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The Surrealist Life of Leonora Carrington

Updated: Feb 7, 2022

Leonora Carrington's name was at best vaguely familiar, I may have come across her in museums or books here and there, but I knew nothing about her before reading Desmond Morris's book Lives of the Surrealists (2018) a few years ago. Morris's biographical sketches introduced me to women associated with the Surrealist Movement in Paris in the 1920s and '30s who were every bit as talented and outrageous as their male counterparts but generally got only passing mention, if that, in accounts of Surrealist adventures, escapades, and artistic achievements. Among them were Dora Maar, Eileen Agar, Meret Oppenheim, Dorothea Tanning, and Leonora Carrington. I touched on this in Those Zany Surrealists (July 12, 2018) and Thinking about What Surrealism Holds for Me (September 22, 2021). The latter essay prompted me to rethink my encounters with surrealism over a span of some fifty years and my relationship to it.

Surrealism's attraction lies more in its myths of love, freedom, and the marvelous and hostility to bourgeois conventions and values than in the works of some of its more prominent artists. I think here, by way of example, of René Magritte, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Salvador Dalí, whose work may hold interest in a detached, intellectual fashion but not in the way of art that jolts my spirit or sends it soaring as, again by way of example, do paintings by Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall, two other artists associated with Surrealism while not strictly speaking members of the group headed by André Breton, although Breton would certainly have liked to claim Picasso and spoke admiringly of the lyrical explosion of Chagall's Paris period.

Born in the north of England in 1917, Leonora Carrington made it to the age of ninety-four before stepping on a rainbow in a hospital in Mexico City due to complications from pneumonia. The tale of her remarkable life would surely test willingness to suspend disbelief if presented as a fictional narrative. She was rebellious coming out of the womb, fiercely independent, stubborn, unrelentingly creative, and given to conduct eccentric even by the standards of the Surrealists she met and began hanging out with at the age of twenty.

In the decade since her death in 2011 Carrington and Surrealism have become au courant again and not just in the bastardized use of the term "surreal" to describe almost anything strange, unusual, or out of the ordinary, although unusual and out of the ordinary Carrington certainly was. She is the subject on numerous articles readily available online, and her painting Chiki, ton pays (Chiki, Your Country) was included in a major exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art titled Surrealism Beyond Borders that closed on January 30, 2022.

Like other Surrealists Leonora Carrington immersed herself in all sorts of esoterica (a side of Surrealism that holds little appeal or interest for me): tarot, alchemy, Jewish mysticism, the preconquest beliefs of the ancient Maya. She developed notions about kitchens as "magically charged spaces, used to concoct potions, weave spells, prepared herbs and conducted alchemical 'cooking experiments'" (Aberth). Robert Graves' book The White Goddess: A Poetical Grammar of Poetic Myth sparked rediscovery of her Celtic roots first encountered in stories told by her maternal grandmother who said they were descended from legendary Irish fairy people called the Tuatha dé Danaan, the People of the Goddess Dana. Renowned for great beauty, intelligence, grace, and magical powers, they lived in grassy hill mounds and were also called the Sidhe (People of the Hills).

Carrington's paintings feature human figures, horses, and other creatures real and phantasmal in an array of mysterious rooms and fantastic landscapes. She resisted explaining her art. When prodded to speak about the sources of her inspiration in a 2002 interview with The New York Times, she threw up her hands: "I am as mysterious to myself as I am to others" (Solomon, How Leonora Carrington's Surrealist Art Imaginatively Reclaimed).

She worked in a variety of media in addition to painting and drawing: hand sewing, embroidery, large-scale poychrome wood sculptures, wool tapestries covered with heraldic animals and plants, stage design, and costumes and settings for her play Penélope (1957). In the 1980s she began casting sculptures in bronze. Her first story, Maison de la peur (House of Fear), was written in French and published in Paris in 1938. In 1939 Editions G.L.M. published a collection of five short stories in French under the title La Dame ovale (The Oval Lady).

Carrington came from an upper-class, Anglo-Irish family. Her father was a Lancashire mill owner who sold the family company and became principal shareholder in Imperial Chemical Industries. She grew up in stately homes with servants, chauffeur, nanny, French governess, a religious tutor, and was packed her off to a succession of boarding schools from which each in its turn expelled her. At the age of fourteen she hiked up her dress wearing nothing underneath in front of a Catholic priest and asked, "What do you think of that?" (Morris, Lives of the Surrealists). She was deemed ineducable.

