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Self-Portrait of Leonora Carrington imported from Susan L. Aberth Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy & Art

… the artist’s inborn talents, developed abilities, innate and acquired qualities of character, personal inclinations, and the degree of spiritual maturity attained at a given point in his life, along with the characteristics he may be assimilated from his national culture, his local culture, and the surrounding geography and climate – all such factors combine to guarantee a dazzling and most attractive diversity in artistic self-expression.

(Ludwig Tulman in Mirror of the Divine page 118)

Joanna Moorhead, Leonora Carrington’s cousin, in her biography of the artist refers to a conversation between them that led to this immediately engaging conclusion:[1]

‘[Her art] was an optical stream of consciousness, and the strands were so complicated, tangled and intertwined – a kind of artistic DNA – that they simply defied articulation.’

This, and other overlaps with my favourite preoccupations, triggered the feeling that I should attempt to grapple with her life and art.

Susan Aberth’s detailed exploration of her art, subtitled Surrealism, Alchemy and Art, even uses a word that connects with the idea of mapping the mind when she is describing a drawing created by Carrington to capture some of the implications of her novel, Down Below, based on her painful experiences of psychiatric treatment:[2] ‘

A cross between a personal drawing and a hermetic diagram, the details coalesce to chart an inner topography, one concerned with the loss of love, change, and the mysterious workings that may have caused them.’

I’ve been exploring this territory before with David Jones.

Speaking of his painting Female Warden during the Blitz, I felt that this is a picture of his mind, not of the world outside, and it is impossible to take it as a literal representation of the world out there. His many other more complex paintings for me testified to how his experience as a cartographer in the First World War equipped him in a way to paint maps of his mind, and the associative networks within it, as it reacted to experience, myth and art. Carrington, as we will see, is a kindred spirit in terms of myth and magic, rooted mainly in her Celtic culture.

He may be trying to capture consciousness at the moment it is triggered by the world.

If mapping is his model, it is tempting to assume that dreaming and its related imagery is a major part of hers. However, though Moorhead points out that[3] ‘Dreams, free association and techniques called automatic writing and automatic painting, which involves encouraging the spontaneous flow of words, thoughts and images onto a page or canvas, were highly prized by the surrealists’ we can’t assume that Carrington accepted dreams as an influence on her art.

According to Aberth,[4] ‘though she had long made it a practice to record her dreams, she insists that her work is rarely inspired by her dreams.’ Because I’m not sure that all such inspiration would be conscious, I’m treating that disclaimer with a degree of scepticism: the word ‘rarely’ accepts that it sometimes happened.

There is something so compellingly dreamlike about many of her paintings it’s hard to conclude that her dreams haven’t helped shape her art. I am aware, though, as we will see, that her symbolism is often directly derived from Celtic and Mexican traditions, rather than copied across from her dream world. My suspicion is that dreams enabled her to create patterns of pictorial narrative into which she could embed the myths and symbols she had absorbed from her many devoted hours investigating ancient spirituality.

Don’t let the word ‘devoted’ mislead you though. Her research was motivated by intense interest but her attitude was anything but reverent. As Aberth explains it:[5]

[Various] mystical practices all have a significant place in Carrington’s visionary realm, and are animated by a mischievous sense of humour that serves to subvert any potentially pedantic spiritual weight.

Anyway, my plan now is to first briefly outline some important events in Carrington’s life trajectory, prior to her settling in Mexico, before moving on to exploring some aspects of her art.

Her Life’s Journey

A question her life poses is how did she reach the level of insight she displayed, for example in terms of feminism or climate awareness, so far in advance of her time?

Well, certainly not as a result of her upbringing. She was destined in her parents’ eyes to be a debutante, a wife and a mother who docilely complied with the mores of her time and class.

She was far too much of a rebel for that ever to happen. As Moorhead depicts it, at the convent in her school days,[6] ‘she was not desperate to be different. She simply was different, and she wasn’t prepared to make the compromises most people do to fit in.’

She fled England for Paris and the Surrealists at an increasingly dangerous time. Her relationship in France with Max Ernst was invaluable in teaching her about art. It was traumatic to flee their shared home from the impending German invasion while he was still a prisoner of the French because of his German nationality.

To save her skin she fled to Spain, where she experienced a breakdown, and her family engineered her incarceration in an asylum with a view to secluding her eventually in South Africa to hide their shame at her unconventional behaviour.

