Thursday, April 12, 2012

The World of Leonora Carrington, Part II: The Alchemical Kitchen

Collage of Leonora by Leonor Fini

This is a continuation of a series of blogs about the artist Leonora Carrington (1917-2011). The first part can be found here, including a brief biography that includes her childhood, her entrance into the surrealist movement in Paris in the late 30’s, and her subsequent escape from both her family’s intentions to incarcerate her in a mental institution and Nazi Europe. 


 Most of the information below was gleaned from Susan L. Aberth’s Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art.  This book is a great introduction to the work of Carrington. 'Alchemical Kitchen' is a term lifted from the book.

New York

New York in 1941 was filled with Surrealists, all refugees from the war; Luis Bunuel, Marcel Duchamp, Andre Breton, Piet Mondrian, and Max Ernst among them.  She was reunited with Ernst for a brief period during these years, but Ernst had, since their separation, taken up with Peggy Guggenheim, who had financed his passage to America.  Although it was reported by many friends that they both suffered intensely over the loss of the other, for whatever reasons (and god knows there are many theories floating out there) the two did not reunite permanently. 

Surrealists in NY (Carrington, first row; Ernst far left, middle row)
 Her eccentric behavior during this time has become the stuff of legend.  As Aberth points out, it probably gained more notoriety because of her ‘recent bout with madness.’  “One often-told story has her inexplicably and calmly spreading mustard on her feet while at a restaurant.” (Aberth, pg 54, from Breton’s Anthology of Black Humour). “Another anecdote, recounted by the film-maker Luis Buñuel in his autobiography My Last Sigh shows that Carrington’s experiences in Spain were still fresh in her psyche:

'Separated now from Max Ernst, Leonora apparently lived with a Mexican writer named Renato Leduc.  One day, when we arrived at the house of a certain Mr. Reiss for our regular meeting, Leonora suddenly got up, went into the bathroom, took a shower – fully dressed.  Afterward, dripping wet, she came back into the living room, sat down in an armchair, and stared at me.  ‘You’re a handsome man,’ she said to me in Spanish, seizing my arm.  ‘You look exactly like my warden.’”

Tuesday, 1946
At this time, she developed an interest in cooking, likening it to the alchemical transformation (see
alchemy) of art production – transforming the 'base metal' of the psyche into ‘gold.’  She experimented in the kitchen for her fellow surrealists, creating elaborate feasts from archaic recipes.

Breton on one of Carrington’s feasts:  “Of all those whom she invited to her home in New York, I believe I was the only one to try certain dishes on which she had spent hours and hours of meticulous preparation, an English cookbook form the sixteenth century in hand – compensating by sheer intuition for the lack of certain ingredients that had become unobtainable or exceedingly rare since then.  (I will admit that a hare stuffed with oysters, to which she obliged me to do honor for the benefit of all those who had preferred to content themselves with its aroma, induced me to space out those feasts a bit.)” (Aberth, pg 54)

Surrealist joke or alchemical experiment?  Maybe they’re the same thing.  Either way, she managed to ‘out-surreal’ the founding figure of Surrealism.

During this time she continued to paint and write short stories, publishing in several American journals, but the man she had married in order to obtain a visa out of Europe, Renato Leduc, eventually tired of New York and wanted to move back to Mexico.

Mexico City

Carrington arrived in Mexico City in 1943 and the three year marriage of convenience to Leduc came to an end.   At the time the leftist government under President Lazaro Cardenas Del Rio (1934-1940) was freely granting European war refugees asylum and citizenship. 

Les Distractions de Dagobert, 1945
In 1946, Carrington married Hungarian writer-photographer Chiki Weisz, a war refugee.  It was also during these first years in Mexico City that Carrington struck up a friendship with another war refugee, the Spanish Surrealist painter Remedios Varo.  Her friendship with Varo lasted until Varo’s death in 1963.  Although they had known each other in Paris in the late 30’s, this friendship became central to the creative life of both artists.

