In May 2011, the artist Leonora Carrington died at the age of 94, after what was a remarkable life. Described as “the last great living surrealist” by the Mexican poet and activist, Homero Aridjis, she lived most of her life in Mexico City.
Born in Lancashire in 1917, Leonora was always excited by painting, and inspired by the neo-gothic mystique of her home, Crookhey Hall, as well as the stories that her nanny told. Even as a young girl, Carrington was a non-conformist. She was repeatedly thrown out of her schools for “anti -social tendencies and certain supernatural proclivities”. In Florence and Paris she revelled in the arts, but dodged her workload and school regiment through running away, and was consequently expelled. In the end, Carrington’s parents capitulated to their willful debutante daughter when, in her teens, she announced her intention to study at Chelsea School of Art, and become a painter.
It was at Chelsea, in the classes of cubist Amédée Ozenfant, that art, commitment and precision all came together for Leonora. Ozenfant insisted on understanding “the chemistry of everything you used”. In 1936, she visited the London International Surrealist Exhibition, and became obsessed with the movement. During this time, she met Max Ernst at a dinner party; he became her lover, and her much-desired passport to Paris, and the Surrealists. “I fell in love with Max’s paintings before I fell in love with Max,” she said. Ernst, captivated by her beauty and imp-like obstinacy, abandoned his wife and ushered young Leonora into his social circles in Cornwall and Paris. Leonora started to paint her first surrealist works, holding her own among the greats of the Parisian art world: Picasso, Dalí, Miró, Breton, Fini and Duchamp.
Having all but severed contact with her English kin, Leonora was adopted by a motley family of artists. Leonora became a performing piece of Surrealism, known to attend parties dressed in just a sheet (that was soon whipped off), or serve her guests omelettes made of their own hair. It was in this seemingly anarchic existence of expressive freedom that Leonora felt normal and secure. “I didn’t think of myself as a Surrealist. I try not to think of myself as anything.”
Max and his love left Paris in 1938, for Provence, where they lived and painted tranquilly for a year. Leonora was writing, too; she contributed to Breton’s seminal 1939 Anthology of Black Humour. As the Second World War intervened, Leonora’s art and life were irreversibly altered. German-born Max was incarcerated twice: first by the French, as part of the opposition, and then by the invading Germans, for being a degenerate artist. Alone, Leonora had a breakdown, drinking orange blossom water until she vomited: “I hoped that my sorrow would be allayed by those violent spasms which tore my stomach apart… I had realised the injustice of society… My stomach was the seat of that society, but also the place in which I was united with all the elements of the earth.” This mystical connection between her body and the earth became a recurrent theme of her work.
Leonora was rescued by her friends, who drove her to Spain to obtain a visa for Max. Unsuccessful, she became increasingly unstable, and was committed to a mental asylum in Santander. She documented the experience in her memoir, Down Below, detailing the horror of her treatments, with psychiatric drug Cardiazol and electroshock sessions. Her father made the decision to move her to an institution in South Africa, with a minder to accompany her. Leonora saw her chance for escape. While in Lisbon, awaiting their boat, she slipped away and jumped in a taxi to the Mexican Embassy. There, she met the Ambassador Renato Leduc, a writer and friend from Paris. He offered to marry her, enabling her to escape from Europe. They sailed for New York in 1941, and then moved on to Mexico City, leaving Max Ernst and the Surrealists in their wake. She and Renato soon divorced, preferring friendship to married life, and Leonora met photographer, Emerico ‘Chiki’ Weisz. They married, and were together until his death in 2007.
The frenetic pace of Leonora’s life appears to have slowed with her arrival in Mexico. She had two sons with Weisz, and settled within a new community of artists, which included Remedios Varo, Benjamin Péret, Kati Horna, Octavio Paz, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. She grew particularly close to the Spaniard, Varo, and the Hungarian photographer, Horna. In fact the three formed quite a coven, as Kahlo sourly noted, referring to them somewhat bluntly as “those European bitches”. Mexico became “home, in a deep sense”, as Silvano Levy put it. English by nature, Leonora would entertain with cups of Earl Grey tea, but it was where she settled that influenced her creatively. Starting in France, and ending in Mexico, the cultures became fundamental to her art.
The ink sketches ‘Do You Know My Aunt Eliza?’ and ‘I Am An Amateur of Velocipedes’ (both 1941, when Leonora was in France) are testament to an imagination content with exploring a medley of ideas. The first shows a small neutral figure presenting a great, frame-filling monster, complete with crucifix and ambiguous snarl. The other contains a female figure riding a large wheel, with a male figure sitting behind her. In Ali Smith’s words, “They reveal the animal nature of humans, the social nature of animality and the enchanted, ritualised space where these natures meet and become hybrid.” The animal world populates, perhaps even dominates, Leonora’s art. A range of animals appear in her art, often with profoundly anthropomorphic poise. There is speculation that her fascination with birds stemmed from the stained-glass windows of her childhood in Crookhey Hall.