The family's vision for her future was a good marriage for a woman of her class. In 1934 her parents gave her a debutante ball at the Ritz Hotel. She viewed races from the royal enclosure at Ascot and in 1935 was presented to the court of George V. Carrington, however, had no intention of being "sold to the highest bidder." She told her parents she was going to art school.

Around the age of four she had begun "scribbling" on walls. "Everyone scribbled," she said. "My mother used to paint murals, or what looked like murals, on boxes for jumble sales, and they looked like Joan Miró" (Aberth, Leonora Carrington). At eighteen she took painting and drawing classes at the Chelsea Art School in London. The next year she attended Ozenfant Academy, where she was taught the chemistry of the materials she used and received an education in formal painting technique and discipline.

Carrington's mother gave her a book edited by Herbert Read published in conjunction with the First International Surrealist Exhibition that opened at New Burlington Galleries in London September 11, 1936. The book with essays by André Breton, Paul Éluard, and others and on its cover a reproduction of a work by Max Ernst was her first introduction to Surrealist ethos and art. She recognized kindred spirits.

Ernst did not attend the 1936 exhibition. He came to London the following year for a one-man show, staying with the English artist, historian, and poet Roland Penrose, a colorful figure who had become friends with Ernst and Picasso in France in the 1920s. It was said of Penrose that he was always "ready to turn the slightest encounter into an orgy" (Eileen Agar, quoted by Morris). A woman who knew him well said, "Roland can't do it without handcuffs." This was corroborated by Peggy Guggenheim, who wrote in her memoir, "It was extremely uncomfortable to spend the night this way [shackled to a bedpost] but if you spent it with Penrose it was the only way."

A friend and her husband arranged a dinner party to honor Ernst and introduce Carrington to him. Ernst's second marriage, to Marie-Berthe Aurenche, was already on the rocks with Aurenche becoming immersed in Catholicism and bent on redeeming his soul from the "devils of Surrealism," as Penrose put it (Aberth). It seems Ernst and Carrington fell in love on the spot. He was forty-six, she twenty.

After Ernst returned to France Carrington informed her parents that she was moving to Paris to join him and, moreover, would never marry him. Her father, with whom her relationship was never good, reacted predictably and excommunicated her from the family with the pronouncement "My door will never be darkened by your shadow." She later said, "Of the two, I was more afraid of my father than I was of Hitler." Susan Aberth writes that Carrington typically referred to her many departures as either escaping or running away, as when she recalled, "Then I ran away to Paris. Not with Max. Alone. I always did my running away alone."

The combination of youth, beauty, and talent made Carrington an instant hit with the Surrealist circle centered around Breton, a group that was notoriously male oriented. The men were the artists. A woman's role was as muse or femme enfant, defined by Breton "as the woman child who through her naïveté is in direct connection with her own unconscious and can, therefore, serve as a guide for man."

Carrington was having none of it. She said she did not have time to be anyone's muse. She was too busy rebelling against her family and learning to be an artist (Tresadern, Leonora Carrington). She was new on the scene in Paris when Miró handed her a few coins and told her to buy him a pack of cigarettes. "I gave them back," she related, "and said if he wanted cigarettes he could bloody well get them himself. I wasn't daunted by any of them" (Solomon).

The women Surrealists were considered secondary to the male Surrealists. The women were considered…there to inspire, aside from doing the washing, cleaning, and feeding…I never thought of myself as a muse. I thought of myself as carried away by my lover…

I never considered myself a femme enfant…Nor did I want to be understood by this, nor did I change the rest. I fell into Surrealism like that. I never asked if I had the right to enter or not. (Carrington, quoted by Aberth)

Carrington and Ernst soon moved from Paris to a farmhouse in the Rhône Valley in southern France, where they lived and worked together, painting the walls with fantastic figures, creating sculptures outside, and entertaining. Carrington served bizarre, sometimes inedible meals made from archaic recipes she improvised when she could not find ingredients, sometimes, so it is said, cutting the hair of a sleeping guest and serving it up in a breakfast omelet.

After a brief, idyllic period came the war. Ernst was arrested as a foreign national by the French and taken away to an internment camp when war was declared. The prisoners were set free with the armistice after the French army collapsed. Then the Germans came and arrested him for being a decadent artist.

Carrington suffered a breakdown after the second arrest. Her attempt to counteract it with periodic fasting and hard physical labor in the gardens and vineyards on their property only worsened her condition. An old friend from Britain and her Hungarian companion arrived toward the end of June 1940 and were alarmed by the state in which they found her. They convinced Carrington to accompany them by car to Madrid.

