Escape from the Convent School Tower: On Remedios Varo's 1960-61 Triptych

May 23rd, 2020  |  Published in *

Mother Superior and her creepy bearded henchman have come to retrieve the septet of uniformed captives from their human beehive. It is time for the girls to go to work. As always, mysterious hypnotic forces compel them to mount their bicycles, starry-eyed, and follow their captors towards the tower. The tails of their habits become pedal cranks, impelling their movement with characteristic conformity. Is it morning, evening, or afternoon? They never know; and anyway, it matters little in this dismal land suffused with perpetual fog. The wiry wheels of their bikes squeak in unison, casting solitary shadows across the smooth gray tile ground. Only the girl in front dares gaze outward with a knowing sparkle in her eye, secretly immune to her leaders’ charisma.

Remedios Varo, “Hacia la torre” (Towards the Tower), 1960.  Oil on masonite, 48 3/8 by 39 3/8″. (First panel of the triptych.)

The great abbess herself wears a pigeon feather in her hat; her squire bears a curious bag fastened to the back of his person like a billowing barnacle. From this sack emerge black and white guard doves, blessed tokens of providential love and peace. Having on various occasions lost blood to the claws and beaks of these winged enforcers fluttering menacingly over their heads, the girls know better than to act out of turn.

A regal honeybee totem, recalling the historic crest of Catalonian village Abella de la Conca, marks their home within the convent school city-state. The bee’s body resembles an hourglass with a stinger. Strange that a matriarchal insect that exterminates males should emblematize women working in the service of a patriarchal God. Nevertheless, the bee is a heraldic symbol of industry; and the girls must atone for the sins they were born with.

Remedios Varo, “Bordando el manto terrestre” (Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle), 1961, Oil on masonite, 39 1/2 x 48 1/2″ (Second panel of the triptych.)

By and by, they arrive at their workplace, a chamber not unlike the hexagonal cells inside a honeycomb, at the apex of a high tower. Inside, they work hour after hour, embroidering the Earth’s mantle, mystically investing the terrain below them with animals, seas, mountains, plants, buildings, and other fine things according to the orders of their ominously masked overseer who reads incantations while periodically stirring an hourglass-shaped alembic that channels alchemical threads from which they sew. With eerie tunes, a macabre flutist keeps them entertained—or rather, complacent.

Despite tired fingers and watery eyes, the girls must keep stitching. Their magical needlework enlivens the world. Yet they remain in the shadows, receiving no recognition, no commendations, just the dubious assurance that they are doing the work of the Great One who smiles upon them behind the scenes. The perceptive lass privately finds this irritating.  It wouldn’t be so bad if the girls were invested with some authority of their own in return for maintaining the land’s natural order; but they have no power; they are expected to act as mindless agents, and dispensable ones at that. They are not even allowed to view the fruits of their labors covering the Earth—the chamber has no windows; they must feed their sewing incrementally downward through narrow slots in the walls.

Between the hive and the tower, time seems to have stopped; hour, day, month, and year barely matter; their cycle of activities remains the same day after day, night after night, a constant merry-go-round of following orders, sewing their hands to the bone. Each of the seven occasionally mourns her fate and daydreams of better things, but only one is consumed by such restless thoughts. With each stitch, the skeptical girl wonders, will it remain this way for the rest of her life?  Not if she can help it.

So she hatches a stratagem. Largely satisfied that the girls will remain in line indefinitely, the Overseer has become lax about watching their work. Being rather vain, he concerns himself more with imagining his own appearance at the alembic: How stately and stern he must look!  How authoritative! While he is reading a particularly complex spell, the skeptical girl furtively stitches a scene of herself escaping with a lover, a mannequin-like boy who has stolen away from a monastic school across the mountains. As the cloth lowers out the slot, she stifles a smirk, barely concealing her satisfaction as her self-portrait inches safely out of sight towards its destination. And when it hits the ground—voila!

Remedios Varo, “La Huida” (The Escape), 1961, oil on masonite, 48 7/16 x 38 5/8″. (Third panel of the triptych.)

The picture comes true just as embroidered. The girl and her companion cruise through sienna clouds in an umbrella covered in fur. Attached to the vessel via alchemical threads, his robe rises as a sail. She skippers, steering with the handle of an upside-down sub-umbrella whose canopy serves as a rudder. She has liberated herself by means of the very labor that once constrained her.

With this scene, the story does not end; rather, it begins. Further struggles, confinements, and flights await her life beyond. Yet she will persevere, animating elaborate visions to set herself free and captivate others for generations to come.

–Annabel Osberg http://credit-n.ru/zaymyi-next.html

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