English surrealist painter and sculptor regarded as a national treasure in Mexico
May 26th, 2011
May 26th, 2011
Soon after her coming-out ball at the Ritz hotel in London, Leonora Carrington, aged 20, went to see her father with some shocking news. She had fallen in love with the 46-year-old, married, surrealist painter Max Ernst. She intended to move to Paris with him and pursue a career as an artist. Her horrified father said two things to her: an injunction never again to darken his door, and a prediction that she would die penniless in a garret, as artists (in his opinion) inevitably did.
Leonora, who has died aged 94, never visited her father's house again, but her life ended neither in penury nor in a garret. Her canvases now fetch in excess of $1m. Although largely overlooked as an artist in Britain, she was regarded as a national treasure in Mexico, where she lived for about 70 years, was regularly invited to state occasions and received many national honours. In 2008 the main street in Mexico City hosted a seven-month homage to her work, its central reservation dotted with pieces of her witty and often animal-inspired sculptures (animals were a huge love, throughout her life).
After the showdown over Ernst, Leonora spent the rest of her life estranged from her father, the textiles magnate Harold Carrington. The only link she kept, and later regretted not having cherished more, was with her mother, Maurie Moorhead (my great-aunt). Nevertheless, she would regale visitors to her home in Mexico with anecdotes about her overbearing father and her three "difficult" brothers, and she always drew inspiration from her earliest experiences. While her paintings incorporated elements of Mexican culture – a Day of the Dead altar, a Mexican ruin – she strikingly referred back to her youth.
Her childhood home was Crookhey Hall, near Garstang, in Lancashire, where her Irish nanny, Mary Kavanaugh, wove a magic thread of Celtic tales through bedtimes. The house was a mid-19th-century Gothic pile, adorned with statues, engravings and stained-glass birds. This did not go unnoticed by the young Leonora. She drew the birds that surrounded her and, when she grew up, birds became a hallmark of her work.
Her parents were self-made millionaires who recognised their only daughter's potential to raise their social status. Only slightly shaken by her expulsion from two convent schools – the nuns at one, New Hall, near Chelmsford in Essex, told her parents that their daughter "would co-operate neither in work nor play" – the couple made plans to launch her as a debutante. Leonora rebelled, not for the first time. A truce was called, with the concession that she could study art, first in Florence and then at Amédée Ozenfant's school in London.
Leonora loved the art galleries of Italy (the colours she drank in on visits to Florentine galleries would still be adorning her canvases decades later) and the exacting teaching of Ozenfant. But while she was eagerly embracing a future as a painter, her parents were busily organising her presentation to George V at Buckingham Palace. During a visit to the royal enclosure at Ascot, she protested at the fact that women were not allowed to place their own bets, and sat resolutely reading Aldous Huxley's Eyeless in Gaza instead. During her coming-out ball, she plotted a short story (later published) in which she dressed a hyena in her trailing robes and sent the animal to the party in her place.
The International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington galleries in London in 1936 was a pivotal moment, introducing her to the work of Salvador Dalí, André Breton, Man Ray and Ernst, whose work she fell in love with. She met him at a dinner party. Within days they were a couple. They travelled first to Cornwall, where they encountered Man Ray, Lee Miller, Roland Penrose, Henry Moore, Paul Nash and Eileen Agar, and then to Paris, where their friends included Picasso, Dalí, Joan Miró, Breton, Leonor Fini and Marcel Duchamp. For the rebel from Lancashire, who had felt suffocated by her family, these were heady times. Some of her best-known paintings hail from this period, principally her self-portrait of 1937-38, which is now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
In 1938 Leonora and Ernst left Paris to live in the south of France, at St-Martin d'Ardèche, in a villa she bought after the sale of some of her paintings (at the time, she liked later to recall, her work was more popular than his). For a while, it was idyllic. But then the Nazis crossed into northern France. Ernst, a German national, was imprisoned by the Vichy French. He was later freed after the intervention of the art patron Peggy Guggenheim, who married him in 1941. Leonora fled to Spain, suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Santander. She later wrote about her horrific experiences of drug-induced epileptic shocks in a piece entitled Down Below.
The Carringtons, anxious about their daughter's wanderings across war-torn Europe, took the exotic step of sending her nanny to Spain in a submarine. Leonora was glad to see her, but once she got away from the hospital, she decided that the twin horrors of the war and her family made Europe uninhabitable. To ease her escape to the US, she married a Mexican diplomat, Renato Leduc, with whom she relocated to Mexico and at last found the space in which she could live, love, paint and write.
She found a new family among the artistic émigré community of Mexico City. After she and Leduc had amicably divorced, she married a photojournalist from Hungary, Emerico ("Chiki") Weisz, with whom she had two sons, Gabriel and Pablo. Other friends included the Spanish painter Remedios Varo and her poet husband Benjamin Péret, the Hungarian photographer Kati Horna, and the Mexican writer Octavio Paz and the artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
If the first two and a half decades of Leonora's life had been characterised by intense adventures, dramas and emotional upheavals, the remainder was comparatively stable – although safety, as she always said, was an illusion in any circumstances. Her marriage to Chiki lasted until his death in 2007.
