Carrington, Leonora (1917—)

views updated

Carrington, Leonora (1917—)

English painter who developed sensibilities that were independent of earlier Surrealist influences. Born in 1917 in Lancashire; daughter of a wealthy textilemanufacturer and an Irish mother; attended schools in England, Florence, and Paris; studied at the Amedée Ozenfant Academy, London, 1936; lived with Max Ernst for two years at St. Martin d'Ardèche; married Renato LeDuc; married Enrique "Chiqui" Weisz.

Selected writings: numerous short stories, including "The House of Fear," "The Oval Lady," "As They Rode Along the Edge," "The Debutante," "White Rabbits," "Waiting," "The Seventh Horse," "The Bird Superior Max Ernst"; plays, including Une Chemise de Nuit de Flanelle (written in 1945) and Penelope (1946); and two novels, Down Below (1944) and The Hearing Trumpet (published in French, 1974).

Numerous exhibitions, including first one-woman exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York (1948); retrospective exhibitions at the Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno (Mexico Center, 1960) and the Center for Inter-American Relations (New York, 1976); exhibitions in Paris (1938), Amsterdam (1938), New York (1942), and Paris (1947). Painted a mural, The Magic World of the Mayans, for the National Museum of Anthropology (Mexico City, 1963).

Women artists associated with the Surrealist movement were working at a time in history when women were seldom encouraged to construct professional identities for themselves as artists. On the path to artistic maturity, their efforts to achieve some accord between their ideas and their own lives often involved the renouncement of the conventions that had dictated their upbringings. With few role models available to women in the visual arts, and conflicting attitudes toward their existence and purpose as artists, women like Leonora Carrington performed high-wire acts of imagination, without a net. Writes Whitney Chadwick in Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, "Young, beautiful, and rebellious, they became an embodiment of their age and a herald of the future as they explored more fully than any group of women before them the interior sources of woman's creative imagination."

Poet André Breton was the father of the Surrealist Movement, an artistic revolution that was to dramatically change the face of art history. Returning to Paris after World War I to confront a culture that he held responsible for the massacre of thousands upon thousands of young men, Breton blamed the educational system for its glorification of war and a literary establishment, which he viewed as detached from social and political truths. He was inspired by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire's call for an art of revolt and gave birth to a movement that was dedicated to no less than the transformation of human values through art. Apollinaire was the first effective champion of an art of revolt in the 20th century. His writings helped shape the Surrealist revolution but did little to construct a new image of women. Chadwick has described him as the "first French poet of this century to integrate erotic and poetic expression," and goes on to say that he "nevertheless confused love and war, invoked Symbolist polarities to express the duality of feminine nature (purity/impurity, for example), and constructed an image of his longtime companion, the painter Marie Laurencin , as an eternal child." This image of the femme-enfant, or woman-child, was to become a powerfully charged and defining image of Surrealist expression of the day. At one and the same time, it identified woman as close to the sources of imagination and creativity while ascribing to her a role that put a check on her artistic independence as well as her cultural, political, and spiritual liberation. This image, writes Chadwick, worked to "exclude women artists from the possibility of a profound personal identification with the theoretical side of Surrealism." Under Breton, Surrealist theory gave to women a poetic role, as that of the muse. Some women artists of the day embraced this notion; others rejected it. Remarked Carrington in 1983, "I didn't have time to be anyone's muse. … I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist."

Leonora Carrington, a woman of rebellious spirit and boundless imagination, was born into a family of means. Her father was a wealthy textile manufacturer, and her mother, a relative of the writer Maria Edgeworth , was the daughter of an Irish country doctor. The family lived a life of Catholic piety in a remote area of Lancashire, where Carrington grew up in the two-fisted grip of Catholic piety and capitalist gain. She was raised in the mansion Crookhey Hall, where, as a lonely child, she lived out an imaginary relationship with the rocking horse that stood in the corner of the nursery. Her rebellion was not to be against the family as an institution, but against her own family. Crookhey Hall would provide the subject matter for a later painting of the same name, which shows a ghostly figure fleeing the building. Educated by governesses, tutors, and at convent schools, she was repeatedly expelled for unorthodox behavior and her habit of writing backward in mirror script; the nuns thought her mentally deficient. At a clinic in Spain, she repeatedly climbed onto the roof so as to be nearer to the stars, causing the staff to despair. The expulsions served to further her hatred of the church and her family, and at 14, when she was introduced to the local priest, Carrington wreaked havoc at the assembly by pulling up her dress. Wearing nothing underneath, she demanded: "Well, what do you think of that."

