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Giving form to her rebellious spirit: Leonora Carrington

Green Tea, 1942

Leonora Carrington (b. 1917) was a surrealist artist whose rebellious spirit manifested itself through fantastical visual creations and writings inspired by myth, her lived experience and her unconscious mind.

Carrington rebelled against her aristocratic upbringing in Britain to become a leading figure in the Surrealism movement. She refused to be a muse, and fought to be respected as an artist in her own right. Over her long career as a painter and author, she tapped into her unconscious and the occult to create a personal style of visual and written language. Her mystical ways made her difficult to grasp, but she was undeniably driven to survive, to create, and to live the life of her choosing.

“I’m as mysterious to myself as I am mysterious to others.”

Carrington was born into a wealthy family, the daughter of an English industrialist and an Irish Catholic mother. Her upbringing was strict; Carrington would say repressive. From a young age, Carrington rebelled against the rituals and traditions of high British society. Carrington took to drawing and writing to speak out against the system in which she felt trapped. At school, she constantly challenged and disobeyed her teachers. She was expelled from two convents for offenses including but not limited to: claiming to be the reincarnation of a said, writing backwards and attempting to levitate.

Her first encounter with surrealism happened at age 10, when a surrealist painting in a gallery window caused her to look twice. After a long struggle with her parents, Carrington finally convinced them to let her study art, first in Florence and then in London. When she was 18, Carrington’s mother gifted her the book Surrealism by Herbert Read, which contained visuals and writings from the early leaders of the Surrealist movement. In this group, she found kindred spirits. They asserted that artistic genius stemmed from the unconscious, freeing the artist to tap into raw impulses, desires and fears. Their role was to give form to the unconscious through dream-like imagery that combined elements of real and unreal.

Carrington met Max Ernst, the well-known Dada turned Surrealist painter who was 26 years her senior, following an exhibition of Surrealist work in London in 1937. A passionate romance ensued, leading to Ernst separating from his wife, marrying Carrington and whisking her away to France. They enmeshed themselves in the Surrealist community where Carrington absorbed the techniques and teachings like a sponge. From the outset, Carrington made it clear of her intentions to be taken seriously as an artist, not simply a muse for the male-dominated, often misogynistic cadre. “I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse… I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist… I painted for myself…I never believed anyone would exhibit or buy my work.” Carrington created her first major Surrealist work during this time, titled Self-Portrait (Inn of the Dawn Horse). It shows a confident Carrington seated with her spirit animal, the hyena, with a free-running white horse in the background, undoubtedly a reference of a confident break with her past.

Self-Portrait (Inn of the Dawn Horse), 1937-38

The onset of WWII was a disruptive and extremely challenging time for Carrington. Ernst, who was formerly a German soldier in the first world war, was arrested by the French under suspicion of espionage. His established French connections helped his release, but he was detained again shortly after by the Gestapo, Nazi police. This time, he was freed from custody by Peggy Guggenheim, his collector and benefactor, and extradited to the United States where he remained throughout the war. This separation marked the end of Carrington’s marriage to Ernst, and she found herself alone, depressed, and in fear of the Nazi occupation of France.

Carrington fled to Spain, but shortly after arriving, she suffered a nervous breakdown. She was institutionalized and subjected to draconian, traumatizing shock therapy and injection treatments. She recovered and was released, desperate for a new start. Her opportunity came through a chance encounter with a Mexican poet and diplomat named Renato Leduc. He offered Carrington an escape from Europe if she agreed to marry him. She did, and the two moved to Mexico in 1942.

Though Carrington had grown up a continent away in a very different climate and culture, she adapted well to Mexico. After all it was, as fellow surrealist Andre Breton put it, the most surreal place in the world. Carrington separated from Leduc, remarried and started a family. She would spend the rest of her life based in Mexico. In Mexico in the 1940s and 50s, Carrington started a productive period of her career, spurred by collaborations with Mexican artists and other European émigrés like Remedios Varo and Kati Horna.

Remedios Varo wearing mask created by Leonora Carrington, photographed by Kati Horna

A vocal advocate of women’s rights, Carrington was a leading figure in the women’s liberation movement in Mexico during the early 1970s. She created an iconic poster in 1972 called Mujeres Conciencia (Women’s Awareness). Accompanying the piece, she said “If all the women of the world decide to control the population, to refuse war, to refuse discrimination of sex or race and thus force men to allow life to survive on this planet, that would be a miracle indeed.”

Mujeres Conciencia, 1972

Carrington fiercely resisted explaining her work, often because she created from her unconscious without intention. That said, there are clearly two dominant themes consistent throughout her work: metamorphosis and magic. Her work also features influences from elements of her Celtic background, Renaissance paintings she saw in Italy, Mayan folk art, medieval alchemy, and Jungian psychology.

Carrington passed away in 2011 at the age of 94. During her lifetime, Carrington created over 2000 works of art and wrote over 10 books, including a children’s book titled The Milk of Dreams. The book is a compilation of short stories with imagery inspired by the wall art she painted on her children’s bedroom walls and the stories she told them. This book served as the inspiration behind this year’s Venice Art Biennale, the world’s first and longest running art biennale.

The Venice Biennale occurs every other year in Venice, Italy. This year’s Biennale, the 59th, opened on April 23 and will run until November 27th.

Watch Carrington push back on “intellectualizing” art in an interview with her British cousin:


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