The art collector and patron of surrealism Edward James was a fierce advocate of her talents who bought her works and became a close friend. Leonora built up relationships with galleries in New York and Chicago, where she spent extended periods, and in Mexico, and her work was exhibited across the US. In 1991 the Serpentine Gallery in London held an exhibition of her paintings, drawings and sculptures. Last year, an exhibition at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, entitled Surreal Friends, displayed her work alongside that of Varo and Horna.
Leonora detested what she called the "over-intellectualisation" of her work. She believed that its interpretation was in the eye, and the mind, of the beholder and, to that end, she resisted all attempts to get her to explain, or dissect, what she had painted or sculpted. Like her, the work was funny, witty, wry and wise. Like her, it was questioning, probing, disquieting and complex.
Leonora was renowned in our family as its black sheep. But when I arrived on her doorstep in Mexico City in 2006 – a cousin from England she had never met – she could not have been more welcoming. I hope and believe she felt that in kindling a friendship with me, she was building a bridge back to her family and her native country. In the time I spent with her in her extraordinarily dark and chilly house (a little bit of Lancashire, teapot and all, in the centre of Mexico City), she would often talk about how, through nine decades of trying to work out what life was about, all she had succeeded in discovering was that we were merely naked apes who knew little about life and even less about death. She was the most honest, and the bravest, person I ever met.
She is survived by her sons.
"Leonora Carrington once served her guests a hair omelette. My kind of woman"
June 5th, 2011
June 5th, 2011
Don't it always seem to go, you don't know what you've got till it's gone? The recent death in Mexico City of the British surrealist Leonora Carrington, at the age of 94, was the first reminder to many of us that she was still alive. Carrington was a living fossil from the early 20th century, swimming quietly in a distant sea.
Meeting the late Bill Deedes, one of the great figures in British journalism, I felt a stirring of awe that the old boy winking cheerfully at me started out reporting Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia. The same frisson stirs with the knowledge that, padding about somewhere on the planet, was a woman who ran away to Paris in the 1930s to shack up with Max Ernst.
The daughter of a Lancashire cloth tycoon, Carrington decided from a fairly early age that the life of a debutante was not for her and absconded to France to become an artist. She was what we now call a "wild child", and the stories about her wayward youth are glorious, if perhaps semi-apocryphal. Did she really send a hyena in a frock to her coming-out ball instead of herself? Did she really keep a pet eagle? Did she really serve her houseguests omelettes filled with their own hair, snipped off in the night? Did she really show up at parties naked, with her feet painted with mustard? I get the odd story mixed up, I must confess, with ones about Syd Barrett.
As with Barrett, it wasn't all fun and games, though. Ernst was interned, and Carrington fled from the Nazis to Madrid, where she was locked in a lunatic asylum, strapped to a bed and forcibly medicated. She escaped and, after marrying a Mexican diplomat, left Europe for Mexico City, where she stayed for good.
I came to Carrington through her writing. An old friend, years ago, pressed into my hand a green-spined Virago paperback called The Hearing Trumpet. She told me that, for everyone she knew who had read it, it had become a favourite. I read it – and followed suit.
Carrington wrote The Hearing Trumpet when she was young; but, unusually, its protagonist Marian Leatherby is very old: 92, two years younger than her creator would be at the time of her death. The plot, near impossible to properly describe, begins with Marian carted off to an old folks' home by her ungrateful son Galahad. In short order, there follow witches, poisoned brownies, a winking nun, an army of cats, a trip to the underworld, an ice age, and a woman with the face of a wolf.
Amid this surreal swirl, the joy of the novel is Marian's voice, pragmatic, spry and funny: "The fact that I have no teeth and never could wear dentures does not in any way discomfort me. I don't have to bite anybody and there are all sorts of edible foods easy to procure and digestible to the stomach. Mashed vegetables, chocolate and bread dipped in warm water make the base of my simple diet. I never eat meat as I think it is wrong to deprive animals of their life when they are so difficult to chew anyway."
Pragmatic, spry and funny are epithets that apply across Carrington's work. Even at her most imaginative and mysterious, there's a grounding humour, a matter-of-factness in counterpoint to the weird stuff. That chair may be sprouting human limbs, but other than that, it's a very workaday chair.
Her paintings look as if they date from way before the era they actually emerged from. Almost medieval, they are filled with hooded and cowled figures, with flattened perspectives, monks and strange formal gardens. Her half-animal, half-human creatures, unheimlich yet seldom outright grotesque, remind you of Hieronymus Bosch. They also have a dash of the primitivism that enraptured her contemporaries and near-contemporaries.
Yet Carrington, as her distant relative Joanna Moorhead wrote in her fine and feeling obituary for this paper, wasn't interested in intellectualising her work. And looking over some of it does make me think how rich and interesting surrealism still seems – richer, with its experimental rummagings into the id, than the self-conscious, circular gestures of much of the postmodern and conceptual art that was to come.
Recent photographs of her showed the same handsome, fierce, intelligent face as she had in youth; except now her skin had the monumental quality of a woodcarving. She was still making art.
Leonora Carrington [Wikipedia]