Images of Melancholy and Mourning in the Works of

Remedios Varo and Alejandra Pizarnik


Elizabeth Zeiss-Banks

University of South Carolina at Aiken


Despite the fact that the Spanish painter Remedios Varo (1908-63) and the Argentinean poet Alejandra Pizarnik (1936-72) are from distinct eras, countries, and practiced different art forms, the textual and visual manifestation of images of melancholy and mourning in their art adhere to a similar psychological mechanism stemming from suffering and loss. (1) Moreover, in each woman’s work critics have noted surrealistic aspects, a dreamlike atmosphere, and a tendency to depend more on the imagination than on reality to produce their creations. (2) As a consequence of this intense elaboration of the imaginary and interior sides of life, an elucidation so typical of Surrealism, images symptomatic of the psychic phenomena of melancholy and mourning appear frequently in the works of each artist. This is so because, when each artist became "the observer of herself", to paraphrase the words of the estranged surrealist and practitioner of the Theatre of Cruelty, Antonin Artaud, she saw and described, in painting or in poetry, and in minute detail, the psychological mechanisms of mourning and melancholy (Artaud 81).

The relationships among melancholy, mourning, and artistic production, central to Varo and Pizarnik’s works, are examined by Julia Kristeva, in her book Black Sun (1987). Kristeva analyzes some specific psychic mechanisms of melancholy or depression in Black Sun, and also elaborates upon typical images produced by people suffering from melancholy. She takes her observations both from clinical sessions with her clients, as well as from works of art produced by sufferers of depression such as Gérard de Nerval and Philip Holbein. Kristeva’s inquiries into these subjects illuminate certain aspects of Varo and Pizarnik’s art.

Varo was born in Gerona, Spain, in 1908, 28 years before the birth of Pizarnik. Despite this difference in their dates of birth, the majority of the artistic production of each woman was actualized in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Notwithstanding this temporal coincidence in creative output, the difference in their ages means for Varo a more direct contact with Surrealism. She arrived in Barcelona in 1932, interacting there with the vanguard movements. (3) In 1934 she moved to Paris, accompanied by Benjamin Péret, a great friend of André Breton. Because of her relationship with Péret, Varo became part of the inner circle of surrealists, and one of her paintings was reproduced in a surrealist magazine (Kaplan, Viajes 55-57). Moreover, Varo’s connection to Surrealism is noticeable upon examination of her early production, which, according to Janet Kaplan, is characterized by an experimental spirit of apprenticeship that led her to imitate various surrealist painters such as Wolfgang Paalen, Victor Brauner, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst and René Magritte (Viajes 57). She also experimented with such surrealist techniques as fumage and decalcomanía, which she continued to employ in her later works (Kaplan, Viajes 61-61). (4)

Unlike Varo, Pizarnik did not experience this direct and intense contact with Surrealism. Nonetheless, her poetry’s dreamlike images seem to have more in common with the "more real" world of Surrealism than with everyday reality. Pizarnik’s relationship to Surrealism has been analyzed by Francisco Lasarte, who classifies her work as "Más allá del surrealismo", ‘beyond Surrealism,’ noting that the Surrealists strove to question language and to replace it with another, more valid and rejuvenating language (867). In contrast, while Pizarnik questions language, she ultimately doubts, in Lasarte’s opinion, that words can give validity to the poetic enterprise, a skepticism that becomes a central theme of her poetry (867). Susana Haydu traces the evolution of Pizarnik’s poetic language, and in particular sees her book Los trabajos y las noches (1965) as having a surrealist vein (69), while two other books, Extracción de la piedra de locura (1968), and El infierno musical "could be defined as the overflowing of grief" ‘…podrían definirse como desborde de la angustia’ (70). In addition, she notes that poems in Extracción "reveal a crushing melancholy" / "…son reveladores de una melancolía abrumadora", with its last three poems possibly being amongst "the most despairing poetry that has ever been written" ‘…la poesía más desesperada que se haya escrito jamás’ (my trans.) (70). Many of the examples used here to show melancholy are taken from these books.

