Friday, April 6, 2012

The world of Leonora Carrington, Part I – The Early Years

Leonora Carrington, 1980's
I discovered the work of Leonora Carrington while paging through Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement by Whitney Chadwick in the mid-nineties. 

Leonora Carrington, 1939
The effect of Carrington’s work on me was similar to that of Hieronymus Bosch.  But while Bosch's work is steeped in Christian iconography, Carrington's world is an international hybrid of Celtic legend, fairy tales, western and eastern alchemy, Egyptian symbology, Cabbalistic lore, astrology, including both the Spanish Catholic and Indian traditions of her adopted country, Mexico.

Night of the 8th, 1987
Her paintings (and stories) gave me the feeling that there were creatures moving down my spine, scurrying throughout my net of nerves, holding torches that cast flickering shadows onto forgotten or undiscovered caves and rooms, re-acquainting me with all the strange and mysterious beings that always seemed to hover so close during childhood.

These creatures still hover around me, but have become less and less visible over the years, transformed into shadows darting out of the corner of the eye.  I stumble into them now and again – changed, always changing – waiting for me in the close dark space behind an open door in the middle of the night, or peering out at me from a hole in a dead tree, or slipping in and out of sight with a herd of deer shadows at dusk.

Lepidopteros, 1969

What mysterious beings live inside all of us?  What mysterious beings live among us?  Carrington asks these questions with an enigmatic, wry smile.

Her biography is almost as fascinating as her paintings and stories, but for most of her career she usually responded to questions about her personal life and art with a sardonic surreal wit.

For an exposition of her work in Mexico City in 1965 she wrote a mock artist’s statement called Jezzamathatics or Introduction to the Wonder Process of Painting that opened with this paragraph:

“In the early part of the nineties I was born under curious circumstances, in a Eneahexagram, Mathematically.  The only person present at my birth was our dear and faithful old fox-terrier, Boozy, and an x-ray apparatus for sterilizing cows.  My mother was away at the time snaring crayfish which then plagued the upper Andes and wrought misery and devastation among the natives…”

And then we saw the daughter of the Minotaur, 1953
I saw a rare Carrington/Varo exhibit at The Pallant Gallery in Chichester in August of 2010 and felt that most of those moving from painting to painting were captivated, filled with wonder. Maybe they understood, on an intuitive level, that these paintings were alchemical experiments…and that they themselves were part of that experiment…and that the experiment was going to continue into the night, long after the gallery had closed its doors and everyone had gone to sleep.  

But among the visitors walking the gallery, there were those others who needed an answer, one rising from some objective realm brimming with authority (from Jehovah, the International Monetary Fund, an all-knowing Art Critic…), that would definitively answer that eternal, nagging question – what is this? 

From several overheard conversations I gathered that the ones in that camp were a bit - how shall we say - disgruntled.

Adieu Ammenotep, 1960

I believe Carrington's work sits at the apex of the 20th Century Surrealist movement.  Maybe the term Surrealist is too small a box to contain her. She found most labels useless or humorous, so let's just say she stands as one of the giants of 20th Century art. 

The biography below was drawn mostly from the book, Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art by Susan L. Aberth.  This book is a great introduction to Carrington's work.


Leonora Carrington was born in the north of England, South Lancashire, on 6 April, 1917.  Her father was a textile tycoon, her mother Irish, daughter of a country doctor.  She grew up in a manor called Crookhey Hall with views of the Irish sea and Morecambe Bay.  They had ten servants, a French governess and a chauffeur.  She began drawing at the age of four.

Carrington:  “Do you think anyone escapes their childhood?  I don’t think we do.  That kind of feeling that you have in childhood of being very mysterious.  In those days you were seen and not heard, but actually we were neither seen nor heard.  We had a whole area to ourselves.  I think that was rather good, actually.”  (Aberth, p 12, from House of Fear, BBC documentary, 1992). 

Early on, she was placed in the care of an Irish nanny who, along with her Irish grandmother, told the children stories and tales, bringing her into contact with Irish folklore and igniting a lifelong interest in fairy tales.

Crookhey Hall
Carrington:  “My love for the soil, nature, the gods given to me by my mother’s mother who was Irish from Westmeath, where there is a myth about men who lived underground inside the mountains, called the ‘little people’ who belong to the race of the “Sidhe.’  My grandmother used to tell me we were descendents of that ancient race that magically started to live underground when their land was taken by invaders with different political religious ideas.  They preferred to retire underground where they are dedicated to magic and alchemy, knowing how to change gold.  The stories my grandmother told me were fixed in my mind and they gave me mental pictures that I would later sketch on paper.”

Crookhey Hall, 1947
In the custom of the time, she was sent off to boarding school when she nine years old. Her family was Catholic, so she ended up at a convent school. Within a short period of time the school administration asked that she be removed from the school for being ‘mentally deficient.’  She was subsequently expelled from the next convent school.  And the next.  The nuns thought something was wrong with her because, according to Carrington, she could write with both hands and preferred to write with her left, backwards. (Aberth, pg 18) 

Carrington:  “I think I was mainly expelled for not collaborating.  I think I have a kind of allergy to collaboration and I remember I was told, ‘apparently you don’t collaborate well whether at games or work.’  That’s what they put on my report.  They wanted me to conform to a life of horses and hunt balls and to be well considered by the local gentry I suppose.” (Aberth, pg 18)

She was sent to Florence for a year and then to ‘finishing school’ in Paris.  Again, she was expelled for unruly behavior.  She escaped and ran off to a family that she’d heard about from a friend and they took her in until she was ‘presented’ at the court of George V.  After this experience, she informed her family that she intended to go to art school.  Her parents, of course, opposed the idea, and refused to pay her for her tuition  Despite this she left home to attend art school in London.