Her rejection of Catholicism had begun at a young age. An early story, "As They Rode Along the Edge," shows what Helen Byatt describes as St. Alexander's "perverse penance of wearing underwear filled with scorpions and adders" in contrast with the "half-human and wildly sexual heroine, who has a rampant affair with a wild boar." But Carrington's distaste for Catholicism extended to all religions, in which she saw no equality for women.

The difficult child was sent by the family to Florence where she attended Miss Penrose's boarding school. There she learned to paint. On class trips to Rome and Siena, Carrington studied the Italian masters. Her time in Florence, as well as a stay living with a family in Paris, gave her a glimpse of freedom.

I felt that, through the agency of the Sun, I was an androgyne, the Moon, the Holy Ghost, a gypsy, an acrobat, Leonora Carrington and a woman. I was also destined to be, later, Elizabeth of England. I was she who revealed religions and bore on her shoulders the freedom and the sins of the earth changed into Knowledge, the equal between them. … The son was the Sun and I the Moon, an essential element of the Trinity, with the microscopic knowledge of the earth, its plants and creatures.

—Leonora Carrington

Her parents, however, planned her debut into society. Back in England, she was presented at the Court of King George V, and during the event she sat reading Aldous Huxley. Although her parents were strongly opposed to Carrington's decision to become an artist, they finally permitted her to study in London with Amedée Ozenfant. Her paintings in class were remembered by fellow student and friend Ursula Goldfinger as showing qualities at odds with Ozenfant's strict formal geometry. Carrington stayed in the family suite of an exclusive hotel in London. In the lobby, while groups of matrons gathered for afternoon tea, she and a friend moved through the crowds speaking in loud voices about invented syphilitic symptoms.

In 1936, a copy of Surrealism, written by Herbert Read, was given to Carrington by her mother who thought that as an art student she might find it of interest. The following year, Carrington met the Surrealist Max Ernst at a London party at the time of his 1937 exhibition opening at the Mayor Gallery. Carrington and Ernst returned to Paris together, and he left his wife, Marie-Berthe Aurenche , for her.

Paintings executed early in her life with Ernst were often satirical of the English upper-class society into which she had been born, drew on images from childhood, and included magical birds and animals. Over time, Carrington's work would mature into a visionary art inspired by Celtic mythology and the ideas and language of alchemical transformation. "It is an art of sensibility rather than hallucination," writes Chadwick, "one in which animal guides lead the way out of a world of men who don't know magic, fear the night, and have no mental powers except intellect."

Carrington's life with Ernst intensified her associations with nature. Moving in part to escape the jealous eye of Aurenche, they renovated a group of buildings that were in ruins at St. Martin d'Ardèche and in the process covered walls with cement casts of mythical animals and birds. As Carrington's work continued its exploration of magical animals, the image of the white horse became a focal point.

In 1937, Carrington wrote "The House of Fear," the first of her short stories to be published, for which Ernst contributed the introduction and collages. This story presented the horse as a guide who conducts the heroine into a world of ceremony and rituals presided over by Fear. In his introduction, Ernst presents Carrington as "The Bride of the Wind," writing: "Who is the Bride of the Wind? Does she know how to read? How to write French without errors … ? She is warmed by her intense life, by her mystery, by her poetry. She has read nothing, but she had drunk everything. She does not know how to read. Meanwhile the nightingale has seen her, seated on the stone of Spring … animals gathered around … she is reading 'The House of Fear.'"

Two paintings, Self-Portrait and Portrait of Max Ernst, often dated between 1937 and 1940, are thought by Whitney to have been executed in late 1938 or early 1939. These works evidence Carrington's early fascination with alchemical transformation of matter and spirit. While a student at Ozenfant's academy, she had begun her first reading about alchemy, finding works on

the subject in the used bookstalls around London. Self-Portrait depicts Carrington perched on the edge of a Victorian chair, the only piece of furniture in the room, surrounded by animals. A white rocking horse floats behind her, another horse gallops outside the open window, as a hyena with three breasts and a human-like expression approaches the artist. The distinctions between animal and human are blurred, as are those between animate and inanimate as the arms and legs of the chair parody those of Carrington's own. Images in this painting would reappear often in Carrington's later works and in her writings, with the hyena making an appearance in her early short story, "The Debutante," published in 1940 in Breton's Anthology of Black Humor.