Carrington:  “The loss (of Varo, in 1963) was even worse than I had thought it would be…because it’s not that easy to have a very close friend.” (from the documentary Gifted Beauty by Pamela Robertson-Pearce, Ragg Films, 2000)

Chiki, ton pays, 1947
The unofficial ‘headquarters’ for the European Surrealist émigrés was the apartment of poet Benjamin Peret and Remedios Varo on calle Gabino Barreda.  “Meeting almost daily for years, they (Carrington and Varo) shared their dreams, their nightmares, their obsessions, and their deepest secrets.” (Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys, Janet A. Kaplan, pg 93) 

Together they began to experiment, not only in painting – developing a new pictorial language – but also with cooking.  Cooking (following the transformative analogy from alchemy) became one of their avenues into an exploration of the occult.  

Varo wearing Carrington mask
“Using cooking as a metaphor for hermetic pursuits they established an association between women’s traditional roles and magical acts of transformation.  They had both been interested in the occult, stimulated by the Surrealist belief in ‘occultation of the Marvelous’ and by wide reading in witchcraft, alchemy, sorcery, Tarot and magic.  They found Mexico a fertile atmosphere where magic was part of daily reality; traveling herb salesmen would set up on street corners with displays of seeds, insects, chameleons, special candles, seashells, and neatly wrapped parcels with such mysterious labels as ‘sexual weakness.’  All used for the practice of witchcraft by the curanderas (healers), brujas (witches), and espiritualistas (spiritualists) who outnumbered doctors and nurses.  Mexico proved a vibrant influence on Varo and Carrington, for whom the power of spells and omens was already very real.” (Unexpected Journeys, Kaplan, pg. 96)

Varo is the author of the painting (The Flutist) that is the background for the title of this blog (see above, see below).

Remedios Varo, The Flutist, 1955

 The hybrid culture that mixed colonial Spanish with the surviving pre-Hispanic Indian culture also deeply influenced both artists.

Carrington: “Once you cross the border and you arrive in Mexico you feel that you are coming to a place that’s haunted.”  (Leonora Carrington in House of Fear, BBC documentary, 1992)


In the late 40’s Carrington’s work was beginning to be noticed in the international art world.  The Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York arranged for a one-person show in 1948 and the exhibition was briefly reviewed in Time and Art News

And then we saw the daughter of the Minotaur, 1953
A one-person show at Clardecor in February 1950 in Mexico City introduced her art to a Mexican audience to rave reviews. “The Excelsior announced ‘that although Carrington was British and had lived in Mexico for a while: ‘her temperament is not of one who is limited by geographic environment, but the world in which she breathes is one of extraordinary amplitude.’

By 1959, she was included in Marcel Jean’s History of Surrealist Painting on the same level as the men.  For a woman who was a refugee from Britain, then Europe, a mother of two children (with Chiki Weisz), to continue her extraordinary output is stunning – but also to be taken seriously by the patriarchal world at that time was…well…surreal.

Temptation of St. Anthony, 1947
Carrington:  “I always continued to paint, even when the children were very small.  Only when they were ill I dropped everything and my children became my priority.  But often I said to my friend Remedios: ‘We need a wife, like men have, so we can work all the time and somebody else would take care of the cooking and children.’  Yes, men are really spoiled!” (Alberth, pg 64)

During this time, her ideas of art as alchemical transformation became tied to the feminine domestic sphere, transforming the kitchen into a site of magical power.

A description of her studio during these decades by Edward James: 

Carrington with St. Anthony, Chiki Weisz
“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 paintbrushes 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 combined kitchen, nursery, bedroom, kennel and junk store.  The disorder was apocalyptic: the appurtenances of the poorest. My hopes and expectations began to swell.” (Aberth, pg 75)

Carrington in studio, 1950's
Carrington on the cabbage (merging the domestic with the mystical):  “The Cabbage is a rose, the Blue Rose, the Alchemical Rose, The Blue Deer (Peyote), and the eating of the God is ancient knowledge, but only recently known to ‘civilized occidental’ Humans who have experienced many phenomena, and have recently written many books that give accounts of the changing worlds which these people have seen when they ate these plants.  Although the properties of the cabbage are somewhat different, it also screams when dragged out of the earth and plunged into boiling water or grease – forgive us, cabbage…the cabbage is still the alchemical rose, for any being able to see or taste.” (Aberth, pg 94)