In Madrid her anxiety and delusions culminated in a psychotic episode at the British embassy where she was apprehended by the police. Through the intervention of her family she was put into a psychiatric ward in Santander. "I was made a prisoner in a sanatorium full of nuns," she wrote. She was diagnosed as marginally psychotic and treated with a drug that chemically induced seizures similar to electric shock therapy. For the first time she found herself physically vulnerable: "I suddenly became aware that I was mortal and touchable and that I could be destroyed. I didn't think so before" (quoted by Aberth).

Carrington wrote about her experience in Down Below, an hallucinatory narrative first written in English in New York in 1942, a version now lost, then dictated in French to Jeanne Megnen in 1943. The French text was translated into English by Victor Llona and published in England in the Surrealist journal VVV (no. 4, February 1944). The original French dictation was published by Editions Fontaine, Paris, 1946. Both the French dictation and the Llona translation were used as the basis for a version reviewed and revised by Carrington for factual accuracy in 1987 and published by New York Review Books in 2017. The book is short but dense. I doubt that I would have had a clue what was going on had I not previously read other accounts of the episode.

As if illustrating the role of chance in art and life, a key theme of Surrealism, it so happened that a distant cousin was a doctor at a hospital in Santander. He intervened on Carrington's behalf and wrote to the British ambassador to arrange for her release from the sanitorium. She was sent to Madrid where she met with officials from her father's company. The family then made arrangements to send her to an institution in South Africa. She was put on a train to Lisbon, where she was placed in the care of a guardian in a nearby village while awaiting departure.

Carrington ditched the guardian by feigning illness and ducking out the back door of a Lisbon café. She caught a cab to the Mexican embassy where, another coincidence, a friend from Paris, Renato Leduc, a story writer, poet, and journalist, was stationed in a diplomatic post. Some accounts have it that Leduc was the Mexican ambassador; others are not specific as to his role. At any rate, he was a man of some status. He used his position to offer Carrington asylum. They then entered into a marriage of convenience and friendship in order to give her diplomatic immunity so that he parents would not be able to have her committed.

By chance, yet again, Carrington ran into Max Ernst in a Lisbon market. Ernst had hooked up with Peggy Guggenheim after escaping from German captivity, and the two of them were making their own preparations to leave Europe. According to Guggenheim, Ernst was still in love with Carrington and jealous of Leduc. "Next followed two emotionally volative months…Carrington spent time with Ernst, drawing, riding horses, and in many ways resuming where they had left off, although [she maintained] their romantic relationship was over." Meanwhile, Ernst remained with Guggenheim, who was "necessary for his survival in those war-torn times. This state of affairs continued throughout 1941 until she [Carrington] and Leduc sailed for New York" (Aberth).

Carrington gave this account of that time to Marina Warner, published in a postscript to Down Below:

Then Max appeared, with Peggy, and we were always together, all of us. It was a very weird thing, with everybody's children, and ex-husbands and ex-wives. I felt there was something very wrong with Max's being with Peggy. I knew he didn't love Peggy, and I still have this very puritanical streak, that you mustn't be with anyone you don't love. But Peggy is very maligned. She was rather a noble person, generous, and she never ever was unpleasant. She offered to pay for my airplane to New York so I could go with them. But I didn't want that. I was with Renato, and eventually, we went by boat to New York, where I stayed for almost a year, until we left for Mexico.

Carrington's circle in New York included André Masson, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Guggenheim, and of course Ernst, who was still preoccupied with her, although he and Guggenheim were to marry later that year. Guggenheim was jealous but did not let her feelings interfere with her admiration for Carrington's art. The 1938 painting The Horses of Lord Candlestick was included in Exhibition by 31 Women (1943) at Guggenheim's gallery Art of This Century. The drawing Brothers and Sisters I Have None and the painting La Chasse (both from 1942) were included alongside works by Ernst, Chagall, Picasso, Breton, Miró, and others in a 1942 Surrealist exhibition held at the Co-ordinating Council of French Relief Societies to aid French children and prisoners.

In New York she continued to exhibit eccentric behavior that fit right in with the Surrealist spirit. On one occasion she spread mustard on her feet while seated at a table in a restaurant. Luis Buñuel related another incident that took place at the house of a certain Mr. Reiss where a group convened for a regular gathering. Carrington suddenly went upstairs to the bathroom and took a shower while fully dressed. "Afterward," said Buñuel, "dripping wet, she came back down to the living room, sat down in an armchair, and stared at me. 'You're a handsome man,' she said to me in Spanish, seizing my arm. 'You look exactly like my warden'" (Aberth).

