On the trail of Britain's lost surrealist in Mexico
On the trail of Britain's lost surrealist in Mexico
By Liz Dodd
16 SEPTEMBER 2018 • 8:00AM
Andre Breton, father of the Surrealist movement, once described Mexico as “the most surrealist country in the world.”
It certainly didn’t seem that way when I arrived aboard a cargo boat across the Sea of Cortez. Nearing the end of an around-the-world bike ride, I had just cycled the length of the Baja Peninsula in searing hot, desert heat. That really was a surrealist landscape, its Dali-esque boulder stacks and blunt cactuses springing out of the sand like sculptures. But Mazatlan, where I disembarked, was a resort town dominated by condos: I lowered my expectations, anticipating a gentle, if dull, ride across the Sierra Madre plateau to Mexico City. What I was to find proved Breton exactly right: a vibrant art world hidden away in the Mexican mountains, strung together along a trail left by Britain’s lost Surrealist.
The trail began in Zacatecas, a spectacularly pretty silver town whose centre of brightly coloured colonial-era cottages and soft-pink baroque church fronts is on the Unesco World Heritage list. The town is concentrated into a narrow valley, which makes the middle feel like it is being squeezed until art and music spill out onto the cobbled streets. At Lucky Luciano, an Italian restaurant spread across the floors of an old townhouse, paintings are hung so close together you can’t see the walls; at Acropolis, locals drink coffee surrounded by Dalis and Miros.
“You should see the art gallery,” my host, a fellow cyclist called Pancho, told me one morning, so I delayed my departure and went instead to the Museo Pedro Coronel. The collection, which once belonged to one of Mexico’s most esteemed modern artists, a sometime Muralist and ally of the nascent Surrealist movement, sat in a humble gallery that mixed indigenous and modern art. A room of Japanese Buddhas led me to a room full of Hogarth cartoons, and, in the middle, a cool avenue of Surrealism showcased works by Miro, Dali, Picasso and, to my amazement, Britain’s lost Surrealist, Leonora Carrington.
Carrington, who moved to Mexico early in her career, and was critically overlooked in her lifetime, has been an obsession of mine since I read her playful novel The Hearing Trumpet. She lived in Europe with her lover, Max Ernst, until his arrest by the Nazis and subsequent escape to the USA drove her to Mexico. She was joined there by scores of other Surrealists - as well as Breton, Leon Trotsky, Alice Rahon and Cesar Moro - all drawn by the country’s offbeat beauty.
Joanna Moorhead, Carrington's cousin and author of The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington (Virago), told me: “She loved the exoticness of the place; she loved the markets, she loved the way Mexico – like Ireland, where she had spent a lot of time in her childhood – was a place where the real and the magical are inextricably intertwined.”
This was perfectly showcased in the next town on my tour, San Luis Potosi, which recently opened a museum dedicated to Carrington. Like Zacatecas, San Luis’ brightly-coloured streets and chapels, and its bustling Mezcalerias and plazas, overflow with art. The Carrington museum itself sits at the far end of Zaragoza Avenue, the longest pedestrian street in Latin America, a lush avenue where taco sellers shelter in the shade of the trees. Built inside a converted prison, the museum is largely dedicated to her sculpture; the characters pulled out of her dreams stand silently around every corner. Best of all is a multimedia installation that walks you through one of her visions: a gallery where animated characters from her paintings spring from wall to wall.
I learned that Carrington had a house in Cuernavaca, a rich, breezy town on the outskirts of Mexico City, so I diverted there last. Tempting stops lay all along the route - a hilly ride east would take me to a Surrealist castle built by the British poet Edward James in the rainforest near Xilitla; a gravel road south led to The Chapel of Jimmy Ray, a psychedelic house-slash-gallery by Anado McLaughlin. But there was more than enough to see in Cuernavaca. At the Brady Museum, a mansion belonging to the eccentric American art collector, works by Frida Kahlo sat alongside ethnic art from Papua New Guinea; at the Palacio de Cortés a vibrant mural by Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera, blended seamlessly into its 16th century surroundings.
Carrington, who was active in the Mexican women’s liberation movement, wanted to start a women’s commune in the town. But her dream went unrealised: she settled eventually in Mexico City, where I ended my trip, weaving nervously through its hectic traffic to my Airbnb apartment. Appropriately enough, the man who owns it is an artist himself, currently providing art therapy to prisoners with mental illnesses. As we sat in his studio apartment drinking absinthe and listening to music, talking about what it was like to cycle across Kazakhstan, surrounded by sketches and clouds of cigarette smoke, I was forced to agree with Breton: I had cycled across Leonora Carrington’s Mexico, and it was the most surrealist country in the word.