Leonora Carrington and the House of Fear

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Kim Evans’ 50-minute TV profile of Leonora Carrington finally turned up on YouTube in December, in a slightly truncated copy. I taped this when it was first broadcast by the BBC in November 1992, and had the foresight to digitise it before my video recorder stopped working, but I’ve never wanted a YT account so I resisted the urge to upload it myself. If I was going to do so I’d offer things to Ubuweb instead, but I haven’t managed that either.

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Leonora Carrington and the House of Fear was shown a few months after Carrington’s paintings had been the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London, two events that made nonsense of Tate Modern’s subsequent labelling of her as a “lost” artist. Most artists would be happy to be described as “lost” if it meant being given almost an hour of screen-time on BBC 1 together with a retrospective show at a major London gallery. Describing Carrington as “lost” was a convenient way for the Tate and any art critics playing catch-up to sidestep their having ignored her work for decades. (Joanna Moorhead embarrassed Tate Modern about this neglect in 2007.) Surrealism lost its avant-garde status in the late 1940s, and became increasingly disreputable thanks in part to Salvador Dalí’s prominence and self-promotion. There were Surrealist exhibitions in London prior to 1992—notably the expansive Dada and Surrealism show at the Hayward Gallery in 1978—but the British art and literary world has always been suspicious of an excess of imagination, the very thing that’s too the fore in Kim Evans’ film. This follows the standard BBC template of the time, combining a biographical sketch with a view of the artist’s day-to-day life which here includes a visit to a crypt full of mummified corpses, and a lesson in how to make egg tempera. Marina Warner championed Carrington’s art and writing throughout the “lost” years, and she turns up briefly to offer some comment.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
Temptations
The Secret Life of Edward James
Leonora Carrington, 1917–2011

Leonora Carrington, 1917–2011

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Self-portrait (1937–38) by Leonora Carrington.

Imagination and fantasy were two of the tools women artists used in the early decades of the 20th century to force their way into a male-dominated art world. The proliferation of illustrated books provided a creative platform in the Edwardian era for women shut out of art movements whose aesthetics might be avant garde but whose attitudes to sexual politics were either ignorant or reactionary. It was only with the advent of Surrealism that a notable body of women artists emerged in the field of painting and sculpture, not only Leonora Carrington but her almost namesake Leonor Fini, Dorothea Tanning, Remedios Varo, Meret Oppenheim, Kay Sage, Valentine Hugo and others. Part of this was the tenor of the time, of course, but Surrealism had no choice but to be open to anyone who came calling; if you’re going to let dreams and irrationality dictate the debate then everything that was previously fixed is up for grabs including gender dominance and sexuality. Leonora Carrington had a longer career than her contemporaries, and also distinguished herself as a writer of fantastic novels and short stories. Dalí aside, it could be argued that among the original Surrealists it was the women who stayed true to the project in subsequent decades. Max Ernst was a lover of Leonora and later married Dorothea Tanning but he left Surrealism after the Second World War for other styles of painting.

In Carrington’s work, mystical forces and surging instincts overpower the reign of reason. This is rebellion and liberation in the true surrealist sense. It is not the angry, testosterone-driven smack in the face typical of the high-profile showmen of surrealism. Rather, it is a low-key mystic subversion powered by the intrigues of seductive sibyls, sorceresses, and priestesses. (More.)

Among the obituary notices surfacing there’s a piece by Leonora’s cousin, Joanna Moorhead, who wrote a couple of years ago about her search for her celebrated relative, and a notice in the Telegraph. Ten Dreams has a small gallery of her paintings.

For Leonora Carrington by Peter Lamborn Wilson
• Coilhouse: Leonora Carrington – 6 April 1917 – 25 May 2011

Previously on { feuilleton }
Marsi Paribatra: the Royal Surrealist
Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism
Return to Las Pozas
The art of Leonor Fini, 1907–1996
Surrealist women
Las Pozas and Edward James

Leonora Carrington

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The Guardian profiles the wonderful Leonora Carrington, one of the last of the original Surrealists. There’s little excuse for the Tate’s neglect as recounted below, Marina Warner has championed her work for years and she was the subject of a TV documentary in the BBC’s Omnibus strand in the 1990s. Maybe the Tate curators should watch more television.

