Discover Leonora Carrington, Britain’s Lost Surrealist Painter

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

In some ways, Sur­re­al­ist Leono­ra Car­ring­ton’s sto­ry is a famil­iar one, giv­en her gen­der and gen­er­a­tion.

A cre­ative young woman, sti­fled by her con­ven­tion­al upbring­ing, escapes to Paris, falls in love with an old­er male artist, gains a degree of recog­ni­tion des­tined always to be small­er than that of her cel­e­brat­ed lover’s, suf­fers hard­ships, con­tin­ues work­ing, lives a very long time and is the sub­ject of near­ly as many exhi­bi­tions in the decade and a half fol­low­ing her death as in the 70 years pre­ced­ing it.

Cer­tain­ly, Car­ring­ton, who died in 2011, would be deeply ran­kled by this, or any attempt to con­dense her nar­ra­tive into an eas­i­ly-grasped pack­age. Wit­ness the brusque way she rejects her younger cousin  Joan­na Moor­head’s invi­ta­tions, above, to describe the inspi­ra­tion behind var­i­ous can­vas­es:

You’re try­ing to intel­lec­tu­al­ize some­thing, des­per­ate­ly, and you’re wast­ing your time! That’s not a way of under­stand­ing to make …a sort of mini log­ic. You’ll nev­er under­stand by that road.

The sto­ry of how Moor­head con­nect­ed with her noto­ri­ous cousin is a fas­ci­nat­ing one.

Grow­ing up in Eng­land, Moor­head knew next to noth­ing about the fam­i­ly’s absent black sheep — who had tak­en up with the 46-year-old Max Ernst at the age of 20, hob­nobbed with Picas­so, Mar­cel Duchamp and Andre Bre­ton in Paris, and wound up in Mex­i­co City after WWII.

All she was told was that Car­ring­ton, known to the fam­i­ly as Prim, had “run off with an artist to become his mod­el.”

As Moor­head writes in The Sur­re­al Life of Leono­ra Car­ring­ton

…there were occa­sion­al snatch­es: a hushed phone call where the word ‘Mex­i­co’ was just audi­ble; a whis­pered con­ver­sa­tion on the sofa after Sun­day lunch between (great aunt) Mau­rie and (grand­moth­er) Miri­am. There were guf­fawas occa­sion­al­ly from (uncle) Ger­ard and my father: “And then she paint­ed a crea­ture with three breasts!”

In 2006, Moor­head was at a par­ty, mak­ing polite con­ver­sa­tion with anoth­er guest, an art his­to­ri­an who lived in Mex­i­co, “scrap(ing) togeth­er a few ques­tions about the only Mex­i­can artist I knew any­thing about — Fri­da Kahlo”, when she sud­den­ly remem­bered her bohemi­an and sel­dom spo­ken of rel­a­tive, who might even be dead by now for all she knew…

Her fel­low guest was amazed by both the blood con­nec­tion and Moor­head­’s igno­rance, describ­ing Car­ring­ton as Mexico’s most famous liv­ing artist, and a “nation­al trea­sure” who Mex­i­co hap­pi­ly claimed as one of its own.

Gob­s­macked, Moor­head Googled “Leono­ra Car­ring­ton”, dis­cov­er­ing a wealth of pho­tos from var­i­ous phas­es of life, as well as the prodi­gious out­put from her brush:

A strange, Hierony­mus Bosch-style world filed with horse-like crea­tures who float­ed, danced and curled their way across alien landscapes…Some of her pic­tures depict­ed unfa­mil­iar and sin­is­ter-look­ing worlds: one showed a coun­try with. Red sky and amber hills across which trapised a pro­ces­sion of peo­ple wear­ing white robes. More fig­ures, wear­ing black, hud­dled around a huge eunuch like crea­ture, while an out­size turquoise snake unfurled itself dra­mat­i­cal­ly in mid-air. There seemed to be var­i­ous ele­ments com­pet­ing to be the cen­tre of the action in that paint­ing: a globe, a God-like effi­gy and a cathe­dral all nes­tled below a rain­bow. And the sto­ry, what­ev­er it was, didn’t end there because (Car­ring­ton) had paint­ed an under­world in which more peo­ple (dead, pre­sum­ably) seemed to have been trans­formed into ani­mals with pointy, black heads. They were crawl­ing, or try­ing to crawl, and their efforts were being watched, omi­nous­ly, by a sharp-toothed, one-eyed tiger. 

Dri­ven to find out more, Moor­head trav­eled to Mex­i­co City, where Car­ring­ton had lived off and on since 1942. Her cousin was now in her late 80s, iso­lat­ed with an infirm sec­ond hus­band, but still paint­ing and cham­pi­oning Sur­re­al­ism as a visu­al expres­sion that couldn’t be cap­tured with words:

There was no soft­ness around the edges with Leono­ra; she had tak­en a hard path, suf­fered a great deal as a result, and she wore her tough­ness like a badge of hon­our she had earned from her­self. It is far more of an hon­our than the cer­tifi­cate Blu-Tacked to her cup­board door, the hon­our the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment had giv­en her; it was cer­tain­ly more of an hon­our than the OBE she had belat­ed­ly been award­ed by the British, receiv­ing it on a vis­it from Prince Charles on a vis­it he made to Mex­i­co in 2000. She was bemused by these late acco­lades, but nev­er impressed by them. Ear­ly on in her life, she had decid­ed there was only one thing she could ever rely on, and that was the stee­li­ness in her heart. Exter­nal events, the trap­pings of wealth and suc­cess, the opin­ions of oth­ers, all these were swept away, dis­missed, ignored. She was as uncon­cerned by the approval of oth­ers as by their dis­ap­proval.

See more of Leono­ra Carrington’s work here.

Lis­ten to Joan­na Moor­head inter­viewed about Leono­ra Car­ring­ton on the Great Women Artists Pod­cast (with the under­stand­ing that the sub­ject would have resist­ed that gen­der-based cat­e­go­riza­tion…). And read more about her at The New York­er.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The For­got­ten Women of Sur­re­al­ism: A Mag­i­cal, Short Ani­mat­ed Film

When The Sur­re­al­ists Expelled Sal­vador Dalí for “the Glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of Hit­ler­ian Fas­cism” (1934)

Three Female Artists Who Helped Cre­ate Abstract Expres­sion­ism: Lee Kras­ner, Elaine de Koon­ing & Helen Franken­thaler

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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