Her asylum experience in Santander was traumatic as her autobiographical novel Down Below, testifies:[7]

Down Below . . .charts two journeys: one, the flight from France to Spain; and the other, the voyage from sanity to madness. It is a rare tract in English literature, the story from the inside of a psychological breakdown and serious mental illness…

Leonora Carrington’s portrait of Dr Morales (scanned from Aberth – page 49)

Basically, her psychiatrist Dr Morales,[8] ‘was an exponent of a brutal and experimental treatment for psychotic patients… It involved administering a drug called Cardiazol to a patient who would usually have been strapped to a bed. The drug induced an epileptic fit, which doctors believed could restore lucidity…’

Even so,[9] ‘what Leonora details in Down Below is a harrowing and yet ultimately inspiring, combination of extreme vulnerability and extraordinary resilience.’

Even though her treatment in the asylum was barbaric, its fruits were surprisingly positive in the end, possibly in part because of an intriguing paradox:[10]

The great irony of Leonora’s situation was that madness and mental illness had long been a fascination of the Surrealists… her recollections reveal the normality within the madness, and they disturb our understanding of what it is to be insane.

What Leonora endured in the asylum was to be the pivotal experience of her life,[11] ‘Cardiazol made her realise for the first time in her life that she was vulnerable.’

Even though her episode of ‘madness’ raised her status with them, her relationship with Surrealist artists had not been completely unproblematic. A recent Guardian article quotes Amy Hale, author of the most recent study of the less well known Surrealist artist Ithell Colquhoun, Genius of the Fern Loved Gully, who explains: ‘Historically, surrealism has been utterly dominated by big male personalities. Women were thought of as either muses or monsters who may have been artists on the side, but they can no longer be relegated to those roles.’ Carrington had absolutely refused to accept the ‘Muse’ stereotype they would have liked to impose upon her. As Aberth expresses it[12] ‘Surrealist Muse’ was a ‘role that Carrington would soon recognize and categorically refuse.’

She escaped from Spain and the threat of transfer to another asylum and fled to Lisbon. As she dithered there over how best to evade the inevitable Nazi invasion and the dangers to her that would come with it, she decided to leave for Mexico. She married a Mexican, Renato Leduc, not just to gain citizenship. There was a genuine bond of friendship between them, though that also began to chafe on her in the end.

She spent time in the United States and decided[13] to disconnect from Max Ernst, realising that ‘as an artist . . . [she] would be forever overshadowed by his work, by his story and by his fame.’

Her ambivalent attempts to reconnect with her family later also proved fruitless until in the end, with her last visit to them, total and irrevocable disillusion won the day:[14]

‘Her mother,’ said Edward[15] in a memorandum, ‘had given her an emerald ring, which was supposed to be very valuable. She hoped to sell this to pay for her journey [home]. But the emerald – like her relations’ assurances of affection – proved to be false.’

It becomes clear from Edward’s account[16] that ‘the trip to England ended extremely badly, with Leonora locked in a dispute with [her mother] – fuelled by her brothers – from which they would never recover.’

Her relationship with Leduc did not long survive either. Aberth explains,[17] ‘[o]nce back in Mexico, Leduc became immersed with toreadors and politicians in the social life he had left behind, and their three-year marriage of convenience came to an end.’ In the end,[18] as the relationship with Renato became more strained as he left her alone for long periods of time, her ‘experience with [him] led her to examine her neediness, her dependence on men, and prompted a decision to change.’ She probably been had been spoilt as a child to the extent that there are ‘cousins who believe that in her spoiling lay her ruin, and that everything that happened was because her parents and Nanny Cavanaugh danced around her in her earliest years, the golden girl who wanted for nothing.’ Moorhead raises the question of whether she had to ‘escape from that vestige of herself if she [was] to survive?’

At this point we find her in Mexico, freed not just from constraining relationships with family, friends and lovers, but perhaps also having broken free from inner chains carried over from childhood. She had come to realise not just how vulnerable she was, but also how her neediness had poisoned her relationships.

In Mexico she truly began to flower.

More of that next time.

Footnotes:

[1]. The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington – page 248.
[2]. Surrealism, Alchemy and Art – page 54.
[3]. The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington – page 39.
[4]. Surrealism, Alchemy and Art – page 103.
[5]. Op. cit. – page 9.
[6]. The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington – page 16.
[7]. Op. cit. – pages 118-119.
[8]. Op. cit. – page 123.
[9]. Op. cit. – page 125.
[10]. Op. cit. – page 126.
[11]. Op. cit. – pages 126-27.
[12]. Surrealism, Alchemy and Art – page 27.
[13]. The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington  – page 160.
[14]. Op. cit. – page 205.
[15]. Edward James, her close friend and patron.
[16]. Op. cit. – page  206.
[17]. Surrealism, Alchemy and Art – page 58.
[18]. The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington – page 278.

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