Leonora and me

Leonora Carrington ran off with Max Ernst, hung out with Picasso, fled the Nazis and escaped from a psychiatric hospital. Joanna Moorhead travels to Mexico to track down her long-lost cousin, one of Britain’s finest—and neglected—surrealists.

Joanna Moorhead
Tuesday January 2, 2007
The Guardian

A few months ago, I found myself next to a Mexican woman at a dinner party. I told her that my father’s cousin, whom I’d never met and knew little about, was an artist in Mexico City. “I don’t expect you’ve heard of her, though,” I said. “Her name is Leonora Carrington.”
The woman was taken aback. “Heard of her? My goodness, everyone in Mexico has heard of her. Leonora Carrington! She’s hugely famous. How can she be your cousin, and yet you know nothing about her?”

How indeed? At home, I looked her up, and found myself plunged into a world of mysterious and magical paintings. Dark canvases dominated by a large, sinister-looking house; strange and slightly menacing women, mostly tall and wearing big cloaks; ethereal figures, often captured in the process of changing from one form to another; faces within bodies; long, spindly fingers; horses, dogs and birds.

I remembered from childhood hearing stories about a cousin who had disappeared “to be an artist’s model”. But the truth was infinitely richer and more thrilling. Leonora Carrington, born into a bourgeois family, eloped at the age of 20 to live with the surrealist artist, Max Ernst (married, and some 20 years her senior). The couple fled across war-torn Europe in the late 1930s, and she later settled in Mexico, where she continued to paint, write and sculpt.

Most excitingly, though, Leonora was still alive – aged nearly 90 and living in a suburb of Mexico City with her husband, a Hungarian photographer. I contacted my Carrington cousins and discovered that one of them had visited her a couple of years ago: she was, he reported, on amazing form, and still working. I wrote to ask whether she’d be prepared to meet. Word came back that she would, and a few weeks later I flew to Mexico City.

Leonora Carrington looks eerily like my father – the same piercing eyes, the same trace of an upper-class English accent. We met at her house, and she led me through her dark dining room, crammed with her sculptures, to the kitchen where we were to spend most of the next three days, chatting endlessly over cups of Lipton’s tea (“I hardly touch alcohol,” she told me. “Enough people in our family have died of drink. Anyway I smoke, and it’s too much to drink and smoke.”)

Leonora was born in 1917, the only daughter (she had three brothers) of textile magnate Harold Carrington and his Irish wife, Maurie Moorhead, my grandfather’s older sister. Harold and Maurie were very different characters: where he was entrepreneurial, Protestant and a workaholic, Maurie was easy-going, Catholic and open-minded. The family home was an imposing mansion in Lancashire, Crookhey Hall – the sinister house that features in many of her paintings.

Leonora was expelled from three or four schools, but the one thing she did learn was a love of art. Her father was not keen on her going to art college, but her mother intervened and she was allowed to go and study in Florence. There, she was exposed to the Italian masters, whose love of gold, vermilion and earth colours were to inspire her later work.

She returned to England brimming with enthusiasm for the artist’s life, but her father had other ideas. As far as he was concerned, she had sown her wild oats and now needed to come back to earth. This meant launching her as a debutante: a ball was held in her honour at the Ritz, and she was presented to George V. A few years later, in a surreal short story The Debutante, she poured out her loathing of “the season”, with a witty description of sending a hyena along to take her place at her coming-out ball.

In 1936, the first surrealist exhibition opened in London – for Leonora, something of an epiphany. “I fell in love with Max [Ernst]’s paintings before I fell in love with Max,” she says. She met Ernst at a dinner party. “Our family weren’t cultured or intellectual – we were the good old bourgeoisie, after all,” she says. “From Max I had my education: I learned about art and literature. He taught me everything.”

Continues here.

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The fantastic art archive

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Las Pozas and Edward James
Surrealist cartomancy