Dancing at Gunpoint: Surrealism and Revolution in Mexico

This post is the fifth of six posts for La Alquimia de los Sueños (The Alchemy of Dreams), a multi-sensory dinner performance by Julio César Morales and Max La Rivière-Hedrick, in collaboration with Frey Norris Contemporary & Modern.

In contrast to the “assimilate or get out” approach that currently characterizes life in the United States and in Europe, Mexico has repeatably proven that tolerance and inclusion yield invaluable byproducts. Karina Hodoyán discusses this in the historical context of art, sex, and Surrealism.

The arrival in Mexico of Spanish exiles such as the artist Remedios Varo amid the context of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and World War II (1939-1945) was a stimulus to Mexico’s economic and cultural development. Mexico was politically positioned to support these exiles due to President Lázaro Cardenas’ (1934-1940) progressive policies, which were based on the ideals of the Mexican Revolution. That framework built on the country’s connection to Spain without necessarily bypassing the history of colonization (we can’t deny our Iberian heritage); it speaks to what Roberto Fernández Retamar describes as “the other Spain,” not the clerical and ultra-reactionary one, but the one of 16th-century figure Bartolomé de las Casas and the 20th-century fight for the Spanish Republic[1]. It’s simply mistaken to assume a single totality for a nation as linguistically and ethnically diverse as Spain, what with its Indo-European and North African roots. The era of Varo’s arrival enjoyed a shared vision of revolution and social change, a vision aligned to global political and social movements outside the imperialism of the West.

So, while Mexico benefited from these migrations, we could also argue that Spain and the rest of the world benefited from the work produced by these artists and intellectuals during their asylum in the vibrant post-revolutionary intellectual and cultural climate. Thus, it is well know that Varo (1942-1963) produced her most mature and successful work in Mexico, a haven where she admitted to finally finding “tranquility”[2]. The lingering question is: How did the political and aesthetic positions of the Spanish intelligentsia and the artists of the Revolution align themselves?

As leftist artists and intellectuals, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo distinguished their art and politics from that of the metropolis, yet one could argue this had been happening elsewhere in Latin America since Independence. In the last century, the insistence on a uniquely Latin American aesthetic that broke with European influence was defended by the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, who criticized European Surrealists for basing their art on “dead” culture, in contrast to the vibrancy and anachronistic landscape of the Americas, of baroque jungles and tremendous architecture such as Haiti’s San Souci[3]. Famously, it was André Breton who declared Mexico as the ideal location for Surrealism and described Frida Kahlo as “a ribbon around a bomb.”[4] Yet, Breton tried to assimilate Kahlo’s aesthetic into the Surrealist canon by making her a muse, instead of recognizing her as an actual creator of art. The same can be generalized for the movement as a whole; it tended to describe women as child-like or as femme fatales, as muses or goddesses, instead of seeing them as creators working on their own terms. Nonetheless, women artists did delve into Surrealist aesthetics, creating art based on personal narratives, their subconscious, and dreams.

How did Varo position herself as an artist and a woman? Did she subscribe to the Surrealist movement’s image of beauty and youth? Did her preoccupation with physical desirability make her prey to such categories? Maybe we can understand her position by briefly looking her painting “A Visit to the Plastic Surgeon” (1960), in which a woman with a veil covering an uncharacteristically large nose is about to enter a doctor’s office. The woman looks very much like Varo, with her reddish hair and rather slim build. The sign on the door announces (via a play on words) “Plasto-swelling” (Plastoturgencia), while in the window a doll featuring three pairs of breasts of different sizes beckons her with the ad “En nuestra gloriosa era plastinylonítica no hay limitaciones. Osadía, buen gusto, elegancia y turgencia es nuestro lema. On parle français.” (“In our glorious era, there is no limit to plasto-swelling. Daring, good taste, elegance and firmness is our motto. We speak French.”) In this painting, the play is on the irony of the double creation, as an artist and as a woman, manipulating and recreating in order “to surpass nature,” all in the name of good taste and turgencia (“roundness”). The desire to subscribe to a certain ideal is definitely present and clearly referring to the social technologies that offer this ability. Does the “parle français” reference her days in France among the Surrealists? It might. One thing for certain is how she contextualizes that received ideal using Surrealist techniques, such as employing autobiography as the base of representation, while addressing, in an ironic sense, those “daring” (osadía) desires in this “glorious era.” In the end, though, it remains a choice: the woman touches the door tentatively, while looking back behind her towards possible witnesses. Will she be the manipulator of material reality? Will she respond to the calls of good taste? Or will she unveil the hidden “undesirability” through her own visual creations?

Varo’s lover, the French surrealist poet Benjamin Péret, was once forced at gunpoint by Diego Rivera to dance the Mexican zapateado. That image could be read as an example of how the exile community “adjusted” to Mexican life, but it might also refer to the aesthetic and political differences between revolutionary artists and the Surrealists. Despite clear connections to the political turmoil of the era, Surrealists were not necessarily overtly political in their work. It was Breton, in fact, who broke early on with Stalinist communism. Yet the notion of political and personal exile appears in Varo’s paintings in the figures of travelers and wanderers crossing and inhabiting worlds of fading memories and dreams. Her figures always found themselves on the threshold — just like the woman going into the plastic surgeon’s office — between being outsiders and fashioning themselves to fit, or perhaps to question, a ruling aesthetic. It was true of Varo herself, in regard both to her creative work and her own physique.

[1] “Against the Black Legend” in Calibán and Other Essays (University of Minnesota Press, 1989). Translated by Edward Baker.

[2] Some critics convincingly argue that it was more than tranquilidad, rather the predominance of narrative painting and the flourshing of occultist movements in Mexico (e.g., G.I. Gurdjieff). Lois Parkinson Zamora, El laberinto de la solidaridad: Cultura y política en México (1910-2000), pp. 57-87 (Foro Hispánico, 2002).

[3] Alejo Carpentier, El reino de este mundo (Editorial Seix Barral, 1967).

[4] André Breton, Surrealism and Painting (MFA Publications, 1965). Translated by Simon Watson Taylor.

Karina Hodoyán is an Assistant Professor in the Modern and Classical Languages and Latin American Studies Departments, as well as Director of Latino/Chicano Studies, at the University of San Francisco. Her specialization is 19th and 20th century Mexican, Border, and Chicano Literary and Cultural Studies, with an interest in Performance and Feminist Studies. Her recent work focuses on Literature and Performance Art at the US-Mexican Border. She has a Master’s degree in Comparative (Interamerican) Literature from SFSU and a Doctorate from the Department of Spanish & Portuguese at Stanford University.