are lost and a woman is nothing more than a projected representation of the man’s own disavowed inner feminine. Psychologically speaking, patriarchy allows no one, regardless of gender, to engage with the life-giving feminine presences who have their birthplace in the unconscious regions of the psyche.

From an archetypal perspective, it is possible that Lam painted the anguish of the patriarchalized feminine to invite us into her fractured experience. Consciously or unconsciously, the artist seems to have worked to disturb us, to make us uncomfortable enough that we are compelled to do something to alleviate, or even eliminate, the distress of women who lose their voice and being. “I knew I was running the risk of not being understood,” Lam once said, “either by the man on the street or by the others. But a true picture has the power to set the imagination to work, even if it takes time” (as cited in Goizueta, 2014: 15).

In Annunciation and The Eternal Present, Lam evoked not only the distress of the distorted feminine, but also touched into the painful experience of the imbalanced masculine. In the figures of the angel of Annunciation and the Eternal Present, Lam gave voice to the upset men experience when caught in a culturally prescribed version of themselves that narrows the range of acceptable emotions to anger and lust. In patriarchy, a man who is not allowed to feel is forced to amputate his willingness and ability to relate and connect, to experience healthy attachment with others, and to foster a relationship with his own unconscious. A man caught in patriarchy sees, and experiences, a woman and the feminine as a danger he must armor himself against. For a man caught in patriarchy, relating with a woman can be dangerous, even annihilating—the relating in and of itself is experienced as castrating. To neutralize such a threat to his manhood, the patriarchal man asserts his superiority through rigid gender roles that afford him the privilege and power to reduce a woman’s numinous nature to the point where she is a helpless damsel, an eroticized muse, or a misogynized object: a nice piece of ass.

With these thoughts and dynamics in mind, it is important to clarify that the imagery Lam painted and the artist himself are not necessarily misogynistic. There is no evidence to pathologize this male painter as a patron of patriarchal privilege. Rather, we invite Lam’s images into the creative and imaginal space of our look at the works of Varo and Carrington for a particular purpose: to see what happens if the images themselves are invited to dialogue with each other. What words might pass, for example, between Mary, as the mother of God and The Eternal Present, Lam’s seemingly anguished image of the archetypal Feminine? What value might be added to our look at the paintings of Varo and Carrington if presences from these artist’s painted worlds are invited to talk to each other and to the ones in Lam’s works?

To set the backdrop for these imaginal dialogues, we draw from two disciplines. First, from an artistic perspective, there is Susan Rubin Suleiman’s notion of dialogism, a conversation “staged by the critic who juxtaposes works and makes them speak to each other, perhaps even inventing the very words one work might address to the other” (1990: 133, emphasis in original). For Suleiman, the difficulty of dialogism lies in the challenge of what she called the “double allegiance,” that is, the art critic must be willing to engage with a work of art from both opposing points of view, in this case a feminist point of view but also from the misogynistic perspective—with each possibly seeing the other as offensive and hurtful (133).

In addition to dialogism, from a Jungian perspective, the imaginal dialogue between figures in a painting can be considered a form of active imagination, a method Jung developed to “heal the split between the ego and the unconscious by using the resources of the unconscious itself to help bring the dissociated material back gradually into a relationship with the conscious ego” (Singer, 1994: 288). From a Jungian perspective, “the object of active imagination is to give a voice to sides of the personality ... that are normally not heard, thereby establishing a line of communication between consciousness and the unconscious” (Sharp, 1991: 12-3). In Jungian psychology, active imagination is one way to bring about the transcendent function, the psychic mechanism that Sharp said “arises from the tension between consciousness and the unconscious and supports their union” (135). Constellated by “a tension charged with energy,” the transcendent function produces a third idea or image that “typically manifests symbolically and is experienced as a new attitude toward oneself and life” (136).

