Lucy and Todd

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The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington –Joanna Moorhead

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 2, 2017 at 2:28 pm

The English painter and sculptor Leonora Carrington was born one hundred years ago in Lancashire. She had not so much a life but, like Amélie in Jeunet’s surreal comedy, a fabulous destiny. Born into a wealthy textile family, she was rebellious and contrary from an early age. Her father was a tyrant, far beyond what you might expect from even the most apoplectic blustering Edwardian parvenu. Leonora constantly and enthusiastically thwarted and enraged him – at one point she was sent down from school with the admonishment: ‘This girl will collaborate with neither work nor play.’

Wrong! Carrington did play, and she did plenty of work too. She developed an intense inner life, identifying, in that unshakable adolescent way, with her horse. Horses and other animals, especially hyenas, would always feature in her artwork and in her fiction, of which she wrote a goodly amount: Down Below, just republished this month, is a frightening account of what may have happened to Carrington after she suffered a nervous breakdown in the early years of the Second World War. Her partner, the surrealist painter Max Ernst, had been arrested in France and Leonora had fled to Spain. There, through the intervention of her father, whom she always compared unfavourably to Hitler, she was incarcerated in a mental hospital. She was given drugs which induced epileptic seizures and terrible hallucinations, and did lose her mind for a time. ‘I was obedient as an ox,’ she said. She was rescued by a family friend, and was then offered a marriage of convenience by a Mexican diplomat of her acquaintance. Leonora went with him to New York and then to Mexico, where she spent most of the rest of her life.

This is the barest outline of her tumultuous times, however, as there were many intrigues and affairs and toings and froings of all involved with those inside the Surrealist circle and outside it. Ernst had escaped numerous times from detention to look for Leonora – in the process he got temporarily snapped up by Peggy Guggenheim and they all went unhappily off to America together. As Joanna Moorhead says, Surrealism was relocating to New York. And she is well aware of what Carrington was up against with this crowd: ‘avant-garde the movement may have liked to think it was, but when it came to women the Surrealists’ views were depressingly narrow and conventional.’ Just what Leonora was always trying to escape. By the time she got to New York, she realised she could never be happy with Max, as in his neediness he would overpower her.

Leonora’s career begs the question of whether the Surrealists were really any good: Surrealism often seems adolescent, a collection of schemes dreamt up by people who couldn’t paint or write very well. Leonora’s pictures at times resemble Max’s. In hers there is a feeling of enclosure, of being inside some strange building, rather than in the alien landscapes Ernst frottaged into being. Her paintings are semi-mediaeval, like paintings in books of hours, with some elements strikingly to the fore, while other strange and important things are happening far away. There are an awful lot of wimples. And often a haze, or scrim, settles between us and the action. She shares certain qualities with Dalí, including a kind of sepulchral humour. But she never considered herself a Surrealist, and said she had never tried to be one.

In Mexico, Carrington made a new life for herself. She married a Mexican photographer, and they raised two sons. She developed a deep friendship with the Spanish Surrealist painter Remedios Varo (their work is strikingly similar). In the 1960s and 1970s Leonora became quite politically active. She designed a famous poster for the feminist movement known as Mujeres Conciencia – Women of Conscience. Moorhead, however, provides almost no information on what Leonora got up to for most of her time in Mexico. According to her, there is only one extant correspondence between Leonora and anyone else (she always destroyed her mail), so parts of this book feel deranged and undocumented.

The author turns out to have been a cousin of Carrington’s. She heard about Leonora vaguely through family folk history but no one else in her branch of the family seemed interested in her. Moorhead, a journalist, made it her business to track down this surreal black sheep, and began visiting Leonora twice a year in Mexico City. Carrington seems to have tolerated these visits, even though she didn’t much care for journalists. As she grew older she wasn’t always quite sure who anybody was. The two women talked over Mexican politics and American power more than anything else, though one can think of many, many artistic questions Moorhead should have asked. At the very least, she should have got help in describing Carrington’s work, and should have been prevented from trying to explain it. After all, Carrington always said that painting can’t be explained.

One day after a long discussion of the Surrealist manifestos of André Breton, Carrington asked Moorhead for her notebook, and wrote something in it. Later Moorhead realised that Carrington had written it in mirror handwriting, a habit Leonora developed at a nightmarish convent school as a child. When Moorhead held the page up to a mirror, the message read: ‘I never read the Surrealist Manifesto.’


This review appeared in the Herald, April 29, 2017.