Leonora Carrington: A Feminist Approach To Surrealism Explored In Tate Liverpool Exhibition

Leonora Carrington


Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) was brought up in Lancashire but through the extraordinary turn of events in her life, she met Surrealist artist, Max Ernst and went on to become one of Mexico’s most celebrated artists.

Carrington explored her own individual and unique visual language through a range of artistic disciplines. These included, amongst many, painting, drawing, print, sculpture, tapestries, short stories, poems, painting, as well as designing for theatre and film. As with many other artists she also worked with stage costume design and stage sets, film as well as being the subject of photography. Her costume designs of 1962 for Much Ado about Nothing and The Tempest, 1959 are also on display at Tate Liverpool, along with photographs of her by the fascinating surrealist photographer, Kati Horna who had fled war-torn Europe for Mexico, a country that opened its doors to refugees in the 30s and 40s. She inspired Leonora and the two women became friends. Similarly, Leonora Carrington’s life was one of adventure and interest, her art weaving itself throughout in a fascinating array of multi-disciplines.

Carrington lived most of her life in Mexico, was accepted as a Mexican artist, included in many exhibitions as well as commissioned to paint a mural for the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City The Magical World of the Mayas 1963, which is included in the Tate Liverpool exhibition. Carrington was accepted as someone who spoke for Mexican history as well as engaged with its culture, history and art. Her patron, Edward James has said , ”Her ability to inhabit different languages and disciplines is testimony to her impulse to visualise a further dimension, one not always visible to the naked eye.”

Her life, a journey of change and discovery found inspiration in the Celtic mythology of her youth; Alchemy, Mayan traditions, Buddhism and Tibetan culture. She was also inspired by death in pre-Hispanic and Contemporary Mexico. ”Carrington’s art is sometimes populated by hybrid figures that are half-human and half-animal, or combinations of various fantastic beasts that range from fearsome to humorous. Through this signature imagery, she explored themes of transformation and identity in an ever-changing world.”

Rejecting her upper-class upbringing in northern England, Leonora embarked upon a relationship with Surrealist artist Max Ernst, and became central in the Surrealist circles of France and New York. Surrealism positioned itself to examine other areas of marginality, i.e. the people outside of the bourgeoisie and this new way of experiencing the world would have been a huge difference in the life she led previously. As her cousin said, ”She was a changeling. She didn’t really fit in.” When she was aged nine, Leonora became so rebellious, the family sent her to religious schools, where she was expelled for misbehaviour. Later they sent her to a boarding school in Florence, Italy, and then to a private school for young ladies in Paris. She was never happy in these kinds of education environments; not happy with being forced in this direction she always managed to get away and even escape!

In the mid-1930s, she lived with Ernst in Paris, where she became friends with Andre Breton, the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, and other members of the surrealist inner circle. She held her first surrealist painting exhibits in 1938 in both Paris and Amsterdam. She and Ernst lived together until the outbreak of the Second World War, when Ernst, a German citizen, was interned by the French authorities as an enemy alien and arrested. He was released for a short time, but again, in 1940, he was taken into a concentration camp in Aix-en-Provence. As the Germans edged closer, Carrington decided to escape and travelled south to Perpignan and then to Andorra, where her father had arranged for she and friends to escape to Spain. However, it all became too much – in constant fear of her life and her worry of the terrible things facing Max Ernst, she had a nervous breakdown and ended up in an asylum of which she had some appalling experiences. She later recounted these experiences in her book Down Below (1943).

Leonora Carrington‘s works do not demand to be understood or instantly recognised. This is a world that inhabits another universe, her own personal and fascinating vision.  The exhibition is curated by Mexican author, Chloe Aridjis, a family friend and the sequence of artworks are punctuated by Carrington’s own words. A prolific painter, the exhibition explores how Carrington established her own distinctive take on surrealism. In her own universe, ”she moved between what was recognisable, dream scenarios and historical sites, the boundaries between them rendered completely permeable.” There is a spiritual element in the works, a ‘darkness’ but also a feeling of hope, that does not draw upon logic or explanations but more upon feeling. There are also paintings and drawings where she explores the grotesque and darker forces at work.

Her works such as ‘Evening Conference, 1949 and ‘Sanctuary of Furies’, 1974, and ‘Seance’, 1998 depict different sides of the human personality and how we are more than just one person. Carrington said, ‘We only need to sleep to convert ourselves into different personalities….I think we are many different people….I rarely paint from dreams. Images occur just like that. They occur from something that is further away from my consciousness, I think.”

By the time, Carrington had met her partner to be, Max Ernst, in London in 1936, ”her intentions as a painter and preoccupation with magic and mythologies had already been manifested.”  ‘The Sister’s of the Moon series painted when she was at boarding school in Florence at age 16 show her fascination with witchcraft and magic. Leonora Carrington consistently incorporated the theme of hybridity into her  work throughout the course of her career. Her most memorable works invariably depict women and animals together, ” with  the animals in the role of metaphorical amanuensis, communicating difficult and profound experiences.”

In the early part of her career, the hyena and the horse were the avatars that embodied opposing aspects of her psychological life. For Carrington, the white horse alluded to her Celtic background, and the “mythical Queen of the Horses who travelled through the space of night as an image of death and rebirth.” This figure is none other than the Graves’ namesake White Goddess and, according to Carrington, reading the book was the “greatest revelation of her life. ‘The White Goddess” by Robert Graves represents an approach to the study of mythology from a decidedly creative and idiosyncratic perspective. Graves proposes the existence of a European deity, the “White Goddess of Birth, Love and Death,” much similar to the Mother Goddess, inspired and represented by the phases of the moon, who lies behind the faces of the diverse goddesses of various European and pagan mythologies.”

