June 2, 2011

The Surreal World of Leonora Carrington

Leonora CarringtonIt was a sad day in Mexico City, this weekend, as people gathered at the Palacio de Bellas Artes to honor Leonora Carrington.

The great Surrealist artist and prolific author died of complications following pneumonia, at 94 years old, on May 25th, 2011. She had lived and worked in Mexico for most of her life.

Leonora was born in Britain, educated in Italy, then moved to France. She had fled to Spain during World War Two and been institutionalized as insane. She escaped with the help of a friend and spent time in Portugal, before making her way across the Atlantic into the Americas, with the help of a Mexican diplomat. Another Mexican, the poet Renato Leduc, married her, in order to get her out of Portugal and into the New World. Though they dissolved the union as soon as they were here.

She lived in New York, USA, for a while, before moving on to Mexico City, Mexico. Here her wanderings and flights came to a halt. She had found somewhere that she could call home.

She arrived in Mexico in 1942. It was here that she married her third husband, Emericko Weisz. Her two children were born in Mexico City. It was here that she settled and was able to produce her greatest portfolio of work. To those who knew her, it was in Mexico when she was finally happy.

'The Recital of Dreams'

But all of that is Leonora the woman. What most people look for is Leonora the artist. It is this that made her world famous. Christies sell her work for $1.5m; she's received a stream of awards and accolades, including a knighthood from her native Britain and the USA's National Prize for Arts. Salvador Dalí called her 'a most important woman artist', while Max Ernst left his wife to marry her.

The poet, Homero Aridjis, called her, "The last great living Surrealist... a living legend."

Her lifetime love of art had not seemed likely to result in world fame. For a start, she was a woman and, in the male-orientated art world, woman tended to be the models. Nevertheless, Leonora managed to persuade her family to let her study at the Academy of Art, in Florence, Italy, and the Chelsea School of Art, in London, England. It was through a fellow student there that Leonora met Max Ernst and entered the realm of Surrealism.


She was 19 and he was 46. They described themselves as soul mates and ran away to Paris to be together. Max divorced his wife and married Leonora, who embraced his art as much as the man himself.

She soon had exhibitions in both Paris and Amsterdam, while she applied herself to living the life of a Surrealist woman. In one notable incident, she cut off the hair of house-guests while they slept, then served it back to them, in an omelette, for breakfast.

The couple were living in Provence, France, when the Second World War erupted over Europe. As a German, Max Ernst was immediately arrested by the French, as a 'foreign alien'. He was soon released, but then France was occupied by the Germans and he was arrested again. This time it was for creating 'degenerate art' and he disappeared for several weeks.

Leonora fled to Spain, where she had a nervous breakdown in the Madrid offices of the British Embassy. She was taken to an asylum, in Santander, Spain, where her medication (later banned) caused spasms and hallucinations. In her biography, she explained that she was 'rescued by her nanny who arrived in a submarine'.


In reality, her father had sent a business contact to bust her out and sneak her onto a boat into South Africa. She gave him the slip and jumped into a taxi. Then Leonora said the first thing which came to mind, "Take me to the Mexican Embassy!" Which is how she came to be helped by Mexican diplomats and briefly in a marriage of convenience with Renato Leduc.

Leonora sorted her head out in Mexico City. Here no-one was saying, 'but you're only a woman', because the like of Frida Kahlo and Remedios Varo had already forged those pathways. She was free to spend the rest of her life creating spectacular works of art.

The legacy of this can be seen all over the city, in free-standing public sculptures.

'Los Monjes (The Monks)', in Mexico City

'How Doth the Crocodile?' and 'No Hay Lugar (No Place Anymore)', in Mexico City

There are directions on finding all 15 pieces, in Mexico City, here. There is also a permanent collection of her art at the Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno (Museum of Modern Art), in Chapultepec Park.

She was a seeker and a searcher. In her work, she always sought to define moments when one plane of consciousness blends with another.
Whitney Chadwick, 'Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement' (1991)

Leonora's genius found its expression in tapestries, collages, written articles, stories, essays and poetry, as well as the painting and sculptures. She penned nine books, and was featured in many others.

'Temple of the World'
'Temple of the World'

There have been thousands of articles, theses and books written about this marvel of the art world. Leonora Carrington had a stark message for those intent on intellectualizing her paintings, "You're wasting your time." Or, perhaps more eloquently put, in her book, 'The Hearing Trumpet', "Darling, don’t be philosophical, it doesn’t suit you, it makes your nose red."

Leonora Carrington was one of Mexico's greatest artists. She will be missed.

Leonora Carrington

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