08 October 2006

La llamada (The Call)

The surrealist Remedios Varo painted a fascinating canvas entitled La llamada (translated most often as The Call), literally meaning "The One Who is Called" in 1961. [You can see this and a number of other images by this artist here.] In the image, a woman glowing with red-orange aura walks down a tight alley surrounded by mysterious figures of men and women whose bodies are attached to the walls of this cramped, urban canyon. Some of these citizens have closed eyes and some look sleepy others are oblivious to the progress of Varo's woman who accepts The Call. The protagonist's fiery hair spirals upward towards a planet which hovers in the night sky like an omniscient Creator. Varo was a dedicated surrealist (with a lower case "s") who never subscribed to the subservient roles assigned her gender by the French Surrealist men. Her works speak of the power women hold as creators and as dreamers, subverting the misogynist message of her male counterparts on the European Continent with whose paintings and philosophies she was well familiar.

My comments on Varo's painting, La llamada, come as the result of a conversations had with two friends yesterday when we were driving through Maryland's Eastern Shore on the way to a festival. That painting burst into my mind as we spoke about the various gifts, talents and skills we have and of how we find the condition of contemporary women's lives difficult (acknowledging that men's roles are also difficult too). So many women like ourselves struggle to be healthy, to find meaning, to nurture creativity in ourselves and in those around us. Instead we find ourselves overworked, underpaid and feeling very unwell and incapable of helping others. Or worse, we give all of our energy to working for others at the expense of our freedom and sense of well-being.

I do believe that our lot is easier than the women of the mid-twentieth century whose struggle to fight for better jobs, better pay and to tamp down on sexual-bias in all areas of live is to be applauded and honored. Here we are, however, in the year 2006 still struggling to fight fires of this nature on a smaller scale: on the home front. Women are indeed an integral part of the modern workplace, yet now the pendulum has swung over to the point where trying to find time to tend to your domestic family life or personal life has become precious. Gone are the days of Mrs. Cleaver housewives only to be replaced by frantic women who have little time to take care of their own health, their loved one's needs, and their own pursuit of happiness.

The three of us conversing in the car concluded that the best way to find a balance between work and home life is to find a job that requires the minimum sacrifice of personal life while providing enough pay to support you, so that the rest of your time can include the activities that make you feel alive and healthy such as spending time with family and friends, supporting those around you in need, and attending to the inner voices of creativity and play.

Remedios Varo was a woman who understood the need for creativity and play. She might be a poster child for the life author Virginia Woolf outlined in the famous essay, "A Room of One's One." Varo was born in Spain at the beginning of the 20th century (1908) and was fortunate to have a good education thanks to her father, a hydraulic engineer. As an adult, her life-course was altered by war: she fled to Paris during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and fled the Nazi's assault on Paris to find refuge in Mexico in the 1940s. Surrealist painters in Europe influenced her style, but like the other great Mexican artist of her day, Frida Kahlo, Varo forged a new and personal language from the methods observed in Salvador Dali and his crowd.

Varo was not only a painter who achieved a measure of success in her own lifetime, but also one with a complicated life lived in pursuit of freedom and sense of well-being. She married at age 22 to another painter, but the marriage failed. She had an abortion as a young woman (a choice likely made from hardship due to her unfortunate economic circumstances during the pregnancy) and was thereafter unable to have children. She loved several men and at least one woman, fellow artist Lenora Carrington.

She painted and wrote about the intersection of magic and mysticism with science and technology--in a surrealist style, that to my mind, demonstrates perfect understanding the the contradictions of the era in which she lived. Her paintings most often focus on a central female character. She places her women in a variety of roles: The Traveler, The Musician, The Scientist, The Temptress, etc. Then there are the floating figures of men and women who surround her; they are The Masses, The Crowd, The Unbelievers, The Judges, The Critics. Given the independence of Varo's life, it's not so surprising that these themes emerge. These images are fantasy, but they are allegories for the circumstances the artist herself, and probably her friends too, faced.

La llamada, or The Call, is about a woman who walks without fear down the path of her own choosing because she is called to do so by a Higher Power. That disembodied Voice may come from within her or from the Universe at large, or from Deity, but it is a call that may not be denied. Her path is guarded by the throngs of people who don't hear this voice and who don't even notice her, yet she glides forward on unafraid. Varo was in her fifties when she was working on this painting; she was at the height of her power as a visual storyteller.

I find this painting a comfort whenever I am confronted with critics who don't understand my personal mission in life or the type of life I have chosen to lead. I think of how Varo understood that our hold on the goal is tenuous, that responding to The Call is not a choice everyone could be brave enough to make. But once you have begun to live a life more in balance and listen to the (inner or outer) Voice, you are compelled forward carrying your precious objects, just as Varo's Woman carries symbols of alchemy and of precious liquids. Taking The Call, accepting it, is a risk and one that many people, like the figures affixed to the city walls in Varo's painting, will refuse to hear. Finding one's calling--and for many people today that might mean finding balance--is risky, but there are rewards for success in this journey. The powerful glow of success in Varo's Woman shows that she is gaining and even spreading her light, her energy into the world. She is the candle that spreads light into the corners of her world.

Creativity illuminates if only you will accept The Call.