I follow María Negroni in employing the term "witness" to characterize the poetic voice of Pizarnik, especially in Extracción. She writes that if Pizarnik’s work is ‘a constant drilling into the inside, a being alone with the bones… in order to formulate from that place the poetic discourse,…’ /"un taladrar constante en el adentro, un quedarse a solas con los huesos… para formular desde allí el discurso poético,…" then ‘Extracción de la piedra de locura can be read as a variation of that drilling’ / "Extracción de la piedra de locura puede ser leído como una variación de ese taladrar" (my translation) (203).

Varo’s paintings of melancholy figures, Kristeva’s descriptions of similar subjects, and the despairing poetic voice of Pizarnik’s poetry resonate with each other, as shown by the examples below from Varo’s painting, Kristeva’s Black Sun, and Pizarnik’s poetry.(5)


[Beyond the grave, Proserpina survives as a blind shade. Her body is already elsewhere, absent, a living corpse.] (Kristeva 74).

Volver a la memoria del cuerpo, he de volver a mis huesos en duelo, he de comprender lo que dice mi voz. (Pizarnik 133).
[Return to the memory of the body, I must return to my bones in mourning, I must understand what my voice says.] (my trans.)

Yo me levanté de mi cadáver, yo fui en busca de quien soy. (Pizarnik 133)
[I got up from my cadaver, I went in search of who I am.] (my trans.)



… Through her fuzzy, tearmisted gaze that sees neither you nor herself, she savors the bitter sweetness of being forsaken by so many absent ones (Kristeva 74).

… when she leaves her graveyard bed – like an extraterrestrial, the inaccessible citizen of the magnificent land of Death, of which no one could ever deprive her (Kristeva 74).

¿No hay un alma viva en esta ciudad? Porque ustedes están muertos. ¿Y qué espera puede convertirse en esperanza si están todos muertos? (Pizarnik 110)
[Is there not a soul alive in this city? Because you all are dead. And what type of waiting can turn into hope if everyone is dead?] (my trans.)

Allí yo, ebria de mil muertes, hablo de mí conmigo sólo por saber si es verdad que estoy debajo de la hierba (Pizarnik 134).
[There I, inebriated from a thousand deaths, I speak of myself with myself only to find out if it is true that I am underneath the grass.] (my trans.)

Pizarnik’s poetic subject, like many figures in Varo’s paintings and also the melancholic subject that Kristeva describes, inhabit desolate landscapes representative of death. They exist as "shades", people who have already died and inhabit "the magnificent Land of Death." The shared images between the poet, the painter, and the clinical psychiatrist include tombs, ruins, absences, cadavers, and the color gray. These images of misery and decay reflect the emotional state of the speaking subject, marked by fear, sadness, and despair.

For example, in Niño y mariposa (1961) we see a solitary figure with slumped shoulders, a physical posture typical of the melancholic people that appear in Varo’s work, walking down a street of an abandoned city. The colors are dark; the gray of the sky and the black of the walls overwhelm the composition. A frowning butterfly flies over the boy, shadowing him. The butterfly’s face is a miniature replica of the boy’s. We know from Kaplan’s biography of Varo that the artist was afraid of butterflies; the butterfly then is an incarnation of the boy’s fear (Kaplan, Viajes 114). The boy walks in an abandoned city, represented by the empty windows. Such images of absence often surround the melancholic subject. Kristeva’s subject is "forsaken by so many absent ones (Kristeva 74) and Pizarnik’s is "inebriated from a thousand deaths" (Pizarnik 134). Related images, those of the tomb and the cemetery appear in Niño. Like a tomb, the walls of the city enclose the boy, who appears to be trapped both beneath and inside of them. His predicament is shared by Kristeva’s melancholic, "the inaccessible citizen of the magnificent land of Death," (Kristeva 74 ) and Pizarnik’s speaking subject, who asks, "Is there not a soul alive in this city? Because you are all dead" (Pizarnik 110).