The image of the magical white horse had come down to her from the Celtic legends, which she had first heard from her Irish mother. Carrington's play Penelope (written in 1946 and first performed in Mexico in 1957) tells of a young girl who falls in love with Tartar (named after the underworld of Greek mythology, Tartarus), her hobbyhorse. Her father prohibits the heroine's imaginative play with Tartar, and the heroine escapes by transforming into a white colt who flies off into a different realm. As intermediaries between the unconscious and the natural world, Carrington's magical animals served to "replace male Surrealists' reliance on the image of woman as the mediating link between man and the 'marvelous,' and suggest the powerful role played by Nature as a source of creative power for the woman artist," writes Chadwick.

At St. Martin d'Ardèche, Carrington and Ernst spent their last summer together in 1939. When not painting or writing in the small upstairs bedroom, Carrington looked after the birds and little animals that made their nests in the deteriorating walls of the studio and house. She cooked and maintained her garden and vineyards. The house was full of guests, including Roland Penrose, Lee Miller, Peggy Guggenheim , and Leonor Fini who came accompanied by the writers André Pieyre de Mandiargues and Federico Veneziano. Carrington and Fini's friendship dated from Carrington's arrival in France, and Fini's previous relationship with Ernst did not deter their affection and respect for each other. A later painting by Fini, The Alcove: An Interior with Three Women, included a full-length portrait of Carrington presented as a woman warrior. That summer, there were group games and swimming expeditions. There was a visit to the market to procure a large bird, still alive, which was later found in the bed of an unwanted guest.

For Carrington, the following months precipitated a journey into loss, anxiety, and mental breakdown. Ernst was interned as an enemy alien by the Nazis. "I begin therefore with the moment when Max was taken away to a concentration camp," writes Carrington in Down Below (1944), her account of this time:

I wept for several hours, down in the village; then I went up again to my house where, for twenty-four hours, I indulged in voluntary vomitings induced by drinking orange blossom water and interrupted by a short nap. I hoped that my sorrow would be allayed by those violent spasms which tore my stomach apart like so many earthquakes. … I had realized 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. It was … the mirror of the earth, the reflection of which is just as real as the person reflected.

Alternatively fasting and working at hard labor in her vineyards, Carrington spent the next three weeks engaged in an act of purification. Physical deprivation combined with the shock of her familiar world collapsing. The village was not hospitable, as the people of St. Martin d'Ardèche neither trusted nor liked the Englishwoman. In 1940, the village was occupied by German troops, to whom the villagers told stories in order to try to force Carrington out. Convinced that if she did not leave she would face arrest, and confused by the recent events, Carrington sold their house to the cousin of a German officer who paid with a bottle of brandy. She fled to Spain with her friends, hoping to secure a visa for Ernst in Madrid. The trip was a nightmare, filled with anxiety and increasing delusions.

In Madrid, Carrington was found at the British embassy issuing threats to kill Hitler and calling for the metaphysical liberation of humanity. Her family intervened, and she was institutionalized. Her writings about this time in Down Below recount the administration of cardiazol, a shock-inducing drug, and the violence and pain of having her clothes ripped off and her body strapped naked to the bed. Whereas Carrington's early painting made use of a magical realism based on autobiographical detail, in Down Below she relied heavily on the language of alchemy, which was to become of increasing importance to her as a means of creative exploration.

Carrington has expressed anger at Surrealist attitudes toward madness, seeing in them an inappropriate humor that was opposed to the anguish involved in a loss of inner connection with the outside world. G. Ornstein, in "Leonora Carrington's Visionary Art for the New Age" (Chrysalis 3, 1978), has argued that Carrington's experience during her breakdown may be more accurately seen as a breakthrough to new strata of awareness.

Following her confinement, Carrington was released into the care of a nurse who saw her to Lisbon where passage had been arranged by her family to England or South Africa. Her departure from Lisbon was to be in the company of one of her former nannies. Carrington took a ride with the nanny to a hilltop tearoom, then escaped via a back door and made her way to the Mexican consulate. There, her refuge was arranged by Renato LeDuc, a Mexican diplomat whom Carrington had met through Picasso in Paris. Later, Carrington would wed LeDuc in a marriage of convenience that would facilitate her journey to New York.

