Art, Books

Surrealism sans machismo

Leonora Carrington (1917- 2011) was the last of the great surrealists. Her paintings can be found in the collections of the Prado Madrid, MOMA New York, in Buenes Aires, Washington, the Guggenheim in Venice, Tokyo and Mexico City. She significantly influenced the painters Max Ernst and Remedios Varo. In Mexico she is a household name, where before her death she was regarded as the finest living painter. Salvador Dali called her “the most important female artist”. In 2005 her painting The Juggler sold for the highest price ever paid worldwide for a living surrealist painter. She was also a wonderful writer and her comic novel The Hearing Trumpet (published by Penguin Modern Classics) is a riot of English irony. It is a narrative, written in the 1950s, that uses magic realism long before Marquez. She wrote an absurdist and fantastical play called The Invention of Mole (1957), and also collaborated with Octavio Paz. André Breton included one of her short stories in his seminal Anthology of Black Humour (one of only two women and the only English writer, save for Swift, Lewis Carroll and Arthur Cravan). Björk sings praises of Carrington’s humour and lawlessness. Between 1937 and 1940 she wrote literal and surreal fairy stories in French that were circulated in Surrealist publications. Bunuel once said of her work “it liberates us from the miserable reality of our days”.

Carrington was also, as it happens, British. Tate Modern has in their collection precisely two pen and ink drawings. Her only solo exhibition in the UK was at the Serpentine for three weeks in January 1992. All her writing, except The Hearing Trumpet, is out of print in English. Her neglect in this country is a disgrace. Thankfully Tate Liverpool is mounting an exhibition of her paintings, sculpture, short stories, manuscripts and films next month (6 March 2015 to 31st May 2015) which may go some way to a much needed re-assessment in the homeland of this internationally regarded polymath artist.

She was a surrealist from 1936. Surrealists searched for the marvellous in spaces where the curse of reason had yet to penetrate. They set out to ridicule Western confidence in reason (and the categorisation by which the complexities of life were neutralised and made safe) by use of the irrational, the spontaneous, the dream-like and the unconscious. Carrington portrayed humans and animals fused in grotesque and comic ways. Her haunting dark paintings are fearsome and humorous with hybrid creatures, half animal half human, in otherworldly settings. They reveal the animal nature of humans and the social nature of animals. She increasingly examined metamorphosis via the fusion of traditions such as medieval alchemy, Mexican folk art, Celtic lore and occultist motifs. Her unpredictable and mysterious bestiary is an illuminism of lucid madness, a representation of fairy tales and the terrors reading them can unleash. The photograph above, taken in 1945, shows her before her version of the thirteenth century European legend The Temptation of St. Anthony. He is portrayed as a frail old man (with three heads) under an umbrella-like monastic robe, with pig and desert.

If she was a literary painter, she was certainly a visual writer. Her marvellous comic novel The Hearing Trumpet was written by her in the early 1950s seated day after day in a café in Mexico City, when she was in her thirties. The heroine is a 92 year old English feminist, Marian Leatherby, held captive in a medieval Spanish castle which has been turned into a home “financed by a prominent American cereal company” for old ladies. She has been forced into this institution by her son and daughter-in-law, who despise her, simply for their convenience. Her friend Carmella (based on Carrington’s great friend the Surrealist painter Remedios Varo) has various audacious plans to spring Marian from her incarceration involving machine guns, helicopters, disguising as a nun etc. The home is run by the sinister and ineffectual Dr Gambit and the only thing he requires of the inhabitants is to conform ”personality is a vampyre” he says. Marian is unable by temperament, and with her horror of institutions, to conform and the novel advocates a simple, yet devastating, philosophy: independent thought. The old ladies in this home do not conform to type either. Conventional novels characterise old women as harmless old biddies or witches or madwomen or senile. This novel by contrast is a celebration of unfettered old age “I drank glass after glass of rich Portuguese wine occasionally washed down with a tiny French éclair.” The men, by contrast, are tedious and full of their own self importance and far less interesting than their wives, mothers and sisters. The inhabitants of the home rise up against their oppressors, perform strange dances that unleash ancient magic resulting in a joyful anarchic mutiny in society and a new ice age that reverses the terrestrial order. The “infuriated ecclesiastics and secret police” are beaten back. Marian finds the Holy Grail and is rescued by an ark that has been floated in from Venice by a man called Marlborough with a wolf-faced woman. The rational has fully given way to the bizarre.