Another element of Niño, the crumpled papers floating in the air, has special significance in regards to the melancholic atmosphere of the work. Kristeva’s ideas clarify this relationship:

"…an abyss of sorrow, a noncommunicable grief that at times, and often on a long-term basis, lays claims upon us to the extent of having us lose all interest in words, actions, and even life itself…Within depression, if my existence is on the verge of collapsing, its lack of meaning is not tragic…" (Kristeva 3). Here Kristeva asserts that in melancholy, the lack of meaning that beleaguers the subject ultimately leads him or her to death because "for the speaking being life is a meaningful life; Hence if the meaning of life is lost, life can easily be lost" (Kristeva 6). For the melancholic subject the sadness he or she feels cannot be translated into words, and consequently words become useless. Pizarnik’s melancholic poetic voice often speaks of the futility of words, for example, ‘That’s why we are unable, I and the poem, in the useless attempt to transcribe burning relationships.’ "Por eso no podemos, yo y el poema, en la tentativa inútil de transcribir relaciones ardientes" (Pizarnik 152). In Varo’s work, the futility of words for the depressed subject is shown by the papers floating purposelessly in the air in Niño. Death is the ultimate consequence of this lack of meaning, and for this reason images of death such as the image of the tomb also present in Niño, accompany those of melancholy in Pizarnik and Varo’s work.

Images of a subject accompanied by a double and those of a figure melding into its surroundings appear frequently in both artists’ works. The concept of La Chose in Kristeva’s theories expedites further analysis of these types of representations. Briefly, La Chose is the maternal body, also called the object, which the normal subject loses and recuperates through signs (language). In contrast to the normal subject, the melancholy person does not completely lose the maternal body. Due to this refusal to separate from La Chose, the borders that normally are established for the subject do not exist for the melancholic person.

Gabriel Guibelalde distinguishes two phenomena related to this lack of boundaries: fusion and projection. According to Guibelalde, the subject, and Pizarnik in particular, "attributes to the world, at all times, forms that are only found in her and that she adds to the world" / ‘[atribuye] al mundo, a todo momento, formas que sólo [están] en ella y que ella [agrega] al mundo’ (my trans.) (36). He cites as an example the lines, "…sorprender/ la verdad de esta vieja pared; / y sus fisuras, desgarraduras, / formando rostros, esfinges, manos, clepsidras" / ‘…surprise / the truth of this old wall; / and its fissures, rents/ forming faces, sphinxes, hands, hour-clocks ‘ from "Cuarto solo" in Los trabajos y las noches (1965) (my trans.) (Pizarnik 107). About this poem he says, ‘It’s that those faces, those sphinxes,…, don’t exist by themselves, they are only able to exist as the fruit of an immense projection of ours onto the world’/ "Es que esos rostros, esas esfinges, … , no existen en sí, sólo pueden existir como fruto de una inmensa proyección nuestra sobre el mundo" (37).

We also see projection at work in Varo’s Encuentro (1959), where yet another melancholic female figure sits slumped at a table, upon which rests a box. Several similar boxes are on a shelf at the back of an otherwise barren room. The figure looks into the box, and a duplicate of her own face, peering out of it, returns her gaze. The identification between the two is emphasized by the fact that the seated figure wears a blue raglike garment that wends around her body down to her legs, then rises to enter the box and wraps around the head of her double. This projection of the self’s attributes onto the rest of the world is due to the continued union with La Chose. The nonexistence of established borders between herself and the exterior world causes the subject to experience her subjectivity as enveloping everything and therefore renders the subject unable to escape from herself. Also note that many of Varo’s figures’ faces bear a striking resemblance to her own.

Projection also leads to the image of the double in Pizarnik’s poetry. Like Varo’s figure in Encuentro, who sees her own face when she looks in the box, Pizarnik’s poetic subject only sees her own face in the bottom of a well, in section XVI "Caminos":

Mi caída sin fin a mi caída sin fin en donde nadie me aguardó pues al mirar quién me aguardaba no vi otra cosa que a mí misma (Pizarnik 133).
[My fall without end to my fall without end in which nobody waited for me well upon looking at who was waiting for me I saw no other thing but myself.]

The words of Pizarnik’s poetic subject, "I saw no other thing but myself," could easily be used as a caption for Varo’s Encuentro. The same notion of a frustrated desire to meet someone, suggested by the Varo’s title Encounter and Pizarnik’s words "upon looking at who was waiting for me" shows the difficulty the melancholic people portrayed in both their works have in making a connection to someone outside themselves.

