Bestiary

 

Leonora Carrington-The 4706th Floor
Leonora Carrington-The 4706th Floor

The beasts
(A vivid bestiary indeed:
Eerie condor atop a desolate eyrie;
Aloof snow leopard alone in her Kingdom of Bones;
Ravening wild dogs scouring the steppes;
Scaled dragon protecting his hoard of gold;
Fantastical drolleries, grotesque hybrids,
Horrific metamorphosis, decanate aspects,
Demonic synthesis, alien creations)
of my nature
Are straining
At the end of their tether.
Maybe, in an act of self division,
I will let them off the leash
To mount a ceaseless attack
Upon the most dangerous of beasts:
Man, that mad animal.

The Debutante

Leonora Carrington-Self Portrait (The Inn of the White Horse) 1937-1938
Leonora Carrington-Self Portrait (The Inn of the White Horse) 1937-1938

I have chosen for the third in the series of Surrealist short stories a deliciously macabre tale by the wonderful English artist, writer and eccentric Leonora Carrington, who was also the subject of Max Ernst’s masterpiece, The Robing of the Bride.

In a reversal of a classic fairy tale theme, The Debutante tells of the lengths our heroine is prepared to go to in order to not attend a ball.

The Debutante

WHEN I was a debutante I often went to the zoo. I went so often that I knew the animals better than I knew girls of my own age. Indeed, it was in order to get away from people that I found myself each day at the zoo. The animal I got to know best was a young hyena. She knew me too. She was extremely intelligent, I taught her French and she, in return, taught me her language. In this way we passed many pleasant hours.

My mother was arranging a ball in my honour on the first of May. During this time I was in great distress for whole nights. I’ve always detested balls, especially when they are given in my honour.

On the morning of the first of May, 1934, very early, I went to visit the hyena.

“What a bloody nuisance,” I told her. “I’ve got to go to my ball tonight.”

“You’re very lucky,” she said. “I would love to go. I do not know how to dance, but at least I could make small talk.”

“There’ll be a great many different things to eat,” I told her. “I’ve seen truckloads of food delivered to our house.”

“And you complain!” replied the hyena, disgusted. “Just think of me, I eat once a day, and you can’t imagine what a heap of bloody rubbish I’m given!”

I had a audacious idea, and I almost laughed. “All you have to do is to go instead of me!”

“We do not resemble each other enough, otherwise I’d gladly go,” said the hyena, rather sadly.

“Listen,” I said. “No one sees too well in the evening light. If you disguise yourself, no one will notice you in the crowd. Besides, we are practically  the same size. You are my only friend, I beg you to do this for me.”

She thought this over, and I knew that she really wanted to accept.

“Done,” she said all of a sudden.

There weren’t many keepers about, it was so early in the morning. Quickly I opened the cage and in a moment we were in the street. I hailed a taxi; at home, everyone was still in bed. In my room, I brought out the dress I was to wear that evening. It was a little long, and the hyena found it difficult to walk in my high-heeled shoes. I found some gloves to hide her hands which were too hairy to look like mine. By the time the sun was shining into my room, she was able to make her way around the room several times—walking more or less upright. We were so busy that my mother almost opened the door to say good morning before the hyena had hidden under my bed.

“There’s a bad smell in your room,” said my mother, opening the window. “You must have a scented bath before tonight, with my new bath salts.”

“Certainly,” I said.

She did not stay long. I believe the smell was too strong for her.

“Don’t be late for breakfast,” she said and left the room.

The greatest difficulty was to find a way of disguising the hyena’s face. We spent hours and hours looking for a way, but she always rejected my suggestions. At last she said, “I think I’ve found a solution. Have you got a maid?”

“Yes,” I said, puzzled.

“There you are then. Ring for your maid, and when she comes in we’ll pounce upon her  and tear off her face. I’ll wear her face this evening instead of mine.”

“That’s not practical,” I said to her. “She will probably die if she hasn’t got a face. Someone will surely find the corpse and we’ll go to prison.”

“I am hungry enough to eat her,” the hyena replied.

“And the bones?”

“As well,” she said. “So, its on?”

“Only if you promise to kill her before tearing off  her face. It’ll  hurt her too much otherwise.”

“All right.  It’s all the same to me.”

Not without a certain amount of nervousness I rang for Mary, my maid. I certainly wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t hate having to go to a ball so much. When Mary came in I turned to the wall so as not to see. I must admit that it didn’t take long. A brief cry, and it was over. While the hyena was eating, I looked out the window. A few minutes later, she said, “I can’t eat anymore. Her two feet are left over still, but if you have a little bag, I’ll eat them later in the day.”

“You’ll find in the wardrobe a bag embroidered with fleurs de lys in the cupboard. Empty out the handkerchiefs you’ll find inside, and take it.” She did as I suggested. Then she said: “Turn around now and look how beautiful I am.”

In front of the mirror, the hyena was admiring herself in Mary’s face. She had nibbled very neatly all around the face so that what was left was exactly what was needed.

“You’ve certainly done that very well,”  I said.

Toward evening, when the hyena was all dressed up, she declared: “I really feel in tip-top form. I have the feeling that I shall be a great success this evening.”

When we had heard the music from downstairs for quite some time, I said to her,  “Go on down now, and remember, don’t stand next to my mother. She’s bound to realise that it isn’t me. Apart from her I don’t know anybody. Best of luck.” I kissed her as I left her, but she did smell very strong.

Night fell. Tired by the day’s emotions, I took a book and sat down by the open window, giving myself up to peace and quiet. I remember that I was reading Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. About an hour later,  I  noticed the first signs of trouble. A bat flew in at the window, uttering little cries. I am terribly afraid of bats, I hid behind a chair, my teeth chattering. I had hardly gone down on my knees when the sound of beating wings was overcome by a great noise at my door. My mother entered, pale with rage.

“We’d just sat down at table,” she said, “when that  thing sitting in your place got up and shouted, ‘So I smell a bit strong, what? Well, I don’t eat cakes.’ Whereupon it tore off its face and ate it. And with one great bound, disappeared through the window.”

Leonora Carrington-1939

Translation: Marina Warner & Katherine Talbot

Subtle Substance

Labyrinth-Leonora Carrington 1991
Labyrinth-Leonora Carrington 1991

A subtle substance,
Nymphlight or gaslight,
Shimmers and shifts
On the event horizon
Before vanishing.

Emerging patterns,
Esoterically strange,
Point to the discovery
Of imaginary countries
And new crimes.

Chasing chymeras,
And weepy willow wisps.
Stumbling at every twist
And left-hand turning
Of the labyrinth.

Blinking in the sunlight,
Sleepwalking through days,
Only truly awake and aware
When asleep in the arms
Of Mother Night, and dreaming.

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