With its fairy-tale geese, white swans flying out of a voluminous cape, and hazy marine background complete with whales, sailing ships and Viking rowboats, ‘Baby Giant ‘(1947) is the climax of Leonora’s portfolio. The painting is archetypically fantastical and plot free. The central figure is of menacing proportions, in the forefront of a louring sky, but its face and hands are doll-like, its hair fluffy and golden. There is a half-fusion or mutual subsistence between human and animal, with the multivalence as the source of its enduring power. The image was used as the Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women cover, in 1995, and for Exact Change’s 2004 edition of Leonora’s novel, The Hearing Trumpet.
As Smith also points out, Leonora’s art almost always “asks questions about imprisonment and liberation.” Indeed, understanding her relationship with mental institutions is absolutely key to understanding her artistic development and her radical approach. Throughout her early life, she played cat and mouse with institutions: being imprisoned, ‘coming out’ of the void, her adoption into the art world, the long arms of her family, and of medical authorities. For all its liberation, Surrealism was an institution, one that Leonora chose to be schooled in. A‘movement’with manifestos, yes, but an institution, too. Leonora even characterised Breton, their self-appointed leader, as “the headmaster of Surrealism”. Aside from academia, Leonora was later deeply affected by the traumatic experience of Max’s incarceration. She seems to have escaped irreparable damage by using her suffering to build the mythology of her work. Just as Kahlo turned her defining corporeal trauma into a central feature of her art, Leonora’s paintings, perhaps more subtly, question conditions and reasons for power and containment. Mazes appear frequently, along with symbols of entrapment or subjugation to a higher organising power. Rituals, too: many of her pieces depict gatherings around fires or bedsides, baptisms or cooking pots. Power is shown being transferred, sometimes through obscure means, but the expressions of the creatures involved suggest that they are well aware. Leaving France, Leonora left her dance with institutions behind her. Mexico was a good choice; Europe and the Nazis were a distant memory, and equally, it was far enough from New York’s art world. In Mexico, Leonora was among exiles – Trotsky, to name one. She could draw freely on the traditions that she had filtered and absorbed, without being subject to their censure. Even at arm’s length, she was not apolitical: in 1968, she left Mexico to show support for the left-wing activist uprisings around the world. Returning in 1969, Leonora became a co-founder of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Mexico. She prominently stood up for equality and women’s rights.
In 1947, Leonora was introduced to an English millionaire, art collector and Surrealism enthusiast, Edward James. Delighted with her paintings, sculptures and prints, James commissioned the artist to paint frescoes for his surrealist house in Jilitlá. He also organised her first formal exhibition, in Pierre Matisse’s gallery, New York, in 1948. This triggered aftershocks of widening ripples of recognition. In the 1950s, Leonora had three exhibitions in Mexico and one in Paris, and they soon increased in frequency and scale throughout North America and Europe.
James remained a lifelong friend and patron. He famously said, “The paintings of Leonora Carrington are not merely painted. They are brewed. They sometimes seem to have materialised in a cauldron at the stroke of midnight.” The suggestions of witchery and the brewing metaphor may point to the time it took Leonora to create each piece. There was a noticeable, albeit cryptic, alchemical process behind the conception of every one. Most of her work remains impossible to describe in narrative terms, and Leonora never clarified what each was ‘about’. Leonora was perfectly happy to obscure her own thought processes and present the finished work.
Leonora further explored her lifelong “supernatural proclivities” in Mexico. She studied Kabbalah with friends and, in 1971, spent time studying Buddhism with an exiled Tibetan monk. She also welcomed Mexico’s Mayan heritage; it seeped into her existing spiritual tableaux until it became difficult to unpick the strands of different occult traditions – one informed the other. ‘Ayusco 2am’ (1987) is both typical and atypical of her later work. Its soft blue chalkiness and floating figures are reminiscent of Chagall; the simplicity of the image, and contentment in its two faces, signal a temporary abandonment of the Boschian frenzy she once favoured. Yet the two heads are haloed, their shoes lie empty below them and between them there is what must be a magic circle. It is past midnight, and the individual elements are beyond interpretation, but their air of expectancy is unmistakeable. Something magical is about to happen.
It is a case of life imitating art as, with Leonora’s death, we wonder what direction she will take. Mexico, the country she chose to adopt, adopted her, making her an honorary citizen of Mexico City and often inviting her to state occasions.
In 2008 the main street in Mexico City hosted a seven-month homage to her work, its central reservation dotted with pieces of her witty, animalistic sculptures, some of which remain there. Her passing was marked by major tributes from the Mexican National Arts Council and public figures. Stefan van Raay called her “one of the most revered artists in Mexico”.
Back in 1948, when Leonora’s art was quite unknown outside Mexico, Time magazine’s art critic conveyed the impact of a first encounter with her powerful paintings: “The walls of one Manhattan gallery last week were hopping with demons. Feathery, hairy, horny, half-luminous creatures merged imperceptibly into birds, animals and plants. Painted with cobweb delicacy, they conspired and paraded before misty landscapes and night skies thick with floating islands. All the pictures had two things in common: an overall melancholy and the signature, Leonora Carrington, in one corner.”