At the end of 1942 Carrington and Leduc left for Mexico, which André Breton had declared the "Surrealist place par excellence" when he and his wife traveled there in April 1938 to deliver lectures and meet Leon Trotsky. Carrington and Leduc found Mexico City swarming with socialists and communists in exile and an arts scene "presided over by the suspicious luminaries of Mexican Muralism" (Emry, How Leonora Carrington Feminized Surrealism), notably Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.

They were welcomed by the émigré Surrealist community but not so much by Rivera and Kahlo. Carrington attended the couple's second wedding "and apparently annoyed the great man." When Rivera asked who she was, she answered, "I'm Leonora Carrington, and who are you?" Rivera replied that he was Moctezuma, to which Carrington responded, "Really? I thought you were dead." Rivera was not amused. As for Kahlo, she reportedly referred to Carrington and her circle as "those European bitches."

Carrington and Leduc ended their marriage of convenience shortly after settling in Mexico City. Leduc later remarried, and Carrington met Emerico "Chiki" Weisz, a Hungarian Jew, photographer, darkroom manager for Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War, and friend of Breton. Weisz had walked across Europe to escape the Nazis and arrived in Mexico with other refugees on a Portuguese ship that sailed from Casablanca. He and Carrington married in 1946. They had two sons, Gabriel Weisz Carrington, a poet, playwright, and professor of comparative literature, and Pablo Weisz Carrington, a doctor and surrealist artist.

While her art had previously appeared in prominent exhibitions in Paris and New York, it was after coming to Mexico that Carrington received serious notice for her painting. In 1947 the London-based periodical Horizon discussed her in two separate issues. A one-person show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in 1948 featured twenty-seven works and was reviewed in Art News. That same year she was the only woman in a group exhibition at Pierre Matisse called Carrington, Chagall, Dubuffet, Giacometti, Lam, MacIver, Matta, Miró, Tamayo, Tanguy.

A one-person show in Mexico City in February 1950 served as her introduction to a Mexican audience. A 1960 retrospective exhibition at the Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno in Mexico City showed fifty-five pieces. In 1961 she was included as a Mexican artist in an exhibition sponsored by the museum titled El Retrato Mexicano Contemporaneo, and in 1964 she was awarded a prestigious governmental commission to paint a mural for the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Chapultepec Park in Mexico City.

Beginning in 1968 and throughout the 1970s Carrington spent significant amounts of time in the US, primarily in New York and suburbs of Chicago. She came in contact with the feminist movement in the 1970s. As early as 1972 she designed a poster for Mexican women's liberation, and she was featured in an article in Ms. Magazine in 1974.

Joanna Moorhead is a British journalist who happened to meet a Mexican woman at a dinner party in 2006. Remembering family talk about some distant cousin living in Mexico, she dredged the name from memory and asked the Mexican woman if she had ever heard of her cousin Leonora Carrington. The woman was astonished: "Are you kidding me? Leonora Carrington is the most famous living artist probably in Mexico." It was Moorhead's turn to be astonished.

Moorhead traveled to Mexico in search of Carrington and found "an artist who had eschewed fame to concentrate on the essence of the surreal experience—her inner life." Moorhead wrote about Carrington and her friends the Spanish painter Remedios Varo and the Hungarian photographer Kati Horna in article published in The Guardian in June 2010 (The Surrealist muses who roared). The article is accompanied by a nine-minute video that provides a nice taste of Carrington's paintings and footage of Moorhead and Carrington in Mexico City. It is worth watching.

A good deal of contemporary writing about Leonora Carrington emphasizes the woman artist, the feminist, for the most part neglected and only now rediscovered. Fair enough. She is not as well known as male contemporaries next to whom she is every bit as accomplished. But it cannot be said that she toiled in obscurity. From her twenties on her paintings appeared in exhibitions in Paris and New York alongside some of the foremost artists of the twentieth century. Being female is an aspect of who she was, not insignificant, far from it, but part of a deeper humanity.

Surrealism with an uppercase S was, and perhaps still is, not just a style of art. It is a way of living that Carrington embodied and exemplified. She does not appear to have courted fame and certainly not celebrity. She made art. And like Emily Brontë she walked where her own nature would be leading.

Memo from the Editorial Desk: A minor, nonbsubstantive revision was made after this essay was published. The order of the last two sentences in the eighth paragraph was reversed. Just a feeling it works better that way.


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