Another aspect of union with La Chose that both artists portray is fusion, which Guibelalde explains as being ‘the game of identifying oneself with the things of the world, of melding onself with things, of making oneself one with them’ / "el juego de identificarse con las cosas del mundo, de fundirse con las cosas, de hacerse una con ellas, …" (my trans.) (36).

Varo’s Mimetismo (1969), in which the figure literally takes on the shape of her surroundings, represents visually the psychic state of fusion.(6) Varo describes her painting in this way:

…That woman remained pensive and immobile so long that she is transforming into an armchair, her flesh has become the same as the armchair’s fabric and her hands and feet are now made of shaped wood, the furniture is bored and the armchair bites the table…
[… Esa señora quedó tanto rato pensativa e inmóvil que se está transformando en sillón, la carne se le ha puesto igual que la tela del sillón y las manos y los pies ya son de madera torneada, los muebles se aburren y el sillón le muerde a la mesa…] (Kaplan Viajes 159)

As the subject fuses with La Chose, she leaves herself open for loss of self, loss of meaning, and eventually death. Indeed, the immobility and coloring of this woman make her resemble a corpse. This loss of vitality is underlined by the contrast between her inanimate state and the liveliness of the furniture. The painting depicts the consequences of inhabiting the region of melancholy, where death is always present.

The melancholic figures in Varo’s paintings, if they could speak, would probably say the same words as the depressed poetic voice that dominates the later books of Pizarnik’s poetry. Guibelalde points out numerous examples of fusion in Pizarnik’s poetry. For example, in section XVII of "Caminos del espejo": Algo caía en el silencio. Mi última palabra fui yo pero me refería al alba luminosa (Pizarnik 133). / Something was falling in the silence. My last word was I but I was referring to the luminous dawn. (my trans.)

The subject cannot tell the difference between herself and the dawn, indicating the lack of boundaries between her self and the rest of the world as well as her inability to effectively use language. For her the words "I" and "dawn" have come to mean the same thing and have lost the quality of difference that allows language to create meaning. Guibelalde cites another poem, also from Los trabajos:

Una flor
no lejos de la noche
mi cuerpo mudo
se abre
a la delicada urgencia del rocío (93)

A flower/ not far from the night/ my dumb body/ opens itself / to the delicate urgency of the dew (my trans.) Guibelalde sees in this poem "the fusion with the world, copulation, full bodied, with things" / ‘La fusión con el mundo, la copulación, a cuerpo entero, con las cosas’ (38). The flower seamlessly transforms into the poetic voice’s body, just as the woman in Mimetismo transforms into the furniture. Neither is able to set up boundaries between her self and the rest of the world. It is the fusion with La Chose that makes construction of boundaries impossible, either causing the subject to expand to encompass everything through projection or bringing about her fusion with her surroundings by identifying so much with them that she becomes them.

Another image that arises in Varo and Pizarnik’s compositions is that of a hostile object or person inhabiting the subject, a situation, which, as we will see below, is symptomatic of melancholy. In Pizarnik’s poetry the poetic voice speaks of "esta melodía en los huesos" ‘this melody in my bones’ in "La palabra del deseo" (157) or "…Contra el viento con garras que se aloja en mi respiración ‘…Against the wind with talons that makes its home in my breath’ in "Ojos primitivos" (my trans.) (Pizarnik 154, 157). These objects, (the melody, the wind), physically invade the subject’s body. The most dramatic example of this phenomenon appears in "Piedra fundamental," where the poetic voice says:

y he sabido dónde se aposenta aquello tan otro que es yo, que espera que me calle para tomar posesión de mí y drenar y barrenar los cimientos, los fundamentos,…. (Pizarnik 152-154)
[and I have known where that one so other that is I takes lodging, that waits for me to become quiet in order to take possession of me and drain and blast the groundwork, the foundation,…] (my trans.)

The hated object, denominated "aquello", ‘that one’ is seen as a manifestation of alterity, "tan otro" ‘so other’, and, at the same time, as part of the subject’s own being, "que es yo", ‘that is I’, revealing the presence of a mechanism that Kristeva calls introjection.

