COYOACÁN HAS BECOME inextricably linked with the Surrealist
painter Frida Kahlo, so what better place to rendezvous with
poet, writer, and biographer of Surrealists, Rosemary
Sullivan? A professor of English at the University of Toronto,
Sullivan had just alighted in Mexico City and would soon be on
her way to meet with Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, when
we met over cappuccinos at the sun-drenched Café Moheli
to talk about her latest book.
Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille is
a page-turner of a deeply researched history about the rescue
of artists and intellectuals trapped as the Nazis closed in.
The effort, fomented by the New York-based Emergency Rescue Committee
and led by their agent in Marseilles, Varian Fry, managed to
save André Breton, Marc Chagall, and Max Ernst, among
others, and found refuge for them in the United States. But some
came to Mexico. These included the Russian novelist Victor Serge,
and his son Vlady; and most famously, Surrealist painters Leonora
Carrington and Remedios Varo, who (along with Frida Kahlo), are
today among Mexico's most revered artists. For this reason, Villa
Air-Bel is a work important to the history of modern art
But the book's connection to Mexico goes deeper.
"Villa Air-Bel started here," Sullivan said.
She explained that, back in 1995, she had come to Mexico City
to write about the intense friendship of three women artists
Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and the Canadian poet P.K.
Page (also known as the painter Pat Irwin), which commenced in
1960 when Page, already the author of several books and a winner
of Canada's prestigious Governor General's Award, arrived with
her husband, Arthur Irwin, then Canada's ambassador to Mexico.
Sullivan, then two years out of graduate school, met Page in
Victoria in 1974. As Sullivan recalls in the essay "Three
Travellers in Mexico," "For me P.K. is one of the searchers,
ahead of the rest of us, throwing back clues. She encouraged
me to believe I might become a writer." Varo had died of
a heart attack in 1963. But thanks to an introduction from Page,
Sullivan met Carrington in Mexico City.
The English-born Leonora Carrington had a harrowing but triumphant
story. She was living in France when the Germans invaded. Her
lover, the Surrealist painter Max Ernst, was arrested, first
as an enemy alien and then a second time as an enemy of the Nazis.
Leonora fled to Spain, where she had a mental collapse and was
put in an insane asylum, a searing experience sher wrote about
in The House of Fear: Notes from Down Below.
Her family got her out, but thinking they wanted to put her in
another asylum in South Africa, she escaped in Lisbon en route.
Ernst, miraculously, reappeared in Lisbon, but the pair parted
ways, Ernst going to New York with Peggy Guggenheim, and Leonora,
in a marriage of convenience to her rescuer, Mexican diplomat-poet
Renato Leduc, to Mexico. Here she remarried, produced two sons,
and an extraordinary body of work as a painter, sculptor, poet
and writer. (Still active in her 90s, last month [February 2009]
Carrington attended an event in her honor at Mexico City's Museo
José Luis Cuevas.)
In 1995, Carrington showed Sullivan some of Varo's playfully
dreamlike and delicately-rendered paintings. Later, while reading
Journeys, Janet A. Kaplan's biography of Varo, Sullivan
came upon the story of Varian Fry and the Villa Bel-Air, a château
outside Marseille where so many of the outstanding figures involved
either lived or visited. For a time, though they were in terrible
danger and lacked such basics as coal and meat, with André
Breton hosting a Sunday open house and leading Surrealist games
in the drawing room, Villa Air-Bel had all the joyous spirit
of an artists colony.
While in Mexico City that time, Sullivan also wrote the short
story that became the nucleus of Labyrinth
of Desire, an exploration of the myths women live out
when they fall in love, from Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara
("Don Juan / Doña Juana"), to Diego Rivera and
Frida Kahlo ("Self-Portrait with Mirrors"). In that
short story, Sullivan said, "The man is named Varian, but
just because I loved the name. I never imagined I'd write this
book! He just sat at the bottom of my mind..."
While reading The
Quiet American, Andy Marino's biography of Varian Fry,
Sullivan saw the image that made her decide to write about the
refugee artists and intellectuals and their rescuers. In the
photo, like a pair of children, Fry and Consuelo de Saint Exupéry
perch high in the python-like branches of an plane tree.
"This was war-time France!" Sullivan exclaimed. "What
were they doing in the tree?" They were hanging paintings.
"That refusal to be cowed by Fascism... "
But how to tell such a huge and sprawling story? In a flash,
Sullivan realized that she could organize it around a year in
the life of Villa Air-Bel.
Other than Carrington, however, few of those who had been at
Villa Air-Bel were still alive.
One of the most important sources had to be Vlady Serge, the
painter who, as a young man had been rescued from France along
with his father. From Canada, Sullivan made an appointment for
an interview in Cuernavaca, where he had his house and studio.
She then flew to Mexico. She settled into Las Mañanitas
hotel, and when she telephoned that she was on her way, she was
informed he was not there. It turned out Serge had been rushed
to the hospital with a fatal stroke. Sullivan had missed him
by a matter of minutes; nonetheless, he had left her detailed
instructions on whom to meet and where to find archives.
Here in Coyoacan's Café Moheli, the snortle of the cappuccino
machine interlaced with birdsong, conversations, and the occasional
passing car, I said, what had most struck me about Villa Air-Bel
was the way she described the confusion at the time, and how,
throughout the 1930s, people had a sense of normalcy, untilI
quoted her"in a moment, the world collapsed like a
"I meant people to read this book in terms of now,"
Sullivan said. "Because it can always happen."