The Figure and the Liminal

By: Vee Sharp ’24

English and Art majors with Art History concentration and Creative Writing minor

The following was written for History of Western Art (ART 200).

The body, though the vehicle through which humans explore the world, is also one of the most constricted objects in Western culture. It is defined through a binary lens, crushed between the roles of male and female depending on its features. Those existing in-between through this vehicle, however, can make the binarized figure into something more liminal, more nebulous. To contort and exaggerate the familiar features of the figure, as is done in Surrealism and adjacent movements, is to create that space in which the identities of gender and nationality become more questionable. Mujer Saliendo del Pscicoanalisis (Podria ser Juliana), or Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst (She Could be Julia) is an oil on canvas work by the artist Remedios Varo, created in 1960. The work’s significance lies in its ties to the burgeoning field of psychology, the subversion of Surrealist ideology, and the occupation of a liminal spaces between gender and nationality that Varo occupied.

Most striking about the work is the imposing figure taking up almost the entire middle of the painting. The woman’s hair style seems to defy gravity, and her gaze, the only visible aspect of her face, drifts to the viewer’s left. Eyes peeking out of her coat, itself defying the conventions of tailoring, are facing the viewer’s right. Though labeled as a woman in the title, the figure itself is presented in a more androgynous and non-gendered sense, particularly when considering the viewpoints of femininity in Surrealism, a male-dominated movement. There is nothing shown to sexualize, and one cannot see the subject’s figure. Her eyes are present and seeing, and she in fact has two pairs of them—one of these hides in the folds of the figure’s coat, directly over her chest. What is supposed to be the feminine figure, then, is meeting the gaze of whoever would fetishize her. Within the circles with which Varo kept company as she developed as an artist, “woman, although put on a pedestal as a figure of central importance, was being relegated to the status of object…” (Kaplan 17). The objectification with which male surrealists would treat Varo’s figure is not able to be made because of both the physical covering of her body and the androgyny of how she is presented. The question of what womanhood entails is challenged and questioned through how she dominates the composition as a subject. She actively walks forward, actively taking agency. She is does not lay for the male gaze to behold, but rather skirts the boundary between definitions of gender. Varo calls this figure a woman, but she is covered, unable to be fetishized; Varo calls this figure a woman, but she walks forward, holds proudly the head of an enemy in her hand.

While Varo had deep connections with the Surrealist circles from a young age, she herself went on to subvert and critique the conventions of the movement. While Surrealists bought in fully to the ideas of Freud and other psychoanalysts, Varo’s paintings tend to be far less random in nature. The composition, as seen in Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst, is always deliberate, with each symbol being less enforced by dreams and more enforced with her own judgment. Varo’s “works, all carefully planned in advance, leave no room for the intervention of chance in dictating imagery” (Kaplan 16). It is not only in her presentation of the figure itself, but the space around the figure that presents a subversion. Varo has a “serious and precise understanding of physics” (Adés 417) that is present in the precise, if exaggerated structures of the buildings in Woman Leaving Psychoanalyst. The perspective of the static setting is not precisely realistic, but any twist in how the buildings are presented is completely deliberate, rather than driven by any automatic drawing or dream. The setting itself is dreamlike but calculated. The buildings are melded into one nondescript mass, creating a liminal space. The details that are left out are done purposefully, the dreamlike quality of the space coming less from the substance of the unconscious and far more from the perspective of someone constantly in limbo. Much of Varo’s usage of this deliberate limbo can be derived from her experience as an immigrant in Mexico, able to serve “to capture the complexities of immigrant reality” (Sutherland 23), but this transition can also be applied back to the gendered body. Varo existed in an incredibly gendered space throughout her artistic career, her work posthumously defined by autobiography and by her assigned gender. The tall walls of Woman Leaving the Psychologist lack much detail or definition upon them, defying identity or assignment. The central figure strides through such a space not with hesitation or fear, but with a confidence and familiarity. Varo, then, shows herself to be adept at exploring this concept of gender, and of illustrating the liminal spaces left between forced definition.