Carrington was no stranger to enforced incarceration within institutions. Perceived to be a problem child her exasperated parents sent this girl who loathed authority to a string of boarding schools. The nuns at her convent thought her independence was evidence of “mental deficiency.” They were disturbed that she could write with both hands and her refusal to accept their teaching was denounced as insolence. Her attempts to levitate did not go down that well either. Her Lancastrian industrial father banned her from going to art school so she ran away to Paris aged 19 and formed a relationship with the surrealist painter Max Ernst. They lived together between 1937 and 1940 in Paris and, when his wife cut up rough, a bucolic farmhouse in the Ardèche. This became a surrealist menagerie and bestiary. Parisian surrealists (Dali, Duchamp, Bunuel, Man Ray, Lee Miller) would take the train down to examine this rustic surrealist laboratory. The idyll abruptly ended when Ernst (a German) was detained by the French authorities in September 1939. After she persuaded them to release him he was re-detained, when the Nazis invaded France, for producing degenerate art. On fleeing alone, aged 23, into Spain in 1940 she stopped eating everything save orange blossom, had a breakdown and was incarcerated in a Spanish mental institution. There she was given Cardiazol, a drug which induced such spasms she had to be tied to a bed for four days. Her father dispatched minders in a submarine to Spain to ‘rescue’ her so that (unknown to her) she could be sent to a asylum he had selected for her in South Africa. Carrington outwitted them all and fled to America where she took a one way ticket to Mexico. There she lived and painted and wrote until her death in 2011.

The surrealist movement may have seemed to her a liberation from her parents, the psychiatrists, the Nazis and the nuns; but freedom was not so easily won. Surrealist men told themselves that women were more in touch than men with the desired irrationality of the dream. These male artists exalted women but only as better able to lead them into the creative forest of the marvellous. Thus they were welcomed into the movement as lovers, friends, participants in games and muses. The women who joined the movement as painters (Carrington, Remedios Varo, Lee Miller, Frida Kahlo, Eileen Agar, Ithell Colquhoun, Meret Oppenheim) had a fight on to be liberated not constrained. Carrington: “I warn you, I refuse to be an object”. Joan Miró tossed her some coins in a Parisian café in the late thirties and told her to get him some cigarettes, “bloody well get them yourself” was her reply. One of André Breton’s key figures in surrealism was the femme-enfant: young, naive, uninhibited and in touch with her own unconscious. Breton found Nadja, and Dali Gala, to thrust this role upon. Carrington was no femme-enfant to Ernst, or anyone. In her 1939 Portrait of Max Ernst she paints him as both bird and fish-like with a frozen horse (a motif she regularly used to represent herself) in the background and so reverses the male/female role by claiming him as her muse.

One important theme of her art is her creative approach to cooking. In her 1939 short story The Sisters pomegranates and melons are stuffed with larks. André Breton remembers going to a party where she had meticulously prepared a meal from a sixteenth century English cookbook compensating for the lack of ingredients by sheer intuition; he recoiled from the hare stuffed with oysters. She served cold tapioca dyed with squid ink as caviar. (One of the themes of The Hearing Trumpet is what we eat and how we eat.) Visitors would come down to breakfast and be carefully given an omelette containing their own hair she had surreptitiously cut during the night. In the painting Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen (1975) the kitchen is a site for magic. What is a better parody of the fusion of animals and humans that stalk her paintings than the cooking and eating of meat? In her play The Invention of Mole (1957) a terracotta cauldron is where an archbishop is added to a quintessential Mexican sauce. Guests to her house in Mexico spoke of her use of the kitchen as reception room, dining room, junk room, nursery, and a place for intellectual challenge and debate, for tea and tequila. For her the kitchen (conventionally a private feminine space) is a public place for absurdity to triumph, ideas to synthesise and transformations to occur. She valued creation over consumption: a profound lesson for us all.

Carrington’s consistent satirical subversion of patriarchal culture in her art and life may explain the homegrown neglect of this internationally regarded Surrealist painter. Can this spring’s Tate Liverpool show start the long needed revival of her reputation?


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