By C.M. Mayo | Original Print Publication: March, 2009
Coyoacán has become inextricably linked with 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. Villa 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. This effort, promoted by the New York-based Emergency Rescue Committee and 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, including Russian novelist Victor Serge, his son Vlady, and most famously Surrealist painters Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo, who today (along with Frida Kahlo) are among Mexico's most revered artists. For this reason, Villa Air-Bel is a work important to the history of modern art in Mexico. But the book's connection to Mexico goes deeper. "Villa Air-Bel started here," Sullivan said. She explained that back in 1995, she came to Mexico City to write about the close friendship of three women artists: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Canadian poet P.K. Page (also known as the painter Pat Irwin), which began 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, Canada's then ambassador to Mexico. Sullivan, just two years out of graduate school, met Page in Victoria in 1974. As Sullivan recalls in her 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 died of a heart attack in 1963, but thanks to an introduction from Page, Sullivan met Carrington in Mexico City. English-born Leonora Carrington has a harrowing but triumphant story. She was living in France when the Germans invaded: her lover, Surrealist painter Max Ernst, was arrested, first as an enemy alien and then as an enemy of the Nazis. Leonora fled to Spain, where she had a mental collapse and was placed in an insane asylum, a searing experience she chronicled in The House of Fear: Notes from Down Below. Her family got her out, but believing they wanted to put her in another asylum in South Africa, Leonora escaped en route in Lisbon. Ernst miraculously reappeared, but the pair parted ways, Ernst heading to New York with Peggy Guggenheim, and Leonora to Mexico City after a marriage of convenience to Mexican diplomat-poet Renato Leduc. Here she eventually remarried, bore two sons, and produced an extraordinary body of work as a painter, sculptor, poet, and writer. Still active in her 90s, Leonora Carrington attended a February 12 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 Janet A. Kaplan's biography of Varo, Sullivan came upon the story of Varian Fry and the Villa Air-Bel, a château outside Marseille where so many of the people involved either lived or visited. They were in terrible danger and lacked even basics like coal and meat, but when André Breton would host a Sunday open house, leading the residents in Surrealist games in the drawing room, Villa Air-Bel had the spirit of an artists' colony. During her 1995 visit Sullivan also wrote the short story "Women of the Heart," about which she 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..." The short story became the nucleus of Labyrinth of Desire, a collection of essays exploring 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"). 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 a 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, few of the refugee artists 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 at his house and studio in Cuernavaca. Upon arriving in Mexico, she was told he was not there: 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. Sitting in Coyoacan's Café Moheli, I told Rosemary Sullivan that what struck me most about Villa Air-Bel was the way she described the confusion at the time; how throughout the 1930s people had a sense of normalcy until, as she puts it, "in a moment, the world collapsed like a burnt husk." "I meant people to read this book in terms of now," Sullivan said. "Because it can always happen." C.M. Mayo is the author of the forthcoming novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire and editor of Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion. She lives in Washington DC and Mexico City. Her website is cmmayo.com, and she can be reached at email@example.com.