Remedios Varo’s development as an artist was shaped by her close proximity to the surrealist movement, particularly in its early stages in Paris. The conflict and swirling chaos of her work reflects the circumstances in which she left her home country, Spain, in order to “escape the Fascist takeover and [settle] among the Surrealists in Paris” (Kaplan 14), along with her husband at the time, Surrealist poet Benjamin Peret. After no more than five years, Varo, along with many Spanish intellectuals, fled to Mexico to escape the conflict of World War II. This tumultuous migration is reflected in much of Varo’s work, largely in how the figures seem to constantly be in motion. Though Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst is a relatively still painting in comparison to some of Varo’s more twisting compositions, the figure still appears to be in active motion. As stated in the title, she is leaving the office of the psychoanalyst, the one that would have her at his mercy—the body presented, then, is not only that existing in a limbo between gender, but a limbo between nations. Remedios Varo, along with other Spanish contemporaries in Mexico, existed themselves in a liminal space. Though she emigrated to Mexico to flee Fascist rule and war, “the cultural climate caused artists such as Varo to live and work predominately in isolated, expatriate communities within Mexico City” (Sutherland 24). That is, the Spanish intellectuals that escaped to Mexico, and who were welcomed by the Mexican government, came into a position of privilege in their asylum, being paid and respected more than native Mexican academics and artists (Sutherland 24). This isolation is evident in how the figure in Woman Leaving Psychoanalyst is dressed—most of her body is concealed from the viewer, preventing both fetishization but also identification. The walls surrounding the main figure surround a dark, if serene plaza, and the figure herself has her back toward those walls. The painting, then, shows how privilege is itself a liminal space. Varo was a woman, her body commodified as an object, and had to leave her home country—and yet, she was a white person placed into an isolated position of privilege when she emigrated to Mexico. For everything the woman in the painting defies, she also exists with privileges that she can be willingly blind to seeing.

Much of surrealism and its ideology was informed by the advent and popularity of psychoanalysis and its accompanying theories, particularly those of Freud. Varo directly references this in Woman Leaving Psychoanalyst, directly critiquing psychoanalysis and its gendered theories. The central figure, for instance, holds a male head in her hand with ambivalence. The prevailing theory is that this is either Varo’s father, her ex-husband Benjamin Peret, or the titular psychoanalyst himself. Through this visceral imagery, “Varo depicts the need for the artist to break free from the figure of the father” (Cándemas 466) and rejects prevailing Freudian theories. The woman in the painting, too, is directly walking away from the office, which is labeled with “Dr. F.J.A”, which stands for “Freud, Jung, Adler” (Kaplan 15) according to Varo herself. The figure, then, is the self, actively rejecting the treatment given to her by a male-dominated field, and one that would have her be objectified. The head of the father has been severed, and is completely out of the picture, contrary to Freud’s theories of sexuality. These ideas are only the head, and nothing more, and therefore have no bearing upon the subject. To reject this field, however, is also to accept a reality of unknown. The sky is filled with gray clouds, with a similar thick mist emanating from the psychoanalyst’s door. The interplay of the central figure and psychology, then, is representative of both Varo’s own experiences and the experience of those outside of the binary established by Freud and early psychology. The figure only moves forward through this liminal space because she carries with her the head of the father and turns her back to the psychoanalyst’s office.

Varo’s work consistently uses the liminal to create dreamlike spaces, while simultaneously addressing earnest and relatable questions of identity. Whether her figures are autobiographical or literally reflective of real people is immaterial—the fact that she existed at the fringes of the avant-garde, the outside of her adopted nation, and in a world full of strife gave her room to make the figures themselves into spaces for questioning. The unsettling nature of such spaces is the natural habitat for those on the outside, but also presents the possibilities of what exists between binaries created by the very movements that Varo observed from afar.

Works Cited

Ades, Dawn. “Surrealism and its legacies in Latin America.” Proceedings of the British Academy. Vol. 167. 2011.

Cándenas, Inés Ferrero. “Reconfiguring the Surrealist Gaze: Remedios Varo’s Images of Women.” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 88.4 (2011): 455.

Epps, Brad. “The texture of the face: logic, narration, and figurative details in Remedios Varo.” Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies 4.2 (2003): 185-203.

Kaplan, Janet A. “Remedios Varo.” Feminist Studies 13.1 (1987): 38-48.

Sutherland, Camilla. “Shifting realities: Migration and surreality in the work of Remedios Varo.” Opticon1826 13 (2012): 23-32.

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