Artist Leonora Carrington is considered a national treasure in her home of Mexico. But the Lancashire-born surrealist is little known in the UK, where no public collection displays her paintings. Susan Gilbert argues more should be done to celebrate her work
“You’re born an artist. You don’t do it: it does you.”
This is what the firm voice of an elderly woman said on BBC Radio 3 one Sunday night. Most members of the Radio 3 audience probably nodded sagely at her intelligent if droll pronouncement: they are that type of audience. However it’s a fairly safe bet that before this particular programme was announced, very few of the listeners actually knew who the artist was.
As the programme went on to explain, Leonora Carrington is, at 93, the only surviving member of one of the most extraordinary and revolutionary art movements in the 20th century. This was Surrealism – I mean the original European Surrealism, with a capital S; the Surrealism of Méret Oppenheim’s disturbing fur-covered teacup, of André Breton’s impressively unreadable rhetoric and of Dali’s melting watches. Leonora knew all the Surrealists, was close friends with several, had an intense love affair with one and today still works with her own very personal take on surrealism – with a small s. She is, as the programme pointed out, one of a very few women painters alive whose work sells for more than a million dollars. Her 1947 painting ‘The Giantess’ sold in New York last year for $1,482,500 (£1,080,000).
So why was it that so few of that radio audience, who like me listened with fascination to Leonora’s deep, smoky voice on Sunday 4 July, 2010, had actually heard of her? This question became even stranger when we learned that she was born in Chorley, Lancashire and brought up in that very English county. Her father was a textile magnate; as a young child she lived in the Gothic-styled Crookhey Hall near Lancaster, and was then sent to a series of convent schools. She became the bane of the nuns, was expelled from each school and this became the first clue to her obscurity.
Leonora Carrington was, and is, a rebel of the most superior and committed type. Born in 1917, she would not submit to the restrictive propriety that was expected of upper middle class girls in those days. She needed to be creative but was totally out of place in a conventional family, with only her mother sometimes on her side. She wrote in mirror writing and with either hand, which freaked the nuns out; she started smoking aged nine and, when sent to a posh finishing school, she ran away. She persuaded her reluctant father to let her study art, but in a final ditch attempt to tame her, in 1934 the family forced her to ‘come out’ as a debutante. Leonora was unimpressed at meeting the king, hated the frock and spent most of the evening of her coming out ball reading Aldous Huxley. The occasion prompted her to write a story in which her place at the ball was taken by a smelly hyena, which had just eaten a maid and wore the maid’s face to attend the ball. Everybody was too ‘polite’ to comment, until the hyena ate the face and ran away.
Aged 19, Leonora ran away again, and although it wasn’t the last time she would flee, it was the first time her flight would prove life-changing. In Paris she rapidly became an item with one of the most important of the Surrealist artists, Max Ernst, who she had fallen in love with after meeting him in London. Ernst introduced her to the inner circle of the Surrealist group and the course of her life was set. She was an artist and a Surrealist.
Leonora Carrington’s career epitomises the chasm between the male and the female experience and perception of Surrealism. She has worked broadly within the remit of the surrealist ‘genre’ all her life, but never as a member of the all-male central group. By the time she encountered them, in 1936, they were not so young. Ernst was in his mid 40s, and they were even more confirmed in their opinions than they had been at the start of Surrealism in the mid 1920s, when it evolved out of anarchic Dada, with conscious influences from Freud and leanings towards communism. Despite the group’s revolutionary origins, Surrealism was by no means feminist. The requirements of the woman in official Surrealism was largely set in stone at the outset. Women should be young, beautiful, unconventional, sexually uninhibited and preferably naive and malleable. Creativity and originality, which Leonora had in abundance, were regarded as useful, though not essential in a woman.
When Leonora Carrington first came to the attention of Max Ernst, André Breton and the other originators of Surrealism, she displayed most of the characteristics that they looked for in their ‘femme enfant’ muses. She was extremely young (just 19), very beautiful, highly unconventional and uniquely artistic. She was also self-confidant and rebellious, which had led to her total rejection of her wealthy parents’ rigid control. Her determined anti-paternalist stance enhanced her appeal to the Surrealists, but in the end wasn’t to their advantage – because malleable she was not! Though their three year relationship was intense and influenced both their lives long after, Max Ernst couldn’t tame her either.
Leonora was one of the most original talents amongst the circle of Surrealist women. Edward James, who was an important patron and friend of many of the Surrealists, wrote: “When I did finally meet Leonora, I felt myself qualified to recognise authentic talent, and the very fact that her work is so entirely unlike, so removed, so apart from any of those old friends of mine, impresses me the more for the very reason that she owes so little to the avant-garde art movements of the 1920s and 1930s…” Max Ernst probably recognised and appreciated her originality during their three years living together. Like Ernst, Leonora was interested in alchemy and magic. Together they filled their house and garden in St. Martin d’Ardèche with sculptures and paintings of strange, mythologised beings who continued to haunt the work of both artists long after they parted.
