Leonora Carrington’s surreal paintings continue to bewitch artists, collectors and curators


Cath Book

Visionary surrealist painter and writer Leonora Carrington, who died in 2011, enjoys international attention. Her work inspired the theme for this year’s Venice Biennale, titled “The Milk of Dreams” and curated by Cecilia Alemani. Over the past decade, scholars have studied Carrington’s work with renewed fervor, and his auction prices are skyrocketing. The themes that dominate her magical work – such as feminism, gender fluidity and deep ecological consciousness – couldn’t be more timely.

Last May Carrington’s painting The Garden of Paracelsus (1957), which features androgynous figures engaged in mysterious rituals, sold for $3.2 million at Sotheby’s and set a new auction record for the artist. Carrington’s work features prominently in current exhibitions ‘Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity’ at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and ‘Surrealism: Beyond Borders’ at Tate Modern. Her legacy also reverberates far beyond institutional walls: her fiery, uncompromising spirit and strange sui generis style are increasingly influencing contemporary artists, and women painters in particular.

Installation view of “Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity” at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, 2022. Photo by Matteo De Fina. Courtesy of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

“She was so ahead of her time in her own art, her writing, her ideas and her outlook on the world…she was so innovative and I think people are only starting to realize that now,” said the director. academic Catriona McAra, when asked to explain Carrington. increased visibility and popularity. McAra is the author of the forthcoming monograph “The Medium of Leonora Carrington: A Feminist Haunting of Contemporary Arts,” which explores Carrington’s influence on contemporary creative figures.

Born in Lancashire, England in 1917, Carrington refused to bend to convention from an early age. She rejected the role of society wife and mother her parents expected of her, traveling to London to study art instead. She fell in love with the much older artist Max Ernst and moved with him to Paris, but refused to confine herself to the role of muse or “woman child”, an infantilizing term that the surrealists imposed on young women in their milieu.

Leonora Carrington, self-portrait, California. 1937–38. © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Pierre and Maria-Gaetana Matisse Collection.

Carrington’s work reflected such self-determination. In her Self-Portrait (Dawn Horse Inn) (1937-1938) – featured in Tate Modern’s ‘Surrealism: Beyond Borders’ – the artist sits witch-like in an anthropomorphic chair and gestures towards a prancing hyena who appears to be under her spell . With its depictions of a powerful female figure and familiar animals—and its belief in the magical, transformative nature of art—the painting offers both an uncompromising statement of independence and a visual manifesto of ideas that Carrington has spent his whole life exploring.

After getting off to such a promising start, Carrington faced significant adversity. She suffered a nervous breakdown after Ernst, as a German living in France, was interned as an enemy alien at the start of World War II. She was confined to a Spanish asylum against her will (an experience she eventually detailed in her memoir Downstairs) and fled to the Mexican Embassy in Lisbon, then to Mexico in 1943. By this time, Ernst was already remarried to Peggy Guggenheim.

In Mexico, Carrington continued to explore her lifelong interest in the occult and articulate her growing feminist consciousness. She populated her work with witches who symbolized female emancipation and androgynous mystical creatures that suggested the possibilities of transformation and the limits of the gender binary. McAra noted that Carrington’s approach to genre fluidity is considered “one of his most enduring qualities” among contemporary artists.

Carrington’s feminism was inextricably linked to her ecological concerns. Throughout the artist’s work, female figures serve as protectors of nature. In 1970, Carrington wrote the essay “Female Human Animal” (also known as “What is a Woman”), in which she expanded on her ideas that women must challenge patriarchal authority if the planet is to survive. During the same decade, she launched the first women’s liberation group in Mexico and designed a poster titled Mujeres Conciencia (1972), promoting the movement.

In her later years, Carrington developed a cult following among female artists captivated by both her personality and her work. Some even traveled to Mexico to meet the artist. “It’s about her and her experience and that seems to be very compelling to a number of creative people,” McAra said. “People speak of their pilgrimage to meet him and the right of passage they experienced upon entering his house. It wasn’t necessarily about the job, it was like she was the job.

Artist Lucy Skaer made such a pilgrimage to meet Carrington in 2006. The visit inspired her installation Leonora (2006), which consists of two small sculptures, a short, a large drawing and a mahogany table inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The film, Leonora (The Joker), includes images of Carrington’s hands, alluding to the artist’s creative process. Table, Leonora (The Tyrant)features an inlay in the form of claw-like gripping hands and suggests both the privileged background Carrington fled from and the anthropomorphic furnishings of his work.

Videographer and performance artist Anne Walsh also spent generative time with Carrington. From 2007 she worked on a decade of multimedia response to Carrington’s feminist novel auditory trumpet, which Walsh considered “an exciting and subversive example of old age”. In order to prepare for menopause and old age—transformations that have so often rendered women invisible but which Carrington embraced in both her literature and her art—Walsh envisioned herself as an “Apprentice Crone,” repeating the trials and tribulations of female aging. In his book Hello Leonora, Soy Anne Walsh (2019), the artist detailed his creative process for the project, which grew to encompass photographic and laser-cut works on paper and a four-channel video installation.

Carrington, who once said she was the product of a union between her mother and a machine, is also a longtime inspiration to Venice Biennale Special Mention winner Lynn Hershman Leeson. of this year. For more than 50 years, Leeson has considered the instability of identity and the easy convergences of technology and the body. Leeson’s Officer Ruby (1998–2002) is an “artificial intelligent web agent” who gets smarter as she interacts with users. Its revolutionary Electronic diaries (1984-2019) predicted today’s online confession culture.

The Biennale also features works by Berlin-based multimedia artist Marianna Simnett, part of a new generation of artists interested in Carrington’s work. Simnett’s Brutal Three Channel Video Installation The severed tail (2022) tells the story of a piglet whose tail is docked – a barbaric practice now largely banned in commercial farming. In a recent talk at the Venice Biennale, Simnett said Carrington gave him “the courage to be weird and take a story out of the normative space into something much more exploratory and improvisational.”

Outside of the Biennale, painters Dominique Fung and Jessie Makinson have both cited Carrington as inspiration. Fung’s canvases, which feature invented worlds that merge the real and the strange, critique the Orientalism and objectification of Asian women that have permeated Western art history. Like Carrington, Fung fills his canvases with unapologetic female figures and a sense of subversive magic. Makinson also populates his richly detailed paintings with mythical female characters and androgynous figures who reside in supernatural environments. Drawing on feminist science fiction and folklore, she invents and paints women who refuse to conform to patriarchal notions of femininity.

The world may have been slow to wake up to Carrington’s unrepentant eco-consciousness and feminism, but as we face a growing climate crisis and threats to bodily autonomy, her work is more relevant. than ever. May many more uncompromising witches follow in her wake.

Thumbnail credit: Leonora Carrington, Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen, 1975. © Leonora Carrington, by SIAE 2022. Courtesy of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

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