Carrington had not heard from Ernst since leaving France. She feared that he had died during his internment. Ernst, however, had been released in the winter of 1940 and returned to St. Martin to find that Carrington had left the country and relinquished the house. When Carrington met him in 1940 in a Lisbon market, he was with Peggy Guggenheim, who had come to his aid. Guggenheim would later recall the two months in Lisbon when the three of them worked to take the reins of their lives, as she held onto Ernst, her new love. Carrington was devastated by her loss of him. The traumatic events of 1940 informed Carrington's work for the next several years. Her short stories "White Rabbits," "The Seventh Horse," and "Waiting" date from this period. After her arrival in New York in 1941, "Waiting" was published later that year in View magazine. It is the story of two women attached to one man. One asks, "Do you fondly believe that the past dies?" The other replies, "Yes, if the present cuts its throat."

Carrington and Ernst met often in New York, the first time was by chance at the Pierre Matisse gallery, which pained them both deeply. Ernst's son Jimmy recorded his father's unhappiness: "I don't recall ever again seeing such a strange mixture of desolation and euphoria in my father's face as when he returned from his first meeting with Leonora in New York. One moment he was the man I remembered from Paris—alive, glowing, witty and at peace—and then I saw in his face the dreadful nightmare that so often comes with waking. Each day that he saw her, and it was often, ended the same way." Carrington's presence found its way into a number of Ernst's paintings during this period, works like Napoleon in the Desert and Europe After the Rain. In 1942, Carrington wrote the story "The Bird Superior Max Ernst" for a special number of View that was dedicated to him.

Carrington arrived in Mexico in 1942 to begin a new life in the world André Breton called the Surrealist place par excellence. She moved into an apartment with Renato LeDuc on Rosa Moreno, in an abandoned building that had once housed the Russian Embassy. To Carrington, Mexico was an extraordinary land. Their home was widely visited, and bullfighters were among her husband's friends. Although she and LeDuc would end their marriage of convenience, they remained close friends.

A few blocks from their apartment lived the painter Remedios Varo and her husband, poet Benjamin Peret. Carrington had first met Varo at Breton's home in Paris. "Remedios's presence in Mexico," she said, "changed my life." The two women became the center of a collection of European artists, including photographers Kati Horna and Eva Sulzer , and two Hungarians Günther Gerzso and Enrique "Chiqui" Weisz whom Carrington took as her second husband. Luis Buñel also traveled in this group, as did a number of former Surrealists now living in Mexico, including Alice Rahon , Wolfgang Paalen, and Gordon Onslow-Ford. This active group of exiled painters and writers paved the way for the remarkable creativity that took place in Mexico for the following decade. Although Carrington would remain for decades and give birth to her two sons in Mexico, she was not entirely at ease in this land that would pervade her life and work. "I felt at home," she remarked, "but as one does in a familiar swimming pool that has sharks in it."

Carrington saw Varo and her husband Peret nearly every day. The close relationship that matured between Carrington and Varo was significant to the history of women artists, and their work developed sensibilities that were independent of earlier Surrealist influences. Together, they shared a journey to discover the source of their creative lives. "For the first time in the history of the collective movement called Surrealism," writes Chadwick, "two women would collaborate in attempting to develop a new pictorial language that spoke more directly to their own needs."

Carrington's new imagery was expressed through writing during her early years in Mexico in both short stories and plays. By 1945 her production of paintings was significant. Among her paintings of 1947 were The Old Maids, Night Nursery Everything, Neighborly Advice, and The House Opposite; the alchemist's chamber in The House Opposite shows a black-and-white tile floor, which reappears in a 1958 work by Varo, Alchemy or the Useless Science. Crookhey Hall also dates from this period. While Carrington's consciousness of painters such as Bosch and Breughel increased, she became more drawn to the technical side of painting. She revived a medieval technique by working with egg tempera on gessoed wooden panels. Carrington and Varo developed what Chadwick has called "their highly personalized vision of the woman creator whose creative and magical powers were a higher development of traditional domestic activities like cooking."