The House Opposite, 1945

Carrington:  “From the Kings Court I went to a pigsty.  I lived in a basement and didn’t have money.  I barely had enough to eat but my painting and classes distracted me from this.”  (Aberth, pg 21)

Introduction to Max Ernst and the Surrealist Movement

On June 11, 1936 The First International Surrealist Exhibition opened at the New Burlington Galleries in London, providing Leonora with an introduction to Surrealist ideology and art.  But it was the work of Max Ernst that attracted her.   

Garden Aeroplane Trap, Max Ernst
Two Children Menaced by a Nightingale, Ernst
A friend of Leonora’s arranged a dinner party to introduce her to the internationally famous artist, then 46 years old…and the rest is history…or myth…according to whichever way you choose to butter your bread.  

Carrington:  “It was love at first sight. I was holding a beer and it was starting to go over and Max put his finger on it, that way it doesn’t go on the table.  That was the story of my big love.” 

Carrington and Ernst, 1938
They quickly became involved, and she was immediately propelled into the heart of the Surrealist movement.

Carrington:  “Living with Max Ernst changed my life enormously because he saw things in a way I never dreamed was possible.  He opened up all sorts of worlds for me.”  (Aberth, pg 27)

 She moved to Paris with Ernst and became an active member of Breton’s Surrealist circle.  She was, of course, immediately ex-communicated from her family. 

The Surrealist movement was dominated by men and, for the most part, they believed the function of women in art was primarily as muse.  Especially young women.  The belief was that a woman-child, being innately naive, was in direct connection with her own unconscious and could 'serve as a guide for a man.’ (Aberth, pg 37)

Syssigy, 1957
Carrington, probably because of her confidence (an attitude of entitlement that she readily acknowledged as coming from her privileged upbringing), and natural defiance against being put into any niche, never conformed to this role among the Surrealists. And oddly enough for the times, she was accepted as one of them from the beginning.  Two major Surrealist exhibitions in 1938 included works by Carrington (including Self-Portrait, The Horses of Lord Candlestick, and The Meal of Lord Candlestick).  It was during this time she began publishing her surrealist stories.

Self-Portrait (Inn of the Dawn Horse), 1937-8
The Horses of Lord Candlestick, 1938

The Meal of Lord Candlestick, 1938

Outbreak of War, Down Below

When World War II broke out Ernst was interned in a camp with other German nationals near the farm in St. Martin D'Ardeche where Carrington and Ernst had set up house.

Carrington in kitchen at farmhouse in St. Martin D'Ardeche
He was soon transferred to Aix-en-Provence and Carrington lost track of him.  In isolation in the country she became increasingly mentally unstable.  The account of this time was eventually written down and became the book En Bas (Down Below).  Friends passing through took her with them to Spain where they hoped to secure a visa for Ernst in Madrid.  She was ultimately incarcerated (through the intervention of her family) in a Spanish mental institution.  “Diagnosed as marginally psychotic, she was treated and cured with three doses of the drug Cardiazol, which chemically induced convulsive spasms similar to electrical shock therapy.” (Aberth, pg 46)

Down Below, 1943
She was eventually released to a family guardian, who was to take her to a mental institution in South Africa.  She escaped to the Mexican Embassy in Lisbon, to a friend who was then Mexican ambassador, Paul Leduc.  The only way to secure a visa out of the country was by marrying him – so they arranged a marriage of convenience.  Under Mexican diplomatic immunity she could no longer be committed by her parents and so sailed to New York with Leduc.

Next Episode -  
The Alchemical Kitchen, in which Carrington is reunited with many surrealists in New York, moves to Mexico City, begins a 20 year friendship and artistic collaboration with the Spanish surrealist painter Remedios Varo, and maintains an unrivaled 60 years of creativity as a Mexican artist...

(November, 2015):

If you're interested in a song with fascinating lyrics about the original proto-surrealist, Hieronymus Bosch, check out my series of blogs on the demo tapes of Zak Jourek (a forgotten singer-songwriter) here.
Or listen to the song (and his other songs) on Soundcloud here.


  1. i am so happy I found your blog on Leonora Carrington, I am planning on reading her book The hearing trumpet and i found her story and illustrations fascinating, gracias!

  2. I am an artist just now reading "Journey With No Map. A Life of P.K. Page" by Sandra Djwa. Pat Page became friends with Leonara in the 50's and her own work was quite influenced by Leonara. I had not heard of Ms. Carrington up until reading about her in this book and am now quite fascinated with her. I am reading your posts about her with great interest. Also, I am intending to get back to posting more often again on my own blog...I seem to have taken the past few months off without meaning to!

  3. I found this as a fascinating story, and will love to learn more about it!