Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning: three of the most interesting painters to flourish in male-dominated Surrealism. This is Christopher Barzak’s tribute to them, three stories and an essay that enter into a humane surrealism which turns away from the unconscious and toward magic.
Sometimes the stories themselves seem to be paintings. Sometimes painter and writer may be characters, regarding each other through a painful otherness, talking in shared secrets. Barzak’s stories are huge with the spacious strangeness of worlds where there is always more room for a woman to escape her tormenters, or outgrow an older self. Here we find a bird-maker and a star-catcher whose shared history spills over into the birds and the stars themselves; a girl who outgrows her clothes, her house, and finally her town—and leaves to find her body a new home; a landlord, whose marriage, motherhood, separation, sexual exploration, and excursions into self-portraiture all take place within a single apartment building.
In “Remembering the body: Reconstructing the Female in Surrealism,” Barzak comments on the images that inspired these stories and discusses his own position as a writer among painters--and gender politics within the Surrealist movement.
Here's a passage from "The Creation of Birds," the tale that engages with the paintings of Remedios Varo:
The Bird Woman hasn’t been able to make birds for a long time. Nearly four months have passed without one new bird. The birds in the next room were the last to receive the required teaspoon of moon and starlight needed to give them life. The stars and moons, a lot of them have been disappearing. It’s because of the Star Catcher—he’s been out there again, in the night sky, taking them down, so many of them, as if they were mere ornaments or lanterns. Without them, the Bird Woman won’t be able to complete even this sparrow, small and slight as it is. There isn’t enough available light to make it live. Why do I try, she wonders. Habit, she thinks. Wishful thinking, she decides.
She tries not to attribute anything to hope.
A swan strolls into the workshop, sidling up beside the Bird Woman’s leg, attempting to view the parchment, but its neck isn’t long enough to stretch that high. “Shoo,” the Bird Woman scolds it. “Back with the others, silly swan. We’ll be leaving soon for the market.”
She strokes the top of its head before it turns to leave the room. Her fingers come away damp, sticky with ivory.You can purchase Birds and Birthdays here.