Producing a number of watercolors, Carrington often covered them with the same mirror writing for which she had earlier been forced out of school. Many of Carrington's watercolor sketches include messages to friends. One addressed to Varo reads: "Remedios, I told you that I made a spell against (the evil eye) there it is—yesterday evening I had 38° of fever, autosuggestion perhaps—I don't feel well enough to go out—Come see me if you can? Both of you come to drink some of our tequila? … Leonora." Stories, dreams, and magic potions were shared between the two artists. Images that appeared in the work of one were often echoed in the work of the other, but their individual sensibilities remained unmistakable. Whereas Varo's women may be seen as magicians, scientists, alchemists, engineers, Carrington's protagonists have been described as sibyls, priestesses, sorceresses. Both artists portrayed secret quests toward enlightenment. Carrington's variations on the quest to psychic awareness grow from various pre-Christian sources, including the Celtic stories and fairy tales first told to her in childhood. The year 1948 brought the publication of Robert Graves' The White Goddess. Carrington called her reading of this work "the greatest revelation in my life."

Carrington and Varo made spiritual investigations into Tibetan Tantrism (in the mid-70s Carrington would study under a lama in Canada), Zen Buddhism, Jung's work, and the Russian mystic Gurdjieff. Although Carrington and Varo took their spiritual inquiries seriously, they also maintained a level of detachment as evidenced in Carrington's parody of Gurdjieff through her character of Dr. Gambit in The Hearing Trumpet, her novel, which was written in English in Mexico and circulated for years underground before it was finally published in French (1974). Her longest work, the novel features Marian Leatherby as Carrington's main character, a 92-year-old, deaf, toothless woman whose face is graced with a small beard, in which she takes pride. Said Carrington in an interview with Germaine Rouvre , "I wanted to appear like a nice old lady so that I could poke fun at sinister things." A magical horn, the hearing trumpet, provides Marian with extraordinary powers of hearing. Writes Byatt: "Her audacious voice sounds a distinctive and witty presence, rubbing against the seriousness of the book's quest for the ultimate knowledge. The landscape is not just a personal one; The Hearing Trumpet is a melting pot for an eclectic mass of images, symbols and allusion, Carrington's version of Jung's collective unconscious."

Edward James first met Carrington in Mexico in 1944, becoming her friend and the most prominent collector of her paintings. "I painted for myself," said Carrington: "I never believed that anyone would exhibit or buy my work." It was James who arranged her 1948 Exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. He wrote of her studio:

Leonora Carrington's studio had everything most conducive to make it the true matrix of true art. Small in the extreme, it was an ill-furnished and not very well lighted room. It had nothing to endow it with the title of studio at all, save a few almost worn-out paint brushes and a number of gesso panels, set on a dog-and-cat populated floor, leaning face-averted against a white-washed and peeling wall. The place was a combined kitchen, nursery, bedroom, kennel and junkstore. The disorder was apocalyptic: the appurtenances of the poorest. My hopes and expectations began to swell.

Visitors to Carrington's studio often found magic in her environs, with one guest calling it "the most dream-saturated place I know." Her study was compared to that of a 16th-century magician, with a guest remarking on what Byatt has called, its "apocalyptic disorder of boxes and jars overflowing with aromatics and spices, the dusty books, pictures of fantastic animals with human eyes, and the strange dolls with birds' heads hanging from the ceiling."

Although Carrington had spent a great deal of her life in the company of Surrealists, she found the theoretical and judgmental side of Surrealism highly distasteful. Asked her feelings about the Surrealist identification of woman and muse, Leonora Carrington responded with one word, "bullshit." Léonor Fini, who refused to officially join the Surrealist group, maintained that Carrington, a "true revolutionary," was nonetheless never a Surrealist. Carrington found in the Feminist movement a place to articulate her ideas. On the occasion of her 1976 retrospective exhibition at the Center for Inter-American Relations, New York, Carrington's commentary included the following thoughts:

The furies, who have a sanctuary buried many fathoms under education and brain washing, have told females that they will return, return from under the fear, shame, and finally through the crack in the prison door, Fury. I do not know of any religion that does not declare women to be feeble-minded, unclean, generally inferior creatures to males, although most Humans assume that we are the cream of all species. Women, alas, but thank God, Homo Sapiens. … Most of us, I hope, are now aware that a woman should not have to demand Rights. The Rights were there from the beginning; they must be Taken Back Again, including the mysteries which were ours and which were violated, stolen or destroyed, leaving us with the thankless hope of pleasing a male animal, probably of one's own species.


Byatt, Helen. "Introduction" in The Hearing Trumpet. Boston, MA: Exact Change, 1996.

Chadwick, Whitney. Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. NY: Little, Brown, 1985.

About this article

Carrington, Leonora (1917—)

Updated About content Print Article