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....

Sunday, April 8, 2012

It was twenty five years ago today....

On April 8th, 1987,

twenty five years ago today,

the Belgian cement factory town of Villon woke to find dead fish scattered everywhere.

  It was festival day for their patron saint, St Woelfred.

An infamous environmental activist dance troupe 
scheduled a rally at the same time as the festival, 
to protest the cement factory’s decision to lease empty quarries as toxic waste dumps.


Performance piece? 
Natural phenomenon?

 A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind 
tells the story of six people
winding their way 
through each other's lives
over the course of that 
fateful day.
What happened when 
festival and rally collided?

A True Story.

You can find an interview with Paul Cooper 
about the writing of
Fish Trapped Inside the Wind

a recent insightful review of
On the Side of the Crow
can be found

Check out both sites: 
a great array 
of reviews, essays, 
and interviews.

In other news, 
 April 8th is
the Buddha's 

I can't say whether that's 
the reason things 
 happened the way they did
in Villon 
on that particular day...
but I'm not ruling it 


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.