In her theories, Kristeva names this object the "introjected maternal object." In introjection, the melancholy person has an ambivalent attitude toward the maternal object, the not totally lost mother’s body. On one hand, the melancholic subject loves it, and, in order not to lose it completely, imagines it as if it were inside herself. On the other hand, she hates it. But because the object is now inside her, she consequently has trouble distinguishing between herself and it. As a result of this confusion, she directs the hatred of the introjected object towards herself.

I was surprised to encounter images of tiny heads inside the main figure in many of Varo’s paintings, and it was precisely these images that made me think of a relationship between Varo’s compositions and Pizarnik’s poetry. For example, Encuentro (1962) depicts an introjected maternal object, in the form of a head, in the belly of a figure. In this painting a female figure dressed in a blue gray cloak has emerged from the background of a brown forest and has come to a door. A strange figure, supposedly male, with the face of an owl, wearing tights and a feathered vest, has opened the door half way. The late night rendezvous may be spoiled by the head that is peeking out of the folds of the woman’s cloak, seeming to be embedded in her belly. The woman, the primary figure, covers the mouth of the introjected one, perhaps believing that it will ruin the "encounter" with the owl that is about to take place. (7) This painting visually brings to life the problem of the melancholic person, who cannot make contact with the outside world, here represented by the owl, because of her refusal to lose the mother’s body, La Chose, and enter fully into language, the tool by which relations with others are realized.

The visual and textual representations of melancholy elaborated upon above appear alongside images of birth and/or awakening, sometimes accompanied by music, images that indicate the mourning process in both Pizarnik and Varo’s work. If in melancholy the union with La Chose implies the inefficacy of the Symbolic order, and thus of art, then against melancholy art would function as the rebirth of the artist in signs (Lechte 185-186). This rebirth in signs is associated in theory with the act of mourning, be it by means of psychoanalysis or by creative production. Mourning is the process that rejoins the linguistic signs with the emotions (the semiotic). Images of rebirth appear in Varo’s paintings and Pizarnik’s writing.

La llamada (1961) shows the rebirth of a woman once trapped, like her companions, inside gray walls. She frees herself by stepping out of a dark, tomblike, alcove. (8) Her unleashed hair, contrasting with the encased hair of her entombed associates, blazes orange, the color of her clothes, skin, and the faint halo surrounding her body, and slithers up to the sky, wrapping around a spherical celestial object. In contrast, her companions are enclosed in the folds of brownish gray walls, inside of openings reminiscent of vaginal folds (Kaplan Viajes 167). The central figures’ eyes are open, while her companions’ are shut. The mortar grinder that she wears at her neck signals the act of searching, a task central to alchemy (Kaplan Viajes 168). This visual representation of an awakening or rebirth, in which images of death are also present, illustrates the process of mourning, in which the mastery of signs, represented by the mortar and the celestial object, conquers the state of melancholy, symbolized by the sleeping or dead immured attendants. Varo’s staging of this awakening parallels Pizarnik’s previously cited poem about a subject who gets up from her cadaver and goes in search of herself in "Caminos" (Pizarnik 133). (9)

Closely related to the act of rebirth is the image of the traveler. Haydu sees the first part of Pizarnik’s Los trabajos y las noches as showing hope, a still optimistic searching for the right word, writing that, "Here, passion, love – be it for the lover or the poem or both – convert her into ‘the fascinated traveler, in an incessant fire’" "Aquí, la pasión, el amor –ya sea el amante o el poema, o ambos – la convierten en "la viajera fascinada, en un fuego incesante" (my trans.) (64-65). This fascinated traveler, in an incessant fire, describes exactly Varo’s reborn woman, cloaked in an orange flame, from La llamada.

While the aforementioned painting depicts an escape from the land of death through rebirth, El flautista (1955) stages the act of mourning through a musical act of creation. A man playing a flute leans against a black boulder. Before him stands a half-completed tower constructed of fossil-like stones, each imprinted with a symbol, such as a shell, a fish skeleton, a dragonfly, or leaves. An architectural line drawing hovers in the air, indicating the way the tower will look when completed. From the man’s flute a thin white line wraps itself around several of the fossils and carries them through the air towards their assigned place in the tower. The dominant color used in this painting is gray, a color that is also central to Pizarnik’s poetry. The musician must use his music to install each piece into its proper place in the diagram and, in that manner, to complete the construction.

