She eventually persuaded her reluctant father to let her study art in London, his price was to force her to ‘come out’ as a debutante in 1935. Leonora was unimpressed at meeting the king and hated the frock she had to wear for her coming out ball. The occasion prompted her to write a story in which her place was taken by a smelly hyena, who had just eaten Leonora’s maid and wore the maid’s face to attend the ball. Everybody was too ‘polite’ to comment, until the hyena ate the face and escaped through an open window.
Leonora studied at Chlesea Art School and then under painter Amedee Ozenfant, who had set up a small school. She said that Ozenfant was the first person to not denigrate her need to be an artist and he taught her rigour in her work. Eventually she ran away to be an artist in Paris and lived with surrealist painter Max Ernst. Beginning her artistic life as a surrealist, she was able to let go of her prolific imagination and with it she ran much further than most of her fellow surrealists, whose work is often mundane by comparison. Some of her early paintings and stories were full of her anger towards her father and the English establishment.
During this period, Leonora formed strong friendships with the other surrealist women including Eileen Agar, Nush Eulard, Leonor Fini, Jacqueline Lamba, Lee Miller, Meret Oppenheim and Dora Maar. These women are now considered a surrealist group in their own right, apart from the men, though in her rebellious fashion Carrington declared, “I was never a Surrealist, I was just with Max”.
World War II was nearly her downfall. Her lover, Max Ernst was incarcerated; she lost her home and for a while her sanity. She too was incarcerated, in a lunatic asylum in Santander, where she was subjected to terrifying drug treatments. Eventually escaping, she entered into an arranged marriage so she could flee to the USA and then to Mexico where she spent most of her career. She exhibited widely and was admired by collectors especially Peggy Guggenheim and Edward James, who became her main patron.
In addition to her canvases, Leonora Carrington created murals, sculpture, tapestries, stage sets, books and prints. She wrote plays, novels and short stories and was regarded by the supremo of surrealism, Andre Breton, as the best writer of surrealist tales. After the war she no longer considered herself as a surrealist, she wanted freedom from their dogmas, their inherent misogyny and their interminable feuding. She remained friends with many, including Leonor Fini and Lee Miller.
In Mexico she was part of a group of European artists in exile. She befriended Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Hungarian photographers Kati Horna and Chiki Weisz. She married Chiki and they had two sons, though she never allowed family ties and duties to stop her painting. In fact her experience of motherhood enriched her creativity. She became close friends with Spanish surrealist Remedios Varo and they worked side by side and gave each other huge support and encouragement. Their work shows their similar interests in mythology, matriarchy and magical symbolism, though their styles are distinctive.
Orenstein, Gloria ‘Women of Surrealism’, Feminist Art Journal, spring 1973
Comments and further information about Leonora are very welcome.
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