LEONORA CARRINGTON: Surrealist, a Visual Poet

Calla Lily ArtArleen Solomon Rotchin1 Comment

Her style was said to be indecipherable because it depicted the artist’s inner world.

In 1939, she produced her first truly Surrealist work, The Inn of the Dawn Horse, a Self-Portrait.  Now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it shows an androgynous-looking woman seated in a room with a rocking horse on the wall, extending her hand to a hyena.

Leonora Carrington, the British-born Surrealist and onetime romantic partner of Max Ernst, paintings depicted women and half-human beasts floating in a dreamscape of images drawn from myth, folklore religious ritual and the occult. Carrington saw the work of German Surrealist artist Max Ernst at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London and was attracted to him before she met him.

In 1937, they met at a party in London, the two fell in love and ran off to Paris, where Ernst more than 25 years her senior, left his wife and introduced Carrington to the Surrealist circle.  ‘I learned about art and literature from Max.  He taught me everything.’

The couple collaborated and supported each other’s artistic development.  

With the outbreak of World War 11, Ernest who was German, was arrested by the French authorities for being a ‘hostile alien’.  With the intercession of Paul Eluard and other friends, he was discharged a few weeks later.  He was arrested again because his art was considered by the Nazis to be ‘degenerate’.  He escaped leaving Carrington behind, and fled to America with the help of Peggy Guggenheim who was a sponsor of the arts.

Carrington was devastated and fled to Spain.  Paralyzing anxiety and growing delusions culminated in her final breakdown. Her parents had her hospitalized. She was treated with powerful drugs, and after being released into the care of a nurse who took her to Lisbon, she ran away and sought refuge in the Mexican Embassy.  Meanwhile, Ernst married Peggy Guggenheim in New York in 1941.

Three years after being released from the asylum, Leonora Carrington wrote about her psychotic experience in her novel Down Below and created art to depict her experience.  

In 1973, Carrington designed a poster for the Women’s Liberation movement in Mexico, depicting a ‘new eve.’ She personally and primarily focused on psychic freedom, with an understanding that such freedom could not be achieved until political freedom is also accomplished. 

Her political commitment led her to winning the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Women’s Caucus for Art convention in New York in 1986.  

‘I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse…..I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.’

Carrington connected with a group of vibrant and creative European artists who had also fled to Mexico in search of asylum.  Some of her work from the 1940’s and 50’s contain groups of 3 women who are presumed to be paintings of herself, and friends Varo and photographer Kati Horna. 

She flourished in Mexico and painted fantastical compositions that portrayed metamorphoses.  

In 1946 she married Hungarian photographer Emerico Weisz and bore him two children.  Images of domesticity and motherhood tinged with magic and sorcery began to appear in her work at this time.  

In her 80’s and 90’s she produced large-scale bronze sculptures of fantastical quasi-human forms, both comic and horrific, like How Doth the Little Crocodile.  

Located on one of Mexico City’s most prominent avenues, that work depicts a lizardlike oarsman steering a crocodile vessel and its 5 lizardy passengers on a voyage to places unknown.

Carrington grew up in a grand house where her Irish nanny entranced her with folk tales.  Her parents sent her to convent schools, from which she was expelled for eccentric behaviour. Nuns at one school were uneasy at her ambidextrousness and her habit of mirror-writing.  She would later paint with both hands. 

From an early age, she rebelled against both her family and her religious upbringing. 

Her father was hostile to her developing interest in art which he thought ‘horrible and idiotic’.  Carrington said his thinking was that ‘you didn’t do art-if you did, you were either poor or homosexual, which were more or less the same sort of crime.’  She would later compare her father to a Mafioso.

Juggler  (1954)

Juggler (1954)

Leonora Carrington made history in 2005 when her painting Juggler (1954) sold at auction for $713,000 which was believed to be the highest paid price for a work by a living Surrealist artist.  

Throughout the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st, she was the subject of many exhibitions in Mexico and the United States.  

When she died in 2011 at 94 years old, Leonora Carrington was believed to be the last of the Surrealists.