In her painting, ‘The Giantess’, the guardian of the egg, 1947, and painted for her patron, Edward James, possibly Carrington’s most famous work, The Giantess, is dwarfing land and sea, ”drawing out the psychic prowess of the Goddess, her regenerative life-giving properties, and her fertile creative powers. This Goddess-centred spirituality, benevolent and nurturing, emanates from the giantess: the birds flock from her robes, and between her palms she clasps a mysterious black egg, perhaps the source of new life.”

Carrington said, ”The egg is the macrocosm and the microcosm, the dividing line between the Big and the Small which makes it impossible to see the whole.  To possess a telescope without its other essential half – the microscope – seems to me a symbol of the darkest incomprehension. The task of the right eye is to peer into the telescope while the left eye peers into the microscope.”

Tate Liverpool also shows a film, The Mansion of Madness’ 1973 of which Carrington supervised the sets and costumes. The film is largely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s blackly comic story, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, 1850. Although, you could expect to see a black and white surrealist movie from Carrington, possibly something similar to l age d ore by her friend the influential surrealist, Luis bunuel for the film, , this film comes as an unusual surprise. Filmed in colour in pop culture, Hammer Horror style, it evokes a stream – of – consciousness approach. Characters are caught in hopeless situations forced to do repetitive or meaningless actions; dialogue full of clichés, wordplay, and nonsense. There is a sense of the theatre of the absurd and black comedy or what could be described as ‘gallows humour’. ” It is interesting to note that The term black humor (from the French humour noir) was coined by the surrealist theoretician André Breton in 1935  to designate a sub-genre of comedy and satire in which laughter arises from cynicism and skepticism often relying on topics such as death. The exhibition at Tate Liverpool includes, paintings, drawings, tapestries and objets d’art such as ‘The Cradle 1949, a wonderful example of how Carrington celebrated these fluid boundaries between contrasting disciplines and art mediums. As you view the works, you come across tapestries and hand painted objects such as ‘The Spider Web’ tapestry made from wool 1956 -7 and ‘The Cradle’ 1949 a beautifully hand painted handmade wooden boat. This appreciation of the handmade and traditional craft draws attention to the inspiration she drew from the culture and her surroundings, a celebration of the indigenous arts that places itself naturally within her art.

It is worth noting that Leonora was very aware of and supported feminist issues. In particular she championed the newly established women’s movement: In the early 1970s she was responsible for co-founding the Women’s Liberation Movement in Mexico; she frequently spoke about women’s “legendary powers” and the need for women to take back “the rights that belonged to them”  ”Surrealism has/had a very uneven relationship with women, as has been discussed by many scholars throughout the years.” Andre Breton and many others involved in the movement regarded women to be useful as muses but not seen as artists in their own right. As Angela Carter once said, voicing the concerns of many women artists of her time, “The Surrealists were not good with women. That is why, although I thought they were wonderful, I had to give them up in the end.” Leonora Carrington was embraced as a femme-enfant by the Surrealists because of her rebelliousness against her upper-class upbringing. However, Carrington did not just rebel against her family, she found ways in which she could rebel against the Surrealists and their limited perspective of women.

”Carrington’s use of masking strategies and hybrid configurations, together with the modes of irony and satire, betray the problematic nature of artistic authority for the Surrealist woman artist or writer: they also suggest a desire to disrupt and mock any such hierarchy of authority” Thus, Surrealism gave Carrington a visual and literary vocabulary to express herself whilst not avoiding limitation..”

The student protests of 1968 revealed a further facet of Carrington’s beliefs, her political militancy. In support of the left-wing activists and as a remonstration, she  left Mexico for a while and returned in 1969 continuing to make her views heard in a series of public appearances.

Leonora eventually escaped to Portugal, a getaway for people escaping the Germans during the war. At the time the Mexican government was offering support towards artists and intellectuals.“Leonora settled in Mexico and became a significant artistic figure alongside people like Frida Kahlo.”Apart from living in New York for part of the 1960s, she spent the rest of her life working in the Central American country.

The Tate exhibition is the first time the 5ft (4.5) mural, The Magical World of the Mayas, has been on display outside Mexico. It is also the first time her work has been shown in England since 1991. As you travel through this fascinating exhibition you will enter into another exhibition by that of Turner prize nominated Cathy Wilkes born in Belfast.This is a beautiful and interesting transition. Both exhibitions evoke a similar atmosphere. I was intrigued by this wonderful installation by Wilkes.

”Cathy Wilkes best known for her imaginary environments which recall poetic visions, her installations evoke places of loss or transformation. Her work is occupied by beings, often of unspecified gender: infants, elders and animals. It includes collections of objects and treasured ingredients accumulated from daily life, for example baking parchments, cloths, towels, cups and plates and biscuits.”

As I walked from the exhibition by Leonora Carrington to Cathy Wilkes, I felt a sense of liberation for women in the arts, as if each had offered their strength and helped the other move forward in spirit and through history and it was now time for the wider spectrum of women artists to be recognised and not just a minority. Leonora Carrington and Cathy Wilkes, not to be missed.

Words: Alice Lenkiewicz – Image: Leonora Carrington, El mundo mágico de los mayas 1964

Leonora Carrington Tate Liverpool: Exhibition 6 March–31 May 2015