How Leonora Carrington’s Surrealist Art Imaginatively Reclaimed Female Perspectives

As artist Leonora Carrington told it, shortly after she became friends with members of the Surrealist movement, Joan Miró once handed her a few coins and told her to go buy him a pack of cigarettes. “I gave it back and said if he wanted cigarettes, he could bloody well get them himself,” she told the Guardian in 2007. “I wasn’t daunted by any of them.”

Carrington had more metaphysical matters to pursue. She sought to capture fleeting scenes of the subconscious where real memories and imagined visions mingle. In Carrington’s rich universe, ethereal beings enact rituals with unknown purposes; these creatures have characteristics of women and animals, and seem to be somewhere between humans and beasts. There’s a soft glow and sensuality to her paintings, and some critics have said that this emphasizes Carrington’s femininity, not as a crutch but as a gift.

Carrington outlived many of her Surrealist colleagues, and when she died in 2011, she left behind an immense body of work—novels, prints, plays, costumes, and hundreds of sculptures and paintings. For a while, their importance was overshadowed by her relationship with artist Max Ernst. Art institutions have since rectified the oversight. As part of its recent rehang, for example, New York’s Museum of Modern Art hung a painting by Carrington in its remixed Surrealist gallery alongside work by Remedios Varo (who, like Carrington, was an expat living in Mexico), as well as art by their better-known male colleagues René Magritte, Miró, and Salvador Dalí. The work shown at MoMA, And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur (1953), shows a titular creature that beckons Carrington’s two children toward crystal balls on a table, all while an apparition dances in the wings. The impression is of stumbling into another’s dream, as is often the case in Carrington’s work.

But Carrington 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 mysterious to others.”

The mystery endures. Below is guide to life and times one of Surrealism’s most revolutionary innovators.

Leonora Carrington in her studio.

Early Life

Carrington was born in Lancashire, England, in 1917 to a wealthy mill owner, though later in life she liked to say that she had never been born—she was made, the product of a union between mother and machine.

As a child, Carrington was prone to fantasy. She was thrown out of two convent schools; according to the nuns, she claimed to be the reincarnation of a saint. Ill at ease in her aristocratic household, she turned to painting and writing, steeped in the stories of Lewis Carroll and folktales learned from her Irish mother and nanny. Her mother was a vaguely sympathetic figure; of her father she wrote, “Of the two, I was far more afraid of my father than I was of Hitler.”

Exasperated, her parents sent her to a finishing school in Florence, and then to another one in Paris, but neither experience could tame her. Defeated, they enrolled her at art school in London under the French modernist Amédée Ozenfant.

In the Times interview, Carrington said two writers had proven formative to her. One was Alexandra David-Néel, the first European woman to visit Lhasa in Tibet, still a forbidden site for foreigners in the 1920s. In disguise, David-Néel crossed the Tibetan border, and after immersing herself in Buddhist religion, she became a llama. Carrington described her tale as “electrifying.”

The second source of inspiration was given to her by her mother: a copy of Herbert Read’s new book, Surrealism. It included contributions from some of the progenitors of the field—André Breton, George Hugne, Paul Éluard. On its cover was a reproduction of a work by Ernst.

Carrington and Ernst in France

In 1938, the same year Read’s Surrealism was published, Carrington visited the first Surrealist Exhibition in London, where Ernst was showing. She described an instant “affinity” for his work, particular for his painting Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale (1924), which is now owned by MoMA. The pair later met at the dinner of mutual friend. Their ensuing affair—Ernst was married, Carrington was a 19-year-old student—is a well-known story. Her family nicknamed her Prim; to Ernst, she was the Bride of the Wind. He promptly separated from his wife and the pair ran off to Paris.

There they rejoined the tight-knit group of writers, photographers, and painters who called themselves Surrealists. Their doctrine, with its celebration of disorientating juxtapositions, was fertile ground for Carrington’s imagination. There was beauty, they believed, in comical and curious couplings of human, myth, and machine.

She and Ernst eventually retreated to a farmhouse in the Rhône Valley. They painted its interior with creatures in mid-transfiguration: women turning into horses, many-limbed lizards. A mermaid sculpture was erected in the terrace.