What would it be like to build a world in which women can know what they know and say what they know? Imagine a meeting between the Daughter of the Minotaur, from the oil painting by Leonora Carrington, and Ogun, the god of war from Wifredo Lam’s image, The Eternal Present:

“I look at her,” says the Daughter of the Minotaur, referring to the Eternal Present, “and I want to look away. Can you not see what men do? Can you not feel the harm you inflict? We wish to love and be loved. As women, we are willing to suffer and to feel your hurt. But we tire of your unending fury. Will you please lay down your anger and speak with me?”

A silence is broken by the sound of a blade.

“The blade is sharp,” the God of War says. “I use it to keep things away that I don’t want to think about.”

A second male voice, the Executioner, speaks from Varo’s dream: “Why do you talk to her? The cut of the blade says everything.”

A female voice answers: “I know you are afraid. So am I. But I have something for you.”

A new scene comes into shape: a small room, a figure with stardust emerging from the crown of her head, a golden key in her right hand. “I will give you the key,” says the creature. “But you have to put it in the keyhole yourself.” The female Minotaur from Varo’s painting turns to her left and gestures toward a black door.

Fear spreads across the face of the Executioner. He stiffens. He does not want to put down his weapon. Two or three moments pass. The Executioner does not attack or withdraw. “I could see she was scared,” he says of the woman in the dream who asked for more time so that she might weave her destiny to the man with whom she wished to be connected for eternity. “I knew she was upset. I gave her more time because there was no reason not to.”

“I know it meant a lot to her,” the lady Minotaur answers. “Thank you for hearing her request, and for granting her wish for more time. Her life had been upsetting and lonely. The ribbons and the egg made it possible for her to feel at peace.”

“You are very odd. How is it that your head glows?”

“The light you see is born from the suffering I have known.”

“I don’t need light. I have my blade.”

“You are good at cutting. The golden key unlocks the door to a place where things fit together differently.”

“This room is small. I feel trapped in here. I want to go back to the dream. In the dream I use my blade and things are either one way or another.”

“You are free to leave. I hope you stay. I like talking with you.”

The Executioner turns to leave. He stops, realizing that the only way out of the room is through the black door. He stiffens again, gripping his weapon.

“Death is simple,” the female creature says. “Your blade makes it so. A person is alive, and then they are dead. I wonder if you understand that things have changed. If you go back to the dream, things may not be as simple as you wish them to be.”

The Executioner grips his blade and glares at the creature. “What are you talking about?”

“In the dream, the woman wishes to weave her destiny with a man. You give her more time to live. You realize: There will be another woman. There will be other requests. People want things.”

“It doesn’t matter what people want.”

“Why did you give the women more time? You could have refused.

Your blade was ready for use.”

“You irritate me. You make things more complicated than they are.”

“Things may already be more complicated than you want them to be.”

“I want to go back to the dream now.”

“I don’t know the way. All I have is this golden key.”

What are we to make of these imaginal interchanges? Will the executioner accept that he cannot go back to the dream? How much more abuse and injury can women endure from patriarchal men who cannot—or will not— surrender the authority of the blade (a symbol of patriarchy’s need to execute emotions and imagination) in service to entering into a life-enhancing collaboration with the chalice (a symbol of the divine Feminine)?1

Self-preservation is the executioner’s dream. Inside this fantasy of control he seeks as an agent of the male state to enforce the status quo, protecting himself and the collective from alien influences—such as the female Minotaur and the woman who dreams, paints, and imagines the weaving of an egg. The egg weaver and Varo’s Minotaur offer the executioner an alternative: the courage (the French root of which is coeur, or heart) to face death as the way we come into being (Spielrein, 1994). Instead of selfpreservation, the imagery offers him, as an agent of the collective (as we eachare), rhe golden key to find within himself the dynamic drive centered in the feminine principle—a drive that strives for “change and the resurrection” of humankind through “the tendency to dissolve and assimilate” into new possibilities (174). This new social structure has at its core a relationship with the cyclical nature of death and birth, with Eros, and with Thanatos, the archetypal energy of Death. Embodied in the female Minotaur, and her weaving of the egg, the images speak to Varo’s commitment to inclusivity and the well-being of all in a greater good founded in love, relationality, and the transpersonal creative cycle of life. Will the executioner realize that to use the key he will need to put down his blade? The future is unknown.

