'The Lost Surrealist'
There are people who belong to a definite place and time. Marilyn Monroe was the Hollywood Golden Age. Vivien Westwood was the crown jewel of punk. And Leonora Carrington was the female personification of Surrealism.
The daughter of a Lancashire textile mogul, Leonora was disgusted by her parent’s social climbing and the gusto with which they planned her debutante ball. ‘All I could think about was how much my tiara hurt’, she wrote scathingly.
A desire to attend art school brought her to London, where she took up with a loose living cluster of bohemians. Next came an affair with the married painter, Max Ernst (she was 19, he was 46), which sent her father into a spiralling fury: he even tried to get Ernst arrested.
Undeterred, Leonora escaped with Ernst to Paris where she mixed with Dalí, Picasso, Buñuel, Miro, Man Ray and Breton. In their company her eccentricities really cartwheeled. At one gallery she arrived wearing nothing but a sheet which she dropped halfway through the evening. In a smart restaurant she slathered her feet in mustard. When guests visited she served them omelettes full of their own hair, cut while they were sleeping.
But a lover’s fantasy seldom lasts… especially not when Hitler is involved. When Ernst was arrested at the outbreak of WWII, Leonora became hysterical, ‘for 24 hours I indulged in voluntary vomiting induced by drinking orange blossom water’. Eventually she was rescued by friends who encouraged her to sell her house for a few francs, set her pet eagle free and join them en route to Madrid.
Unfortunately in Spain her mental condition deteriorated and she was committed to an asylum. Her panicked family sent Leonora’s nanny to retrieve her… by submarine.
Adamant not to return home, Leonora gave nanny the slip and bolted to the Mexican embassy where an acquaintance took pity on her, and married her so she could leave Europe.
It’s not just Leonora’s topsy-turvy half-real half-surreal life, rubbing shoulders with celebrities, that makes her interesting. Leonora had substance. An artist in her own right, she made tapestries, collages, sculptures, wrote articles, short stories, poetry. The Hearing Trumpet, her best-known novel, follows 92-year-old Marian Leatherby who is forcefully committed to a bizarre retirement home. Marian sails through the absurd with gentile sangfroid, waiting for a time when ‘the planet is peopled with cats, werewolves, bees, and goats. We all fervently hope that this will be an improvement on humanity.’
There’s a much-deserved resurgence in popularity of Leonora’s paintings, full of feather-soft, half-human dream-figures, floating in muted colours across cavasses. The Giantess sold for $1.5 million at Christie’s, and galleries have begun to curate retrospectives after years of neglect.
Leonora danced to the beat of her own drum. She was an exhibitionist who never indulged the vacuous art scene. She was a mistress who refused to be a muse (‘all that means is that you’re someone else’s object’). And she was a survivor, who lived to the ripe old age of 94.
(The Guardian of the Egg) (c. 1947), Leonora Carrington Private collection, Mexico
Photo Credits: Lee Miller 1937
Want more Leonora?
You can find a heartfelt love-letter to Leonora here
Delve into Joanna Moorehead's amazing and in-depth autobiography here
Or discover a Surrealist menu based off her colourful fiction over at The Paris Review here
Silver Press released the first complete edition of Leonora Carrington’s short stories, written throughout her life from her early years in Surrealist Paris to her late period in Dirty War-era Mexico City.
Or discover Leonora's classic of fantastic literature; The Hearing Trumpet.
Described as the occult twin to Alice in Wonderland,
published with an introduction by Ali Smith in Penguin Modern Classics.