This post is the fourth of six 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.
This is an imagined scenario for the commission of the painting “Retrato del doctor Ignacio Chávez” (1957) by Remedios Varo.
Only a handful of things had the capability of troubling Dr. Ignacio Chávez of Mexico City.
He did not like the bureaucracy at the hospital, where as Director of Cardiology he all too often observed paperwork and politics clogging the institution’s arteries.
He did not like it if his lunch or dinner was tepid in temperature when delivered to his office.
And, most of all, he did not like disappointing his daughter.
All three of these things had now occurred. Dr. Chávez had been overwhelmed by the documentation necessitated by the planned installation of a skylight in the hallway to the children’s ward. He ruminated in his office without any fear of his dinner going cold, because it had arrived cold. And by working late, he had ensured that he would not make it to his daughter’s art opening that evening at Galerías Diana.
Disappointing his daughter unnerved him, made him sick. His stomach contained a dark vacuum. His forehead was constricted by a vice. He was not sick because he was unnerved. He was unnerved because he was sick, for he knew this sickness could not be cured by any doctor. Sick this way, he felt helpless. He, the city’s great medical practitioner. He, who during school had cleaned this very hospital’s bathrooms to afford rent. He, first in his family of farmers to attend college. He, who under his starched white lab coat wore a thin necklace from which dangled two of his grandmother’s little tin figurines: a foot and a heart.
The tin foot in particular always brought Dr. Chávez some comfort. He reminded himself that the exhibit he would miss was, technically, not his daughter’s. She had been involved merely with hanging the work. Still, the show meant a lot to her. She was always newly caught up in one artist or another, but her passion for this artist — named Remedios Varo — was unlike all previous such fixations. Dr. Chávez was familiar with the artist, this Varo woman, because she had caused some trouble recently at the hospital. After presenting extensive plans for a mural, and receiving tentative yet warm approval from the hospital’s board of directors, of whom he was one, she had quite suddenly withdrawn her proposal. Her explanation was simple: she deemed the project too complex. A project she herself had come up with! Artists, he fumed — not really frustrated with Varo, just parentally fearful of the path that his daughter seemed to have chosen for herself.
A few days later, Dr. Chávez made his way to Galerías Diana and spent his lunch hour looking at Varo’s work. The images were strange. There were everyday objects infused with a spectral beauty. There were characters drawn from a mythology as dense as it was personal. There were stark imaginary environs that seemed to have more in common with a chest of drawers than with an actual city.
Dr. Chávez knew little about art beyond what his daughter had indirectly taught him, but he did know the human body. The bodies he saw in Varo’s paintings were both unfamiliar and familiar to him, and the grey zone between their crepuscular peculiarities and their terrestrial realism was mesmerizing. He was especially attracted to a picture in which priestly men stood below a goat hovering in some odd sky carriage. When he inquired as to its asking price, he was informed that the piece had already been purchased. Another work rendered a mischievous anthropomorphic bee in gold leaf. It, too, was spoken for.
At dinner that evening, Dr. Chávez’s daughter blushed. What else could she do when her father reported that he had visited the gallery. That he had timed his visit to her lunch hour, knowing she wouldn’t be present. That while there he had looked into purchasing one of Varo’s pieces. She was embarrassed by him, as all good daughters are by their loving fathers. But as he went on and on about the fine lines in the wings in one painting, and the geometrically abstract shadows cast by buildings in another, her embarrassment revealed itself as pride. And when her father asked if the artist — “this Varo woman,” as he put it — did commissions, she did not hesitate. She promised him she would ask. She had, in fact, heard that such a request wasn’t impossible. And though she had never told her father, she knew Varo had been touched by Dr. Chávez’s conciliatory response when the mural proposal was rescinded.
A week later, as his car slowly made its way across town, Dr. Chávez tried to commit to memory everything he and his wife, at her suggestion, had discussed in preparation. He was to have his portrait painted, and there was much to be decided in advance of his first seating: What property of theirs would serve as the background? What object in the foreground would symbolize his heritage, and what object his profession? Perhaps a stethoscope, or a piece of surgical equipment? Would he insist on embedding some of his treasured Masonic imagery? In his breast pocket was a carefully folded list of all the symbols that he and his wife had decided on. But as the car approached Varo’s home, he came to think better of it. Something about the list seemed inappropriate, indelicate, almost offensive. Varo’s works were invariably collections of objects, weren’t they? But somehow, he sensed, they were not really concerned with the objects, not in any literal manner. And so he left the paper in his pocket, and entered Varo’s studio.
A woman met him at the door, but not the woman he remembered from the mural discussion. She had on a lab coat, like the one he would wear at the hospital, and her hair was pulled back. She smiled at him and introduced herself as Leonora. She took his hand in hers and silently led him through several chambers, each its own little world. One was dark and painted like a jungle. Another was covered, walls and ceiling, in billowing cotton tarps that filtered the daylight. He entered the final chamber by himself. Varo stood on the far side, directly opposite the doorway through which he had just walked. She, too, wore a lab coat, her hair pulled back. The room was almost empty. In the center there was a medium-size wooden frame suspended from the ceiling by pulleys. On either side facing the frame was a single chair. He walked toward the frame, and as he approached, so did Varo. He realized she was mimicking him, but not in a rude way. If anything, it was flattering to be the subject of such attention. He walked toward the closer of the two chairs. She approached the other, copying his gait, adjusting her posture to match his.
When they reached their chairs, they both sat down, looking at each other through the frame, as if at a painting. She gave him a little smile, which he acknowledged by removing his hat. In turn, she pulled from her coat pocket a deck of cards. She selected one card, seemingly at random, and turned it toward him. It showed an old sage with a stick, and below it, in English, was written “The Hermit.” She then pulled another card, this one in Spanish. It read “El Corazon.” It was his turn to smile. He recognized it from the lotería. The next card was “La Pera,” and he recalled the tree from the ill-fated mural she had proposed. She saw the recognition in his face, and her shoulders relaxed. Then his shoulders relaxed. Somehow, he found himself now imitating her, unintentionally but naturally. Varo reached under her chair and lifted a small goblet. Taking the hint, Dr. Chavez did the same. Again, he found himself mimicking her — how simply she had cast her spell. She took a sip. He took a sip. He tasted jasmine and habanero, and other flavors he could not name. And then, finally, Varo spoke.
Years later Dr. Chávez would still tell this story, and years after he passed away his daughter would herself keep the tale circulating. How he had come home from that first, and it turned out only, portrait seating in something of a daze. His wife had been prescient: Varo did ask questions to inform the painting. But the couple hadn’t prepared the right answers. How does one prepare an answer to a question like, “How many scoops of stars are appropriate for a cake recipe calling for a bushel of wishes and ten clothespins?” Or, “Which species of bird are you least likely to allow your eldest son to apprentice with?” Or, at one point, a string of nonsense syllables that suggested Varo had, momentarily, been possessed.
And yet when the completed painting was delivered, it was exactly as Dr. Chávez had imagined, as if Varo had transcribed one of his dreams. The seating had felt, in retrospect, like he was having his fortune told, and in the painting Varo had indeed laid a clear path for him. She had depicted him holding a key and inserting it into the chest of what he took to be one of his patients. When Dr. Chávez’s daughter hung the work in his office at the hospital, she also presented to him a tiny tin key, and the key would rest alongside the foot and the heart until the day he died.