Looking at this painting in terms of mourning images, one notes that the musician’s back melds into the boulder behind him, which represents La Chose. Nonetheless, through music, whose rhythms may be interpreted as representing those of the body, he learns to reunite the semiotic pulsings of the body with the Symbolic world of signs. The tower and the outline of the tower represent the Symbolic order, where meaning resides. Note that music binds the stones in place, suggesting the dual nature of meaningful signs, the Symbolic and the semiotic. The clarity and organization of the tower contrast with the amorphous boulder with which the musician is united. The completion of the tower will free him from the misery of fusion with La Chose. This hope is suggested by his luminescent face; Varo used mother of pearl to effect its glow.

Almost every image discussed above - images of rebirth, death, music, fusion, and introjection plays a role in a very elaborate and complex poem, "El sueño de la muerte o el lugar de los cuerpos poéticos" (1964), found in the last section of Extracción. In a nocturnal and nightmarish scene, the poetic subject listens to death’s call. Death appears as a woman dressed in red alternatingly sitting at the bottom or on the shore of a river, singing and playing a lute. In this hallucinatory setting, described as a ‘subterranean world of creatures of unfinished forms, a place of gestation, a nursery of arms, of trunks, of faces….’ / "Un mundo subterráneo de formas no acabadas, un lugar de gestación, un vivero de brazos, de troncos, de caras…" (my trans.) (141). As the woman in La llamada is called and awakened, the poetic subject is also called and awakened, here by death: ‘all night I listen to the voice of death that calls me’ / "…toda la noche escucho la voz de la muerte que me llama" (140). The scene, although nightmarish, is described by the subject as "the place of love": ‘and it is true that I have awoken in the place of love’ / "y es verdad que he despertado en el lugar del amor" (my trans.) (140). The mention of love indicates the still alive hope that an "encounter" between herself and another, be it a lover, a child, or a poem, may come about. As would be expected in a scene in which someone gives birth, an image of introjection appears ‘but from within: the object without a name that is being born’ / "más desde adentro: el objeto sin nombre que nace" (140). Later, she imagines that she gives birth to herself:

…y mi cabeza, de súbito, parece querer salirse ahora por mi útero como si los cuerpos poéticos forcejearan por irrumpir en la realidad, nacer a ella, y hay alguien en mi garganta, alguien que se estuvo gestando en soledad, y yo, no acabada, ardiente por nacer, me abro, se me abre, va a venir, voy a venir. … Quiero ver el fondo del río, quiero ver si aquello se abre, se irrumpe y florece del lado de aquí y vendrá o no vendrá pero siento que está forcejeando, y quizás y tal vez sea solamente la muerte (Pizarnik 141).

[… and my head, suddenly, seems to want to come out now through my uterus as if the poetic bodies were straining to erupt into reality, be born to it, and there is someone in my throat, someone that was gestating in solitude, and I, unfinished, burning to be born, open myself up, it opens me up, it is going to come, I am going to come. …I want to see the bottom of the river, I want to see that which is opening up, is erupting and flowering from this side and will come or will not come but I feel that it is straining, and perhaps and maybe it is only death.] (my trans.)

This scene depicts the attempt of the "poetic body" to be born, which one could interpret as the ability to enter into the Symbolic order and thus to exercise power over language to the extent of creating poetry. On the other hand, the subject is still unable to escape her own self – she is mother and daughter at the same time, unable to establish a relationship with something other than herself. Whether or not anything will be born becomes doubtful, because at the end of the scene nothing has yet been born and she suspects that instead of a poetic body or herself being born, she will give birth to death. The images of death accompany that of rebirth, as in Varo’s La llamada. Negroni alludes to the poetic subject’s failure to completely master words when she writes, "The poetic voice is born, is born within herself, she is able to be/to make the body of the poem with her body (as the surrealists wanted) but the fissure is not erased; something remains unspeakable, incurable" (my trans.) (224) This staging of mourning is a failure of Lechte’s idea of the rebirth of the artist in signs.

