Leonora Carrington: the mythical world of a rediscovered surrealist
Imma is showing a body of work by a contemporary of Frida Kahlo and Dali who has long been under-appreciated in a country that inspired much of her work: Ireland
'Are you Really Syrious', 1953, oil on panel, 53.5 x 91.5 cm
Hunting Scene, tapestry, 41.5 x 94.5 inches
Leonora Carrington painting 'The Temptation of St Anthony' (1947)
The surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington died in Mexico in 2011. She was 94, and had led an eventful and productive life, from reluctant debutante in England to bohemian in 1930s Paris, from despair in a Spanish asylum to many decades of stable artistic productivity in Mexico City. Though she’s long been celebrated and honoured in Mexico, it’s only quite recently that her reputation has grown on this side of the Atlantic.
While she has a solid international reputation, in terms of fame and renown, she’s not in the same league as some of her male contemporaries, including her sometime partner Max Ernst, or Salvador Dali, who acknowledged her artistic ability. Her gender surely has something to do with that. The surrealists were radical iconoclasts in many ways, but most of them were men and they largely conformed to the male chauvinism of their times. Carrington’s work, and that of many 20th-century female artists, writers and designers, has only been substantially reappraised in the last few decades.
In her paintings, she generates a heady fantasy world. It draws on elements of folklore and fairytales, Celtic and other mythologies, various occult and mystical traditions including alchemy, purely personal inventions and, by no means least, Italian Renaissance painting. There’s a lot going on, but she’s not trying to devise a narrative universe like Tolkien in Lord of the Rings. Motifs recur, but she doesn’t tell one single story. She deploys a cast of human, animal and transformative, hybrid characters in a deep, pliable, dreamlike space of infinite possibility. Often there are Gothic undertones, perhaps recalling the Lancashire mansion that she grew up in and longed to escape: twice expelled from school, she was instinctively opposed to her parents’ social aspirations.
Background of intensity
As the art historian Dawn Ades describes it, Carrington grew up in “a social world of arcane rituals, subtle hierarchies, animal sacrifice and festering tradition”. That is, she elaborates, a county family in England. It’s natural that Carrington would draw on her background. When it comes to work, artists are omnivores who tend to use everything. But Carrington’s background is evident in her paintings in a stark, cruel anthropological way, just as Ades expresses it, far removed from any sense of cosy familiarity and recollection.
The fantasy in her work has a disturbing, sometimes violent, edge. It is rooted in the jagged realities of personal experience and emotional life, her own and of course many others, in a way that links her to such artists as Louise Bourgeois, Paula Rego or Frida Kahlo. The latter, incidentally, knew her but tended to regard her as a European interloper in Mexico. In a way, it’s Carrington’s insistence on the primacy of her own experience and imagination, as a woman, that is especially significant in her early work.
In line with the male surrealists’ view of the role of women, she was often assigned the subservient role of muse to Ernst, implicitly diminishing her, even though she remarked that she was far too busy getting on with things to be a muse. There’s another, local layer to her under-appreciation. She’s little known in Ireland, where she is scarcely represented in public collections – the Mexican government gave a sculpture by her to Imma – even though her mother, Maurie Moorehead, was Irish, from Moate in Co Westmeath and, as Imma’s current show sets out to demonstrate, Celtic mythology underlies a great deal of her fabulous, dreamlike imagery.