What we can say is that Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington imagined worlds in which women embody the wonder of the universe and finger the blue thread of imagination that weaves love into the mantle of the earth. A message the artists sent through the images in their paintings is clear: There is magic in us and around us. Varo and Carrington saw the glow at the center of things, the need to relate to and partner with that which is Other, and to embrace, and be embraced, by the spiraling cycle of life. They suffered, healed, loved, and died. Their paintings are all we have left of the imagination that flowed, like water, from their hearts.

In a fundamental way, the feminine qualities the two women brought forth in their paintings are beyond calculation. They are priceless, beyond value. They are golden. At least this is the way a practitioner of alchemical psychology might see things. But alchemy is not practiced in a void. At some point we must put away the books and theories and engage with the world, and with ourselves. We must do as the prince in a fairy tale was instructed to do: When the king’s men came to boil him in a pot, the prince was told not to let the men take him. He was told, instead, to run and jump into the cauldron on his own. The prince not only survived his brush with death, he emerged from the cauldron brighter in mind and more loving in heart than he had been before (Meade, 1993: 215). But, again, alchemical psychology is not practiced inside a story. Or is it? What if we can learn to live not just with our images, but inside them? What if we assign high value to the images that appear to us in our dreams, fantasies, and in metaphoric form in the moments of our daily lives?

Crossing into the terrain of human experience, what, we wonder, is the value of an image? In the summer of 2020, in a Sotheby’s auction livestreamed due to the coronavirus, two Varo oil paintings sold for a combined $8 million. The year before, at a Christie’s auction in May 2019, a collector paid $3.135 million for Sympathy, one of the four paintings Varo exhibited at the Galeria Diana in Mexico City in the mid-1950s. Four years before, another Varo painting, Vegetable Vampires, sold at Christie’s for $3.3 million. A fourth Varo piece, Toward the Tower, a work we examined earlier, sold for $4.3 million in 2014. What could be important enough in these paintings for someone to be willing to invest such large sums of money? What is it about Varo’s work that people are willing to go to such great lengths to possess?

For Varo and Carrington, painting was a way to ritualize the wonder and love of invisible realms. But maybe the greatest gift these artists have to offer us today is not the tangible artifacts they have left behind. Maybe the women have something to share that cannot be bought at any price. What is this gift, this alchemical treasure hard to attain? Maybe the gift has to do with the way the women loved each other. For Varo and Carrington are living proof of what can happen when souls come together, and differences collaborate for a common good.

For one last image of Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, we turn to an artist of another time. In one of his last short poems, Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Dln Muhammad Rumi reflected on the love he felt for his teacher, Shams. The feeling of one man for another imagines into the same fertile field Varo and Carrington cultivated together:

Those tender words we said to one another

are stored in the secret heart of heaven

one day, like the rain, they will fall and spread

and their mystery will grow green over the world.

(Rumi, trans. 2006: 14)


1 The symbolism of blade and chalice is from Riane Eisler, The chalice and the blade (1995; New York, NY: Harper Collins).


Goizueta, E. (2014). Wifredo Lam’s poetic imagination and the Spanish Baroque.

In E. Goizueta (Ed.), Wifredo Lam: Imagining new worlds (3-20). Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College.

Meade, M. (1993). Men and the water of life: Initiation and the tempering of men. San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco.

Rumi, J. (2006). Rumi the card and book pack: Meditation, inspiration, and selfdiscovery (E. Hanut, Ed.). North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle.

Sharp, D. (1991). C. G. Jung lexicon: A primer of terms & concepts. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.

Singer, J. (1994). Boundaries of the soul: The practice of Jung’s psychology. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Spielrein, S. (1994). Destruction as the cause of coming into being. The Journal of Analytical Psychology, 39(2), 155-186.

Suleiman, S. R. (1990). Subversive intent: Gender, politics, and the avant-garde.

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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