This type of representation of an act of incomplete creation, and thus of an ineffective act of mourning, predominates in Pizarnik’s poetry. In her later works this inefficacy of language is explored further by playing with it and deforming it in such works as La bucanera de Pernambuco o Hilda la Polígrafa written between 1970-1971. In contrast, Varo’s art includes many paintings that depict acts of creation, birth or discovery that represent the conquering of melancholy through rebirth in signs.

The two artists portray images of melancholy and stage scenes of mourning in their works. These depictions include images of fusion, the merging of the self with the surrounding world and of projection, such as the image of the double. Visual representations of the "land of death" abound in the two artists’ works, such as the desolate gray spaces and cities in ruins the subjects traverse, and the presence of tombs and cadavers. These images also convey the sense of meaninglessness that coexist with melancholy. Not only do we observe visual representations of melancholy, but also those of mourning. Both Varo and Pizarnik depict acts of rebirth or awakening, often accompanied by music. The similarities between the imagery of the two creators can be ascribed to each artist’s careful observation of her own thoughts and emotions, a practice encouraged by Surrealism. By following Artaud’s practice of being an observer of himself, both Varo and Pizarnik created universal images of melancholy and mourning.


(1). In reality, Varo also wrote while Pizarnik both painted and drew. For more information about Varo’s writing, see Isabel Castells’ Remedios Varo: Cartas, sueños y otros textos (México, D.F.: Era, 1997).

(2). Among these critics are Francisco Lasarte, and Suzanne Chávez Silverman, regarding Pizarnik, and Castells and Janet Kaplan, referring to Varo.

(3). Varo participated in the famous vanguard exposition Exposición Logicofobista in 1936, two months before the Spanish Civil War started. She made various exquisite cadavers with Óscar Domínguez and Marcel Jean and also met Paul Éluard when he came to Barcelona (Huici 13-31).

(4). Decalcomanía is a technique that involves spreading paint between two pieces of paper, separating them, and later creating a random pattern by blotting the paint onto the canvas. See the moss on the ground in Roulette for an example of this technique (Kaplan Viajes 122). Fumage, invented by the surrealist Walter Paalen, involves passing a flame over a canvas spread with oil paint and using the resulting patterns created randomly in the paint as a starting point for the composition. For an example of fumage see Las almas de los montes, 1938, by Varo (Kaplan Viajes 61).

(5). The majority of the excerpts from Pizarnik come from the third part of Extracción de la piedra de locura (written between 1962-66), entitled "Los caminos del espejo" (Pizarnik 131-133).

(6). Also, in Ciencia inútil (1955) a lone figure with a gray face sits slumped over. The checkerboard floor has come up around him, and he holds it around himself as if it were a blanket. In this way he appears to be part of the floor.

(7). In Personaje (1961), Personaje (1959) and Mujer saliendo del psicoanalista (1961) we find other instances of introjection with one person shown inside another. In a more subtle way Hacia Acuarrio (1961) depicts the introjected maternal object. In this painting, a boy sits within his mother’s cape, producing the effect of him being engulfed by her body. A similar effect with clothing giving the impression of being somebody’s body appears in El Esquiador (1960).

(8). A similar painting, title more explicitly Nacer de nuevo (To Be Reborn) shows a woman coming out of a vaginal-like opening head first. Armonía (1956) also shows figures emerging from similar openings accompanied by a figure in the act of musical creation.

(9). Also, Personaje (1961) shows a figure that has accomplished mourning. He is exploding with life, master of words, a fact confirmed by the book that he holds. He experiences a subtle but palpable happiness, indicated by the playfulness of his feather-like garb and the many wheels of his ‘bicycle’. While this painting does not show the process of mourning, the awakening from the land of death, as clearly as La llamada, it does illustrate the end result, mastery of signs and the reuniting of affect with language (his happiness and his ownership of a book). Furthermore, the motion afforded to the figure by his bicycle contrasts with the immobility of the melancholic figures in Mimesis and La llamada, to name a few. In addition, both Armonía (1956) and La creación de las aves (1957) show the creative artistic process as something that brings sense to life and happiness to the creator.

Works Cited

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