Cabbage, 1987

It was during this time that she began experimenting with egg tempura.  “What I needed was technique.  I didn’t want ideas.  Each one of us has those.  Technique, however is something that is learned.  For me it was very important.” (Aberth, pg 66)  As Aberth goes on to say: “One of the reasons that Carrington began to paint with the medieval technique of egg tempera was to create jewel-like tonalities, but according to her friend Gerzso: ‘The fact that mixing egg tempera seemed to mimic culinary procedure further enhanced its use in her eyes.’

The White Goddess

It was also in the late 40’s when Carrington read Robert Graves’s The White Goddess – a scholarly study of the archaic goddess religions, primarily in Britain, sparking a re-investigation into her Celtic roots.

Sidhe, the white people of the Tuatha de Danaan, 1954

And so the Tuatha de Danaan began to appear in her paintings.  Also called the Sidhe, these beings harkened back to the tales told her by her maternal Irish grandmother as a child. 

The Chair, Daghda Tuatha de Danaan, 1955

One of my favorite Carrington paintings was made during this period: AB EO QUOD (1956).  I find, when looking at  visual art, it's important I arrive at its doorstep relatively naive.  Any criticism or explanation - even titles, sometimes - tends to influence and distort my first impression.  What is my immediate sensation?  Although this feigned ignorance sometimes leads to tremendous misunderstanding, I've found that, for the most part, it creates an environment for a meeting - a between place where I meet the work of art halfway, become involved in the act of creation.  Finding out about the historical, technical or theoretical aspects of the painting is all well and good, can enhance the experience - but, for me, that needs to come later.

Having said all that, I am going to place Susan L. Aberth's detailed explanation of AB EO QUOD after the painting.  Will it enhance the view?  Might could.  But don't go directly to the explanation. Scan the painting first. Step inside the room, walk around the table. 

Do you remember what you came there for?  
What was your name before you entered the room?  
What is your name now?

AB EO QUOD, 1956

"The cloth covered altar table holds the wine and bread of the Eucharist, a symbolism reinforced by the further inclusion of a wheat-like grain and grapes.  The Christian tone is offset by the addition of a pomegranate with its intimations of the underworld and the goddess.  A glass beaker with wine and two full wineglasses are set to be drunk by invisible participants who are, perhaps, waiting for what appears to be an unfolding alchemical drama to conclude.  Here alchemy has a direct correlation to the transubstantiation that occurs in the Catholic mass.  On the ceiling of Carrington's painting is another white rose, dangling like a chandelier, that drips water on to the egg, thereby instigating the alchemical process, as the steam vaporising off the egg indicates....The walls are covered in arcane diagrams that highlight duality; a white woman's head joined to a black bearded man's, an Assyrian-looking goat rearing on a tree, a circle inscribed in a square, the cabbalist symbol for the spark of divine fire lying hidden within matter.  An embroidered fire screen bears the Latin words 'Ab eo, Quod nigram caudum habet abstine terrestrium enim decorum est', which is a fragment from the Asensus Nigrum, an obscure alchemical text from 1351.  This roughly translates as: 'Keep away from any with a black tail, indeed, this is the beauty of the earth.'  To emphasise this point, the lower portion of the fire screen is encircled by a long and hairy black tail that grows out of the embroidery...Everywhere large moths (perhaps butterflies) are hatching from their cocoons and fluttering about, an allusion to processes of transformation and metamorphosis."  (Aberth, pg 93)

Next Episode:
Symbols and (Ironical) Sorcery,
                                     the 1960’s and beyond....


  1. Hi there

    Nice article. Here we have something you might like. Animated GIF tribute to Leonora Carrington.

  2. Thank you for this! Loved reading.

  3. Wow the paint really speak her emotion. It really present her surrealism.

  4. A fine blog for a great artist.
    What stunning expression and artistry.
    Our souls are lifted into the the true air of being.

  5. I've enjoyed your site. I have been a lifelong admirer of Leonora. She is long overdue for a major retrospective.