Thursday, May 31, 2012

The World of Leonora Carrington, Part III: Dark Mysteries, Cosmic Jokes

This is the final installment about the Surrealist painter, sculptor, and writer Leonora Carrington.  The first part can be found here.  The second, bringing the story of her paintings up to the beginning of the 1960s, can be found here.  Some of the information below about Carrington is from Susan Aberth’s book Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art .

The 1960’s

In 1960, there was an exhibition of 55 Carrington pieces at the Museo National de Arte Moderno in Mexico City.  The next year, the Museo Nactional de Arte Moderno and the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexcio City included Carrington in the exhibition El Retrato Mexicano Contemporaneo, as a Mexican artist. 

Mexico had become her cultural home.

During this time Carrington received a government commission to paint a mural for the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, located in Chapultepec Park in Mexico City.  Her mural was for the section in the museum dedicated to the state of Chiapas and so she travelled there in 1963 to study the region and the culture.

“In San Cristobal de las Casas she stayed with the Swiss anthropologist Gertrude Blom, whose fieldwork focused on the Lacandon Indians who lived in the area.  Through Blom she was introduced to two Chiapas curanderos (healers) from the village of Zinacantan (called ‘House of the Bats’) and, although wary of foreigners, they were so impressed by her knowledge of and respect for traditional healing that they allowed her to attend some of their ceremonies.” (Aberth, p 97)

For the next six months Carrington worked on preliminary drawings of the villagers and local animals.  When she returned to Mexico City she began to study the Popul Vuh, the sacred book of the ancient Quiche Maya, in order to better understand the pre-conquest belief systems of the Chiapas Indians, descendents of those who wrote the Popul Vuh.

The result was the mural El mundo magico de los mayas.

El Mundo Magico de los Mayas, 1963

Chrysopeia of Mary the Jewess, 1964
The Kabbalah

In the mid-sixties, Carrington began exploring Kabbalah lore, a branch of Jewish mysticism that seeks to explain the relationship between the realm of the eternal and unchanging and the finite, ever-changing world.  Kabbalistic methods of spiritual realization are, for the most part, the foundation of European alchemy. 

Of course, she couldn’t help but play around with the sacred in the same way she’d done with icons of institutional Christianity.  When nothing is sacred….everything is sacred.

The Bath of Rabbi Loew, 1969
Details from Chrysopeia

A Surrealist Master

There is a chapter in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s spiritual autobiography, The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky, called A Surrealist Master that tells the tale of his odd, spiritual apprenticeship to Carrington some time during the mid-sixties. (For those unfamiliar with Jodorowsky, he is most famous as the writer/director of the cult films El Topo and The Holy Mountain.  He is also a playwright, actor, and graphics novel writer – his most famous comic being The Incal – in collaboration with the cartoon artist Moebius.  On top of all that, he is also a spiritual guru of sorts, having developed his own spiritual system he calls “Psychoshamanism”). 

Jodorowsky in the 60s

In the Spiritual Autobiography, Ejo Takata, the Zen master under which Jodorowsky was studying at the time, suggested that – because of Jodorowsky’s issues with his mother, and consequently women in general – he should spend some time as Leonora Carrington’s spiritual apprentice.  In the master’s words:  “Accept my friend Leonora Carrington as your teacher.  She doesn’t know any koans, but she has resolved them all.” (Spiritual Autobiography, p 43) 

(In the autobiography it is never clear what Carrington’s relationship was with Ejo Takata, but he obviously knew her well enough to suggest the apprenticeship and she accept).

At their first meeting she asked him to move for her, knowing that he had once been a mime.  He did so.  Afterwards, she silently left the room, came back with tea and biscuits.  Jodorowsky:  “She sipped the drink, which was sweetened with honey, then lifted her tunic, which covered her down to her ankles, and showed me a small wound on her calf.  With the teaspoon, wearing the childlike expression of a sorceress, she scraped the scab away from the wound and let the spoon fill with blood.  She brought it carefully over to me without spilling a drop, emptied the red liquid into my glass, and bade me drink it…Then, rummaging in an oval box, she pulled out a pair of scissors and cut my fingernails as well as a lock of my hair.  She put them all in a tiny sack she hung around her neck.  ‘You will return!’ she said.”  (Spiritual Autobiography, p 49)

The Ancestor, 1968
 That night he dreamed she was beckoning him to her.  He woke, found himself running through the streets of Mexico City back to her house.  He let himself in with the key that she had given him that day, climbed the stairs, and found her seated on a wooden throne whose back was carved with the bust of an angel, naked except for a Tallit (a Jewish prayer shawl), reciting a strange litany in English.  She took no notice of him.

“I, the eye that sees nine different worlds and tells the tale of each.

I, who saw the guts of pharaoh, embalmer, outcast.

I, the lion goddess who ate the ancestors and churned them into gold in her belly.

I, the lunatic and fool, meat for worse fools than I.

I, the bitch of Sirius, landed here from the terrible hyperbole to howl at the moon…”

(Spiritual Autobiography, p 50)

Portrait of Carrington by Jodorowsky

Carrington intoned the litany until her husband Chiki arrived in the room, lifted her gently from the throne and walked her into the bedroom, stretching her out on the bed, never once acknowledging Jodorowsky’s presence.  Carrington continued to murmur her chant until she drifted off to sleep.

In the rest of the chapter, Jodorowsky talks about several initiation-type rites Carrington put him through, her speech full of surreal parable-esque questions and anecdotes, pretty much in the same style as her surrealist stories.

“Everything that lives is because of my vital fluid.  I wake when you sleep. If I stand up, they bury you.  Who am I?”

“A transparent egg that emits rays like the great constellations is a body, but it is also a box.  Of what?”

An even more revealing and interesting article on Carrington during the 60s was penned by Rita Pomade, talking about her friendship – and dream apprenticeship – to the artist.  This article is a wonderful mix of both the magical and the mundane in Carrington's life.  It can be found here.

The Candle Game, 1966
From the article:
Sachiel, angel of Thursday, 1967

“I visited her on a day she had taken ill and was confined to her bed. The bedroom is on the second floor and there is an outside walkway to reach it. As I approached her room, a black cloud floated out the door and rose into the clear, blue afternoon sky. I entered the room determined to say nothing, not even sure that I had actually seen anything. I sat on the only chair next to her bed. "You saw it," she said. "Yes," I answered. She went on to say she had brought on her illness through negative use of her powers and was exorcizing herself to get well. I believe it was during this time of deep personal reflection that she fully understood the double-edged power of the gift that had been imparted to her.

“Leonora loved her sons fiercely, but she claimed a legacy of ancient knowledge that she couldn't pass on to them. It was oral wisdom transmitted through women from one generation to the next, and she believed me to be a good candidate. I was given a task. "I'm planning to paint my own Tarot deck," she said, "and I want you to dream images for me to draw." She suggested an astral visit from her. I didn't relish an out of body visitor and asked her to stay home. I promised to dream, and I did...”

The 1970s

Mujeres Conciencia, 1972
Beginning in 1968 and throughout the 70s Carrington spent a significant amount of time in the United States, primarily in New York and the suburbs of Chicago.  Although she was not particularly interested in the work of Freud or Jung, while in NY she became a regular visitor of the Kristine Mann Library of the C. G. Jung Center, pouring through ARAS (Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism), a vast collection of visual materials.

It was also in the 70s that Carrington came into contact with the feminist movement, designing a poster for Mexican women’s liberation entitled Mujeres Conciencia.  As Aberth puts it, “some of her creative isolation she had experienced was beginning to dissipate as interviewers and historians sought her out.”  In 1974 Gloria Orenstein wrote a feature on her for Ms Magazine.

A Warning to Mother, 1973
The Crone

Reaching her sixties in the late 70s, she began to tackle the question of age.  Elderly women or ‘crones’ begin to appear in her work.  In a catalogue essay for such works, Whitney Chadwick says:

“The multiple realities that Carrington confronts in her work include the reality of old age.  Aging has occupied her thoughts more and more as she considers how to live the remainder of her life.  Focusing on the image of the crone, the ancient woman; she has rejected the ideals of youth and beauty that dominate both contemporary culture and most of the history of western painting…the painting of aged and wrinkled faces – along with the restoration of knowledge and power to the elderly – are perfectly in keeping with Carrington’s belief that unless women reclaim their power to affect the course of human life, there is little hope for civilization.”  (Leonora Carrington – Recent Works, NY, Brewster Gallery, 1988, p 4)

Grandmother Moorhead's Aromatic Kitchen, 1975
Ever the iconoclast, she (humorously) took on the Bogey Man of the Western world: Age…and so, Death.  (Here in the US, the constant message from the culture at large is that you must cling to youth – at all costs.  It has something to do with the constant cry for ‘the new’ that is fuel for the engine of Capitalism.  Planned obsolescence for human beings.  If you are no longer youthful, then you are no longer relevant, become a cast-off and invisible like clothes hanging from the racks in Good Will.  If it’s last year’s dress, it must be useless.

The desire to remain ever youthful has made us a nation of perpetual adolescents – still star-struck and obsessed with immature idols who crash and burn at an early age.  Granted, this is not just true for the US…but I’m living in the US right now…

Kron Flower, 1987
Paradoxically, the culture says to women ‘maintain your youth at all costs’ (meaning, maintain your sexual desirability at all costs), but then ruthlessly mocks those women who cannot resist the shame-inducing admonitions of the culture and feel the need for excessive make-up, a face-lift, or still dress in tight, provocative clothes. 