In 1938, she finished her first Surrealist breakthrough, Self-Portrait (Inn of the Dawn Horse). In it, she is perched on the edge of a chair, face stern and hand extending toward the maw of a female hyena (a reoccurring character in her work). A tailless rocking horses hangs still behind her, a shadow of the stallion galloping freely beyond the open window. Horses and hyenas appear frequently in her writings and paintings (“I’m a hyena,” she once said. “I get into the garbage cans. I have an insatiable curiosity.”) There’s tension in meeting: a clash of the domestic and wild.

There was tension, too, between Carrington and her male peers. The women on their periphery were viewed as femmes enfants, muses and objects of lust. In their art, a women’s anatomy was dissected, distorted, rearranged—raw material that was both carnal and inanimate. Ernst, for his part, had carved into the façade of their home an image of himself beside a faceless woman. In Carrington’s art, women were granted interiority. They expressed desire, and their figures, even when freed from earthly confines, were made whole.

To Mexico and Beyond 

At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the German-born Ernst was arrested by French authorities under suspicions of espionage. After a period of internment, he fled to America with the help of Peggy Guggenheim. Ernst and Carrington would not reunite. In her 1944 memoir, Down Below, she recounts the strange rituals that developed following their separation: for weeks she drank herself sick with orange-blossom water. She ate and napped sparingly. As German troops grew closer to her village, she feared that her enduring spirit “betrayed an unconscious desire to get rid for the second time of my father: Max, whom I had to eliminate if I wanted to live.”

She traveled to Spain, but was admitted to a psychiatric ward in Santander amid a psychiatric break. (“I was made a prisoner in a sanatorium full of nuns,” she wrote.) She returned to that period frequently in short stories and painting, such as Green Tea (1942), which depicts the sanitarium grounds as a dizzying labyrinth.

Having entered a marriage of convenience with the poet Renato Leduc, she arrived in Mexico City in 1942. It was a frosty welcome; Frida Kahlo reportedly called Carrington and her circle of émigrés “those European bitches.” Carrington later remarried the Hungarian photographer Emeric “Chiki” Weisz, with whom she raised two children. Accompanied by the Varo and the photographer Kati, she embarked on research into the occult.

They studied alchemy, the Popol Vuh (an epic of Mayan mythology), and kabbalah. They conjured potions from recipes learned from local curandera, female healers who treat sicknesses of body and soul. They read Celtic lore, Carl Jung, and Robert Graves. She labored over inedible recipes, like one for an omelette stuffed with human hair. They smoked the marijuana she grew on her roof and painted.

Her work had grown lush with its own lore and androgynous beings. A menagerie of animals abounded as symbols of her own “inner bestiary.”

A member of staff poses with 'Operation Wednesday', by British-born Mexican surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, estimated at GBP300,000-500,000, during a press preview for the upcoming 20/21 Century Week sale at Bonhams auction house in London, England, on March 22, 2021. The sale takes place later this week, on 24-25 March. (Photo by David Cliff/NurPhoto via AP)

Leonora Carrington, Operation Wednesday, 1944.

Anonymous No More

Carrington’s Mexico City studio wasn’t the utopia of her dreams, but it was a workshop unlike any other on earth. The effort was not without a cost: “I am an old lady who has lived through a lot and I have changed,” she wrote to a friend in 1945. She was only 28. Carrington didn’t attend her first major solo exhibition in New York in 1947, explaining to her dealer Pierre Matisse that, while the outside world hadn’t much been altered by the war abroad, she felt different, even alien. She struggled with the artist as a public figure. Her painting, The Artist Traveling Incognito (1949), glorifies anonymity, which ended for Carrington after the smash success of her New York debut.

Leonora Carrington, 'La artista viaja de incognito,' 1949.

Leonora Carrington, La artista viaja de incognito (The Artist Traveling Incognito), 1949.

In it, her face is obscured behind a five-eyed mask. A second body grows from her chest and her shoulders are covered by a Spanish mantilla. Layer of tiny brushstrokes build texture and depth to the atmospheric backdrop. A transparent structure holds her pet parrot, and her cat, Safiro, nestles her feet.

“Cats speak with me, they are cleaner than humans,” she once said.

Her fantastic dreamscapes celebrated the female and divine.Read MoreArt in America, Features, Leonora CarringtonARTnews.comRead More

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