Surrealist Women: Leonora Carrington

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Paul Eluard, Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst-Photo by Lee Miller 1937

An exceptional artist and in my opinion an even better writer Leonora Carrington was the inspiration for many of Max Ernst masterpieces, notably The Robing Of the Bride (see A Week of Max Ernst: Friday) and was in many aspects the archetypal Femme-Enfant of Surrealist desire; a dubious honour that Carrington, as one of the founding members of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Mexico in the 1970’s, found galling.

Daughter of a English industrialist and an Irish mother, Leonora identified closely with her  Celtic heritage which was to play an important part in her art. She was a rebellious child and was expelled from two private boarding schools for her unruly behaviour, subsequently she was sent to Florence to study art. In 1936 at the age of her 19 her mother gave her Herbert Read’s book Surrealism and she was intrigued. When the International Surrealist Exhibition came to London Carrington visited and was struck most forcibly by Ernst’s work. Shortly after she met Ernst at a party, they were immediately besotted and so began one of the most passionate and productive of all Surrealist love affairs. The 46-year-old Ernst immediately left his second wife for the 20-year-old Carrington; however a divorce wasn’t immediately granted and a torrid love triangle ensued until the outbreak of WWII which changed the situation dramatically. Ernst was interned twice first by the French as a German national and then by Gestapo as a degenerate artist. He managed to escape with the aid of Peggy Guggenheim who later became his third wife for a short period. Leonora suffered a mental breakdown that resulted in her being institutionalised in a Madrid psychiatric hospital; a period she characterised as  living on The Other Side of the Mirror. Later Andre Breton encouraged her to set down her experiences and the result was published as Down Below.

Leonora and Max met again later in New York but their wartime experiences had been too intense for their affair too continue, however they carried a candle for each other till the end of their days despite their respective marriages. Carrington ended up in Mexico City where she was good friends with Benjamin Peret’s wife and  fellow Surrealist artist who shared her occultist affinities, Remedios Varos (though Frida Kahlo wasn’t impressed, she referred to them as ‘those European bitches’) and would get occasional visits from Luis Bunuel, who speaks of  Carrington with genuine fondness in his autobiography My Last Sigh as well as highly praising her marvellous Surrealist novel The Hearing Trumpet.  Another friend from this period was the maverick film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky who frequently stopped by to discuss the Tarot and alchemy. Carrington remained in Mexico City producing art and sculpture up until the first decade of the 21th century, becoming in the process something of a Mexican National Living Treasure until her death in 2011 at the grand old age of 94

 

 

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49 thoughts on “Surrealist Women: Leonora Carrington

  1. A Celtic rebel, huh? Sounds like my kind of girl. Down Below and El Mundo… are so full of details. You need to look close and examine every corner.

    For some reason, I’m not getting email alerts for your posts. So I may try unfollowing and refollowing again to reset it. So tedious.

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      1. I can see that from the wide variety of art you’ve included in your posts. There are occasional similarities in style but overall, these artists seem (to my novice eye) to be very distinct/unique.

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  2. Fabulous post on Leonora Carrington. “The Other Side of the Mirror”, Alice influence. Truly sad about her breakdown, thank goodness for Andre Breton (yes I said it). I had to laugh when I read the Frida Kahlo quote, “those European bitches”. Fantastic photo by Miller. Wonderful Mr. Cake, as always. ~ Miss Cranes

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    1. Yes her breakdown was very bad, there is a story that her father sent her beloved nanny in a submarine to fetch his daughter from the asylum, which is my favourite nanny story, well I also like the story about Francis Bacon’s nanny as well. He ran an illegal gambling den in his Chelsea flat and his nanny would lived with him until she died would act as coat check girl, where she would steal the guests wallets and share with Francis. Anyway back to Leonora, her stories show a brilliant Carrollian absurdist verve. Also the photograph of the sculpture which is displayed in Mexico City is How doth the crocodile and was cast this century. Friday wasn’t a fan, I certainly wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of her either. I love this photo Max looks absolutely smitten, but then why wouldn’t he be, she was another stunner. Thanks for the comments as always Miss Cranes

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      1. You’re most welcome Mr. Cake. Nanny stories, lovely! A submarine, wow, the nanny must have had nerves of steel and didn’t mind close quarters. Is that a true story? Francis Bacon shared in pinched wallets, ha-ha, hmm… not very dignified. I’m sure Frida was a force to be reckoned with. It’s a wonderful photo, but that’s what you would expect from Miller. (He does look smitten!)

