Leonora Carrington Brought a Wild, Feminist Intensity to Surrealist Painting
May 4, 2019 4:00 pm
To look at a Leonora Carrington painting, or to read her prose, is to catch the rituals of the witching hour, when the rules of reality are upturned: Bodies transform into birds or beasts; ghostly figures float mid-air. As viewers, we are more than just witnesses to this magic—we become complicit in it. We are offered a seat at the ceremonial table—alongside dogs, children, a minotaur, and a fantastical, almost aquatic-looking creature—in the 1953 work And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur! (The painting will be on view in “The Story of the Last Egg,” a show by Gallery Wendi Norris in New York later this month.) Mysterious glass orbs pull at the tablecloth as though guided by a force of their own. At the right of the painting, something not-quite-human dances toward us. No wonder Edward James, Carrington’s friend and patron, once described her work as “brewed” rather than painted.
As a Surrealist—a label she often rejected—Carrington was no stranger to myth and magic. Her Parisian milieu in the 1930s included Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and André Breton. Yet Carrington’s Surrealism extends back to her formative years. As a small child, she had visions of ghosts and animals—a wild tortoise, a horse, or a cat would “trot” through her line of sight. While her eccentricities disturbed her bourgeois British family, stories such as these suggest that from an early age, Carrington was able to see things beyond the immediately perceptible.
Born in another time, she may have been a religious mystic, but as a young woman in 1930s Europe, Carrington involved herself instead in the Surrealist movement. In 1936, while studying art in London, the 19-year-old artist met and fell in love with Max Ernst. Together, they moved to Paris to paint, drink, and occasionally engage in altercations with Ernst’s (understandably) enraged wife, the French painter Marie-Berthe Aurenche.
In 1938, Carrington completed her Self-Portrait, an early depiction of what she called her “inner bestiary.” In the painting, Carrington sits on a chair in an otherwise sparsely decorated room, her hair levitating in defiance of gravity, boldly wearing tight-fitting jodhpurs, her knees apart. Her right hand reaches out towards a hyena, standing at her side, who reciprocates the gesture. The hyena’s eyes are blue, almond-shaped, as though something almost human lies behind them. The hyena, the wildest of wild animals—bristly, ugly, laughing maniacally as it digs around in the trash—was one of Carrington’s most favored counterparts.
In “The Debutante” (1937–38), one of her most well-known short stories, a hyena wears a human face in order to “pass” as the narrator (albeit unsuccessfully). Through painting and fiction, Carrington (herself a reluctant debutante) pointed to an uncontrollable wildness within herself. On the surface, Carrington may be easily categorized as a human woman. What lies underneath that form is much harder to define.
The outbreak of World War II brought with it a period of severe mental trauma for the artist. Ernst, who was German, was placed into an internment camp by the French authorities in 1939 (and then again in 1940). This violent separation, combined with the ambient threat of war, led to a decline in Carrington’s mental health, and she was eventually involuntarily admitted to the Santander Mental Asylum in Spain. The experience of emotional suffering, painful medical treatment, and forced incarceration profoundly affected her, and she once remarked that “I suddenly became aware that I was both mortal and touchable and that I could be destroyed.”
With this vulnerability came the understanding of her body as something prone to transformation. “I ceased menstruating,” she wrote in the autobiographical short story “Down Below” (1943). “I was transforming my blood into comprehensive energy—masculine and feminine, microcosmic and macrocosmic—and into a wine that was drunk by the moon and the sun.” Despite the undoubted horror of this period, it led Carrington to understand the alchemical potential of the body, an idea that would deeply inform her later work.
After several months in the Santander asylum, Carrington traveled to Madrid. When she learned that her family had arranged for her to stay in another mental institution in South Africa—presumably for the long term—Carrington hatched an escape plan, enlisting help from a Mexican diplomat she had met through Pablo Picasso. Carrington and the diplomat quickly married in Lisbon, and secured boat passage to Mexico.
The country proved to be a felicitous refuge. In Europe, the rise of fascism meant restricted movement and ever-tighter borders, but Mexico flung its doors open to the world. An artistic and intellectual community flourished: European artists like Breton, Wolfgang Paalen, and Remedios Varo (who became a great friend to Carrington), as well as revolutionaries like Leon Trotsky, encountered Mexican artists such as Miguel Covarrubias, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo.
Mexico fascinated the Europeans. The coexistence of Mesoamerican and colonial Spanish cultures was seen as the living embodiment of the Surrealist concept of juxtaposition, and the widespread practice of ancestor veneration proposed a less oppositional relationship between life and death. For these reasons and others, Breton described Mexico as the “Surrealist place par excellence.” (Significantly, Mexican artists were more ambivalent about the label, with Kahlo once saying, “I never knew I was a Surrealist until André Breton…told me I was.”)
In Mexico, where she lived for the rest of her life, Carrington was free to explore her “inner bestiary” through a menagerie of animals—hyenas, horses, geese, crows, and lizards. In Pastoral (1950), a summer picnic is recast as a food ritual: A hedgehog-human chimera holds a dead bird by the neck, while a reclining, androgynous nude figure looks on. Seated nearby, two other figures lean towards one another—one human, one perhaps not—as though midway through physical transformations. Are they becoming human or animal, or both at once?
That this work concerns food is no coincidence; Carrington likewise considered cooking an act of alchemical transformation. She devoted hours of her time to preparing complex and completely inedible recipes, such as hare stuffed with oysters or omelettes filled with human hair. She often served such dishes at elaborate dinner parties, to the simultaneous delight and disgust of her friends.
Carrington’s rituals of transformation prefigure much of how we talk about the body today. We are beginning to understand that our bodies are leaky, blurry things bound up with the world around us. The bacteria that make up our gut microbiome, for instance, show that there truly is a bestiary within us all. There are processes that bind us together, even if we don’t see them. Carrington was a seer, able to perceive those connections that lie beyond ordinary perception. In her paintings, bodies are unstable, moving between genders, species, life, and death, yet—as some have been saying for years, but many of us are only now beginning to understand—this is not fantastical at all.
Carrington died in Mexico in 2011, one of the last remaining Surrealists. Throughout her life, she refused to explain her work—logic, after all, was an impediment to seeing—and she disliked any attempt to impose the order of language onto her visuals (which would, presumably, also include this essay). In seeing beyond the visible world, beyond the rational or comprehensible, Carrington leaves us only with abstract terms like “magic.” But perhaps magic is what happens when, as she put it shortly before her death, art “comes from somewhere else.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that “The Story of the Last Egg” will be on view at Gallery Wendi Norris in San Francisco; the exhibition will actually be on view at a Gallery Wendi Norris offsite location in New York. The text has been updated to reflect this change.