The remarkable thing about this period is that Leonora’s creativity was so little damaged by the dominant Surrealist men – unlike that of her friend Méret Oppenheim, who was the other true original amongst the female inner circle. Leonora happily experimented with their methods but discarded their theories. She said: “I was never a Surrealist, I was just with Max,” although later, when he had wanted to renew their relationship, she declined. She knew she had to take a different route to maintain her own originality. That her art remains so surreal in appearance is not, she might maintain, as a result of a continuing surrealist consciousness. Her imagination is unique and her art is not explicable in terms of either Freudianism or socialism. It is also hard to apply the word feminist. Although very few of the beings she creates are obviously male and her work inhabits a mysterious feminine mythology of her own devising, I wouldn’t apply another ‘-ism’, not without her permission!
In ‘Looking for Leonora’, the presenter was journalist Joanna Moorhead, who is actually a second cousin of Leonora on her mother’s side. Moorhead, who has since visited and written extensively about Carrington, was astonished when she first discovered who her cousin really was. She had been chatting to a Mexican woman at a party and mentioned that the black sheep in her family was a cousin who had run away to become an artist’s model. When she mentioned the name Leonora Carrington, the Mexican was amazed at her ignorance. Carrington is the most famous woman artist living in Mexico City today and is regarded as a Mexican national treasure.
So finally, we come to the major reason that Leonora Carrington was an unfamiliar name to most of the Radio 3 audience. She has lived and worked in Mexico for 70 years, having virtually no contact with her former family in the UK. The part of her story that is usually mentioned revolves around the extraordinary events between her splitting with Max Ernst in 1940 and arriving in Mexico three years later. However, this was so long ago that Leonora seems to wish to leave it there. Nonetheless the story, which would make a great movie script, is significant here, so I’ll tell it briefly. Sorry Leonora!
France and Germany were at war. Max Ernst was detained by the French authorities as an enemy alien, leaving Leonora alone. He was released, then detained again. The Nazis were advancing. She had nowhere to turn, having burned her bridges with her family. She had a breakdown. A visiting friend persuaded her to flee and she ended up in Spain, where she had another breakdown. She was incarcerated in a mental hospital in Santander and subjected to excruciating drug treatment. Her former nanny arrived, disembarking from a passing warship, with instructions from her father to rescue his embarrassing daughter and take her to another asylum in South Africa.
Leonora fled again, this time arriving in Portugal, where she got married and not to Ernst. He had escaped and wanted her back, but she knew it had to end. Although her 1942 marriage to Renato Leduc was largely a marriage of convenience for Leonora, they were friends. She had first been introduced to Renato, a Mexican diplomat, by Picasso in 1937. Their marriage enabled her to finally escape; as a married woman she could no longer be regarded as answerable to her father, and as Leduc’s wife she was able to travel to New York and then Mexico City, escaping both Nazis and family. She and Renato soon divorced amicably, but Leonora has never returned to Britain. After all, what has Britain ever done for her?
In Mexico City, Leonora stopped running. She met Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. She became close friends with Spanish painter Remedios Varo, who was also living in exile from Europe because of the war. She married another exile, Hungarian photographer Chiki Weisz, and had two sons. Unlike many women of her generation she seems to have been able to happily combine family life and artistic life. She has never stopped painting her disturbing, humorous and inexplicable inner world. She works in her kitchen, which is also her studio. Her second family has been a source of support and inspiration; home and family life became part of the alchemy of her work. Joanna had the privilege of watching Leonora work and was astonished not only by her mysterious images, but by the way she creates them, painting confidently with both hands. Leonora is also a sculptor, with sculpted figures displayed around Mexico City, and a writer – having published short stories, novels and plays. I don’t know which hand she writes with these days.
The question is, now that Britain knows about this marvellous lost daughter, what are we going to do about her? The BBC has tried before to promote interest in her, with an Omnibus programme in 1992, but to no avail. Now she may have a better chance because, much more recently, some of her work has become available. The Tate Modern almost apologetically displays just two early Surrealist drawings by Carrington. However, in 2009, Manchester Art Gallery exhibited a few of her wonderful paintings in their Angels of Anarchy exhibition, which I also reviewed for The F-Word. More recently still, Joanna Moorhead curated an exhibition, Surreal Friends, at two UK venues, showing Leonora’s work alongside her friends painter Remedios Varo and photographer Kati Horna.
But still, no paintings of hers are in public collections here, which seems hugely disappointing. There was a hint, at the end of Looking for Leonora, that this situation might be about to change. Let’s hope that instead of just remaining one family’s embarrassing secret, Leonora Carrington, who will not enter an aeroplane, can still be properly represented here in the form of her enigmatic paintings. She deserves to be recognised and nationally celebrated in Britain as well as in Mexico.
One final suggestion. I’m not really a BBC Radio 3 listener, but it’s not all just obscure music. It’s worth at least having a look at their schedules. You never know who you might meet!