No one wins.  Which is exactly what those who are making money off the fear of ageing want.  They want us to be in so much fear when we look in the mirror that we can’t see that the lines on our faces are a well-earned map of lived experience.  That lived experience shouldn’t be automatically labeled ugly.  It shouldn’t automatically be labeled beautiful, either.  As the Tao Te Ching says: "Is and Isn't Produce Each Other."  Our face maps are simply what is.  But I digress…)

The Magdalens, 1986
 The Hearing Trumpet 

In the mid-seventies, Carrington published The Hearing Trumpet, a surrealist novel that centers around an old woman, Marian Leatherby, abandoned by her family and put in a home – Lightsome Hall – run by the Well of Light Brotherhood.  The buildings are shaped like toadstools, boots, birthday cakes.  With the aid of a hearing trumpet – her magical horn – Marian gains extrasensory perception.

The story contains two religious worlds: on the surface, there is the religious community at Lightsome Hall, manipulating its inmates; beneath are the ancient texts Marian is given to read, with their commentary on Doña Rosalinda, the Abbess of the Convent of Santa Barbara de Tartarus (Tartarus is a place in the Greek underworld, beneath Hades itself, where the Titans were cast after their defeat by the gods of Olympus). 

Ikon, 1988

At the bottom of it all is the quest for the Grail.  Four different quests, in fact:  Doña Rosalinda’s quest; Marian’s search; an odd band of magicians, poets and animals who set out to reclaim the Grail together; and the author’s own search.  Magic mingles with kitchen alchemy.  And slapstick reigns supreme over all.

The 1990’s

In the nineties, Carrington produced an amazing series of sculptures, copies of which can be seen in parks around Mexico City.  Most notable is the huge work, How Doth the Little Crocodile… based on the painting of the same name, the title taken from a poem in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

How doth the little crocodile...

How Doth... sculpture, 2003


Leonora Carrington and I…

After getting home from work a couple weeks ago, I found myself paging through the Carrington reproductions at the end of Aberth’s book (Sacrament, Temple of the Word, The Chrysopeia of Mary the Jewess; Sachiel, the Angel of Thursday…).  I spent quite a while looking at Took My Way Down, Like a Messenger, To the Deep.  

This painting could be seen as a play on a Christian triptych.  Instead of three horizontal panels, with the image of Christ at the center, Carrington’s panels rest one on top of the other, drawing the eye down.  A robed white crow floats in the top left hand corner, pressing an elevator button, wishing to descend to the panel below – maybe transformed in the next realm into a black robed gargoyle figure clutching its totem, a white hyena-cat. Skulls sit on a Mayanesque pyramid, a pink-robed elephant-headed shaman walks down the pyramid towards the lowest level, swinging a monstrously large garlic.  At the bottom, a black-robed, black-skulled Death floats past a blood-red triangle, guarded by two deer-snails. 

I took my way down, like a messenger, to the deep, 1977
What I especially like about these panels is that each realm bleeds into the other; there is no separation between them.  Figures from one panel continue in another panel.  In this realm what is up, what is down?  There is no center.  Despite the title, indicating that the direction the eye must make is down, I feel everything could be the central focus.  The center is everywhere, the way it is in a dream (although, for the record, Carrington insisted that she did NOT use dreams as the foundation of her work).

I fell asleep looking at the reproduction of the painting.  When I woke, it was dark.  Outside, shapes took form in the hemlock trees beyond the window – robed and hooded figures very much like the squat, robed figures in Carrington’s later work.  The figures moved very slowly, hunched with the strain of pushing dark carts or sleds.  Maybe they were pushing enormous books on wheels, who knows? 

I fell asleep again, and the painting continued on, shadows against the shadows of the trees.   In the middle of the night, I suddenly opened my eyes, and was confronted by a huge, triangular Carrington-like mask staring at me with one green eye.  Chair, desk, laptop, and zafu (sitting on top of the closed computer) had merged to form a mask-like face.  It stared at me, curious.  Maybe it had just opened its eyes, too, and was looking at the shadow of my face, wondering if I was some ragged leftover from its last dream.

One panel was bleeding into another…

Leonora Carrington 1917-2011

A wonderful clip of Leonora ruminating on her life, art, etc., from the film Gifted Beauty (Ragg Films, 2000) by Pamela Robertson-Pearce can be found below:

Below is a link to a hilarious interview of Carrington by a distant cousin - who ‘discovered’ her living in Mexico:

A good commentary on this video, about how “the English-speaking world can’t comprehend — without a lot of rationalizing — that the world is an irrational place,” can be found here
Another good BBC documentary by Kim Evans, called House of Fear, can be found below


(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.



Michaela Kahn and I will be doing a reading in Kingston, NY this Saturday, June 2nd, 2012.  See below:

Chronogram Open Word 
Reading Series


Michaela Kahn & Christien Gholson

hosted by 
Chronogram Poetry Editor 
Phillip X. Levine

June 2nd, 2012
7:00 PM
314 Wall Street
Kingston, NY

(formerly The BEAHIVE)