Artist Spotlight: Leonora Carrington

TheGiantess

In this week’s ‘Artist Spotlight’ we’ll be focusing on the artist, Leonora Carrington. First flourishing amongst the Surrealists of Paris in the 1930s, Carrington would create a body of work which shifts between feminism and the surreal, auto-biography and fantasy. 

 A rebellious and charismatic force, Leonora Carrington would go against the grain from adolescence. Brought up in Crookhey Hall, a Gothic mansion situated in Lancashire, the artist had a privileged and somewhat sheltered childhood. Expelled consecutively from two convents for disobedient behaviour, Carrington was sent by her family to a finishing school in Florence. Upon her return to England, Carrington was presented at court and received a debutante ball at the Ritz, an upper-class tradition later scathingly related in her short story, ‘The Debutante’ (1924).

Carrington was studying at an art school in London by 1936, the year in which she first encountered Surrealism. The Surrealists were showing in London for the first time and her mother gave her a copy of the exhibition catalogue. The painting upon the cover, Max Ernst’s Two Children Menaced by Nightingale, resonated immediately with Carrington, who felt the sensation ‘like a burning, inside; you know how when something really touches you, it feels like burning.’ Soon after, Carrington met the artist in person at a dinner party. Though Ernst was married, the pair rapidly fell in love and escaped to Paris, much to the disdain of her family. In Paris, Carrington made her official entry into Breton’s Surrealist circle. With their rejection of the bourgeois and established authorities, Carrington found a movement which she could both sympathise with and support.

For the following two years, Carrington actively mixed with the Surrealist circle and began to contribute work. She showed her paintings for the first time at the Surrealist exhibitions in Paris and Amsterdam in 1937 and, in Breton’s Anthology of Black Humour (1940), ‘The Debutante’ features as the first of only two works by female contributors. The short narrative centres around a young woman from an upper-class family dreading her official entrance into society – overtly linking to Carrington’s own adolescence. With the debutante ball fast approaching, she befriends a hyena at the zoo and persuades it to take her place. To disguise itself, the hyena eats the family’s maid and adopts her face as a mask. Though a surreal plot, the narrative is concerned with social issues – namely class inequalities and the performative aspects of gender.

Eventually, Carrington’s relationship with Ernst would deteriorate during the war; sent to an internment camp by the French government in 1939 as an enemy alien, Ernst was briefly released before being rearrested by the Vichy regime. Contact lost, Carrington suffered a breakdown and was urged by friends to seek safety in Madrid. Carrington’s mental state worsened, however, and she was forcibly incarcerated in a Santander mental asylum. The descent into madness, deemed by Marina Warner as ‘the most desirable ambitions of Surrealism,’ would later be detailed in the novella, Down Below. 

Following her escape from Santander, Carrington would live briefly in New York where many Surrealists had escaped to from Europe. After contributing heavily to the movement there, Mexico was Carrington’s next stop and there she also joined an active Surrealist circle, including the poet Benjamin Péret and fellow artist Remedios Varo. It would be the country in which she would marry, have children, and write her only full-length novel, The Hearing Trumpet. Her artistic production also continued to develop. In 1963, she created a mural entitled The Magical World of the Mayas for the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City; its imagery drew not only upon Mexico but also upon Carrington’s own British and Irish heritage. Active in fighting for human and women’s rights, the artist would leave the country in protest against the student massacre of 1968 but returned a year later. Carrington spent the majority of her remaining life in Mexico and exhibited continuously in the country from 1950.

    Her artwork began to gather recognition before her death in 2011; her painting The Giantess, for instance, sold at auction in 2009 for over one million pounds. Similarly, her written work began to attract critical attention across the late 1980s and early 1990s following reprinting under the feminist publishing house, Virago. The revival of Carrington’s work highlights its importance not just within the context of Surrealism but also within the contemporary discourse of feminist and modernist writing.

Images in order L-R: Detail from The Giantess (1947), The House Opposite (1934), Self-Portrait (1937-8), Syssigy (1945), Bird Bath II (1978), Portrait of Max Ernst (1939).

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