Lo Real Maravilloso
Mexico City, from which I returned last week, is an underrated metropolis. It is full of provocative paradoxes and surprising juxtapositions. These inconsistencies, while jarring at first, meld together to create a pervasive air of fascinating strangeness.
Modern and ancient calmly coexist in the historic center. While eating lunch near the Zocalo, the city’s largest plaza, I simultaneously ogled excavated ruins of the Templo Mayor and took advantage of the square's free WiFi. Cultural commingling is highlighted by street and district names: Our apartment was at the intersection of Chilpancingo (meaning wasp or bee in Nahuatl, one of Mexico’s indigenous languages) and Amsterdam, in the heart of the chic Colonia Condesa, sandwiched between the neighboring zones of Roma and Tacubaya. Condesa’s avenues are lined with Art Nouveau and Deco architecture, which provides a pretty, if incongruous, backdrop for rows of enthusiastic taco vendors.
Europe has certainly left its imprint on the modern art and architecture of the city, not least because many Europeans escaped to the capital in the first half of the twentieth century. In the 1940s and 50s, Mexico City became a haven for displaced Surrealists. Painters like Remedios Varo (originally Spanish) and Leonora Carrington (born in England) used the city’s bizarre hybridity as artistic fodder. Their compositions have enticed me for years now, as they combine disparate objects into meticulously rendered scenes, making the impossible believable.
For instance, I intellectually understand that it's outrageous for a woman to grind up star matter and feed it to a crescent moon, as she does in Celestial Pablum; however, the painting remains powerful and relatable. Perhaps this is because, though the scene is fantastic, the emotions it captures are real. The figure with the heart-shaped face is surely meant to represent Varo, who, unable to bear children, had deep ambivalence about motherhood and domestic trappings. The protagonist's despondence is made all the more palpable because her task, which should be full of wonder, seems like painful drudgery. Though Varo struggled with solitude and ennui throughout her career, she didn't explore this type of imagery until she moved to Mexico. Perhaps her new locale (as well as her new-found creative partnership with Carrington) allowed her to explore new sources within herself.
In 1949, the literary critic Alejo Carpentier wrote an article titled “On the Marvelous Real in America.” In it, he contends that Surrealism is inherently Latin American, since the strange marriages diligently contrived by European Surrealists are naturally part of the landscape in this part of the world. “After all,” he asked, “what is the entire history of America if not a chronicle of the marvelous real? Here the strange is commonplace and always [has been.]”
This notion of the “marvelous real,” a Latin American variant of Surrealism, is one of the many threads explored in the exhibition Drawing Surrealism, now on view at the Morgan Library & Museum through April 21(see here to learn more about visiting this exhibition with me).
This carefully curated show investigates how drawing allowed Surrealists to unlock their subconscious desires and play around with chance. Though Varo's touch is sorely missed in this show, three works by Carrington are on view--a rare treat in New York. They showcase beautiful twists and unexpected details, offering glimpses of the magic that once inspired her and Varo in Mexico’s sprawling capital and is still omnipresent there today.
Alejo Carpentier, “On the Marvelous Real in America,” in Magic Realism: Theory, History and Community, ed. Wendy B. Farris and Lois Parkinson Zamora, (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1995).
Whitney Chadwick, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985).