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      2. I am not sure it is 100% true but who cares, when it is the choice between myth and reality always print the myth. Her nanny was Irish and Leonora loved her very much. As for dear old Francis, well he was a absolute degenerate gambler along with other many sundry other vices, however he also loved his nanny very very much and she doted on him. Living with Francis would corrupt a saint. Francis didn’t care a fig for dignity. It is great to a photo by Lee (whom I love) of Leonora (also love) Max (ditto love) and Eluard (love again). All these lovely ghosts.

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      3. I know this will make me seem a little strange but they are so vivid to me. Well reality is so overrated and there is too much truth and reality around and our talent for imagination and fantasy is suffering in this world that is oversaturated with reality. Too many realities in that sentence but that’s my point.

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      4. No, not strange at all. I think you have a very strong connection to the surrealists. Have you ever wondered why? Maybe the answer is in the cards. For all the reality that’s out there how much is really real? But, I do get your point, it has stifled the imagination and creativity.

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  3. I studied Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Frida for an entire quarter, Carrington being difficult to research on her own…my favorite story is from Paris where she prepared hair omelets for breakfast guests. But, I came away from that study believing firmly that her “breakdown” was a political move, and as it turned out she made it out of Europe. There simply was no other way out for a minor artist.

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    1. True but she came from a very wealthy background although I know relations with her father were strained to say the least. I prefer her as a writer to be honest though I like her paintings. She was also a great eccentric and I like the hair omelet but I love the nanny story.

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  4. Interesting. I have so many thoughts based on what you wrote and that photo. But 20 and 46? Wow. Despite the age difference look at his body language. I may have another thought about his appeal. Hmm. She was kicked out of two school and sent to study art. I should’ve tried that instead of being a good student. I’m sure I’d have had more fun. Her paintings are really cool. I’d like to read her writing. She was multi-talented. Thanks for the peek into her life.

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    1. Yes she was a rebel alright. Max was besotted with Leonora. Her short stories are being reissued next month and they are excellent as well as her completely bonkers breakdown memoir Down Below. My pleasure as always. Surrealism had some interesting female artists involved, though it is portrayed as being misogynistic.

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      1. Cool, maybe I’ll read a short story or two. I can see he was besotted. I’m thinking part of his appeal was that childlike quality that makes women want to take care of men. I think some men have this and some women like it. There’s a fine line between it being annoying and endearing. Maybe he walked it well. And was good in bed. 😁

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  5. It’s increasingly important to highlight female artists throughout history – they truly have shaped what art is today, and have been woefully underrepresented in scholarship and museum education. Thank you for contributing to literature that proves why they must be spoken about, taught and studied further.

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  6. Surrealistic art really does tell its stories …
    wow!!!
    It’s a little sad knowing that she never gets to marry the love of her life..
    but lived a full life even through her setbacks…
    I’m so enjoying learning about these surrealist artists.. and how they paint and create sculptures from their subconscious minds..

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  7. Interesting, I am sad to hear she was institutionalized. I think they did some very strange treatments to people back then. Sometimes cruel and punishing, I am interested in checking out “Down Below.” Good post, thank you!!!

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    1. Thank you for the comment and the follow. They most certainly did have some cruel and unusual treatments back in the day and Down Below details them vividly. It is a strange book which contains a lot of alchemical and occult references. Carrington went on to lead a full and long life afterwards which is wonderful.

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