Leonora Carrington was born in 1917 in Lancashire, England and passed away in 2011 at age 94 in Mexico City, Mexico. A leading artist of the 20th Century, Carrington incorporated painting, drawing, sculpture, textiles, and writing in her nearly seven decade career.
Raised in the English upper-class, Leonora Carrington’s early life was privileged, yet her personal freedom was restricted by the conventions of traditional gender roles. However, her childhood was imbued with magical stories from Celtic mythology and folklore, told by her Irish mother, grandmother, and nanny. In these fantastic tales of humans, animals, and nature living harmoniously together as joined forces against threats of injustice and violence, she found ideas which would profoundly influence the rest of her life. A lifelong rebel, Carrington was continuously expelled from boarding schools. One record stated Carrington’s “supernatural proclivities” as the reason, alluding to her proclivity to employ mirror writing—an act which came easily to her, like it did for Leonardo Da Vinci.
Leonora Carrington was first introduced to Surrealism by her mother who gave her Herbert Read’s book Surrealism for Christmas in 1937, a publication which included a Max Ernst painting that Carrington was immediately drawn to, as if she had seen it before. Serendipitously, the two met in London six months later. She was studying at the Amédée Ozenfant’s Academy and he was visiting for his gallery show, when Carrington’s classmate Ursula Blackwell and her husband Erno Goldfinger invited them both over for dinner, where they fell instantly in love. They moved to Paris together where Carrington was introduced to André Breton, Yves Tanguy, Léonor Fini, and others. In 1938 Carrington participated in the “Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme” in Paris and a Surrealism exhibition in Amsterdam, firmly cementing her position in art history as a Surrealist, despite Carrington personally disagreeing with the categorization. While she and the Surrealists shared a disdain for bourgeois values, Carrington was resolutely autonomous, never ascribing to common Surrealist motifs, while exploring concepts in her work which extended far beyond the ego-centric vicinity of orthodox Surrealists.
With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the German-born Ernst was considered an enemy alien and was imprisoned. Alone in France while society descended into war, Carrington’s mental stability weakened. She grew increasingly paranoid, cried endlessly for Max, ate very little, and drank only wine. Carrington’s friend Catherine Yarrow and her lover Michel Lukacs rescued her from this doomed scenario, as soldiers had begun to accuse her of spying. Together they fled to Spain, but along the journey Carrington’s psychological state continued to rupture. At the British Embassy in Madrid, Carrington threatened to murder Hitler and called for the metaphysical liberation of mankind, landing her in a mental asylum in Santander, where she painted Down Below (1940).
Three years later, while living in New York, Leonora Carrington would recount this experience in the acclaimed memoir Down Below (1942/43). She had escaped Spain in 1941, and passed through New York before arriving in Mexico City in 1942. She found a home in Mexico with fellow European émigré Remedios Varo, who became her close friend and collaborator, and the Hungarian photographer Emerico “Chiki” Weisz, whom she married and had two sons. Despite living in Mexico, Carrington still exhibited internationally. In 1947 she was the first woman to receive a solo exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. In this period, as Carrington experienced marriage and motherhood, her work was steeped in archetypically feminine iconography, such as cooking and scenes of domestic interiors. She recognized the remnants of an ancient magic still present in the acts of growing food, having a family, and painting pictures. She saw the similarities between what she was doing at home and what alchemists attempted to do, in that both involved manipulating inanimate matter to use its life-endowing properties. It was in this period that Carrington revisited the
Renaissance-era practice of tempera paint, made from pigment and egg yolk with a consistency that makes it extremely difficult to control, in order to imbue not just her visual aesthetic, but the physical substance of her paintings with life itself.
In 1948 Robert Graves published The White Goddess, a book which Carrington described as, “the greatest revelation of my life.” With this text she finally found the explanation for why society was structured as it was, with men occupying every position of power while women were disrespected and treated as inferior. The book outlined the commonalities between pre-historic cultures, displaying a universal worshipping of the Earth goddess, one goddess who went by countless different names. Using mythology from the ancient cultures of Ireland, Wales, Western Europe and the Middle East, he shows a common matriarchal society which was wiped out by brute force to implement a patriarchal structure. While in Mexico, Carrington applied these characters, myths, and themes to her art, giving them richly layered meanings and enigmatic interpretations. What she was doing coincided perfectly with her daily experience in Mexican culture, in which indigenous beliefs had combined with Catholic rituals and customs.
Her art was well-received in Mexico, and in 1963 Leonora Carrington received a government commission to create a mural for the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, which she titled “El Mundo Mágico de los Mayas” (“The Magical World of the Maya”). In the 1960’s and 1970’s Carrington became a political activist, hosting student meetings at her home and co-founding the Mexican women’s liberation movement in 1972. In the 1980s the renown mural was moved to the Regional Museum of Anthropology and History of Chiapas in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, and in 1986 Carrington’s political involvement awarded her the Lifetime Achievement Award at the United Nations Women’s Caucus for Art convention in New York. In 2005 Leonora Carrington received Mexico’s National Prize of Sciences and Arts.
It is estimated Carrington produced 1,500-2,000 artworks in her lifetime. Carrington’s work has been acquired by museums worldwide, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; The Tate, London, England, United Kingdom; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.; Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Italy; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA; Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA; and Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, Mexico, among others.
Since Carrington’s death in 2011, her work has been the subject of major museum exhibitions including, “Leonora Carrington: Magical Tales” at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Monterrey (2018) accompanied by a 400 page exhibition catalogue; “Leonora Carrington: Transgressing Discipline” at the Tate Liverpool, United Kingdom (2015); and “The Celtic Surrealist” at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Ireland (2014) accompanied by a 200 page exhibition catalogue. Her work has also been featured in museum exhibitions “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States” (2012) at Los Angeles County Art Museum, California and “The Colour of My Dreams: The Surrealist Revolution in Art” (2011) at Vancouver Art Gallery, Canada. In 2020 her artwork will be the subject of a solo exhibition, “tu país” at the Fundación Mapfre, Madrid, as well as included in the exhibition “Fantastic Women” at Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Germany. In 2021, her artwork will be included in “Surrealism and Magic: From Max Ernst to Leonora Carrington” at the The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice.