Friday, 5 April 2013

Leonora Carrington. The 31 Women Project, Number Seven - 6 April is her Birthday

Leonora Carrington was a rebel of the most superior and committed type. Born in England in 1917, into a wealthy family, she would not submit to the restrictive propriety that was expected of upper-middle class girls in those days. She needed to be creative and was totally out of place in a conventional family, the one thing she could share with them was a love of horse riding. The horse became symbolic of her freedom in many of her paintings.  As a child, only her Irish grandmother’s fables allowed her imagination free reign. She drew on the walls until her mother, an amateur painter, gave her paper and paints. She wrote in mirror writing and with either hand, which freaked the nuns out at her convent school. She started smoking aged nine and later, when sent to a posh finishing school, she ran away.

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.
There is nothing commonplace about Leonora Carrington’s paintings, which are filled with mixed mythologies and metaphors from as many sources as there are human tribes and beliefs, all blended and sieved into the rich cauldron of her imagination. She would let them out into the world only on her terms and never explained her pictures. Her imagery is powerful and speaks for itself, it is up to her audience to interpret what they are saying.

She was a successful artist in Mexico, in that land of magic and mythology they adopted her as one of her own. Even today she is hardly known in England, the land of her birth. The Tate gallery in London only have two drawings and one painting by her, and that is on loan from a private collection. She is an internationally recognised artist and is one of a select few women painters whose work can sell for over a million pounds. Perhaps that is why the principal gallery in the land of her birth have so few works by Leonora Carrington. They have missed the boat; her work is probably seen as too expensive, for a woman artist.

Sources include:

Leonora Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet 2005 Penguin Modern Classics

Whitney Chadwick  Women Artists & the Surrealist Movement 1993 T&H

Orenstein, Gloria ‘Women of Surrealism’, Feminist Art Journal, spring 1973

Comments and further information about Leonora are very welcome.

You can read about each of the 31 women as their birthdays arrive, earlier ones remain on this blog



  1. Hi, Thank you for your insightful writing and work on your Blog - very interesting indeed. You probably know that there is an exhibition of Carrington's work at the Irish Museum of Modern Art which you would, I am sure enjoy!

    1. Hi Anon,
      Sorry for not responding, I managed to miss your comment! Glad your enjoying the blog - not many people respond so thanks.
      I'd love to get to Dublin for the Carrington exhibit, but will probably have to settle for buying the catalogue.

    2. Just an update, I did manage to go to Dublin on 13 December and saw Leonora's exhibition at the Dublin Museum of Modern Art. It was great and wonderful to see 50 of her paintings in one place! I will post review here soon.