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Leonora Carrington was a debutante who ran away with the surrealists. Born in 1917, she was exactly the same age as Jessica Mitford – who eloped with Winston Churchill’s nephew to the Spanish civil war. Aside from their class (Carrington, a ravishing beauty with a cloud of curly dark hair, was presented at court in 1935), the two women had one rather striking thing in common: each was subject to an attempted “rescue” from Spain by protectors dispatched in submarines by concerned relatives. Churchill sent one to extract Mitford and his nephew; Carrington’s Irish nanny arrived by such a means of transport at the lunatic asylum in Santander where the artist was incarcerated in the early years of the second world war.
Carrington’s life calmed into stability only when she settled in Mexico City with her second husband Chiki Weisz, whom she married in 1943. She lived there from the late 1940s until her death in 2011. The consistent element was her art: wonderful paintings in which mingle the fantasies of Bosch, the elegance and spatial understanding of the quattrocento and her own personal mythology (drawing on Catholicism, Jewish mysticism and Celtic elements to create an utterly individual and at times impenetrable symbology). And yet, despite their fantastical elements, when you encounter them they seem natural and familiar: they might be the paintings of one’s own dreams. As Luis Buñuel once wrote of her work, it “liberates us from the miserable reality of our days”.
Carrington, however, was far from “just” a painter. Her novella, the hilarious, riotous The Hearing Trumpet is rightly regarded as a classic. (Two volumes of stories, published by Virago in the 1980s with Introductions by Marina Warner are alas out of print.) Imbued with a splendidly free-spirited feminism, the book is set in a home for (disgraceful) old ladies; its 92-year-old heroine sports a “short grey beard which conventional people would find repulsive. Personally, I find it rather gallant”. As a forthcoming exhibition of her work at Tate Liverpool hopes to demonstrate, she was an experimenter in many media. There were designs and costumes for plays (her own texts as well as Shakespeare productions). There were textiles, created with the collaboration of a family of Mexican master-weavers. There were sculptures and a four-metre-long mural, which is travelling from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Mexico City; there were etchings, lithographs, illustrated poems and designs for remarkable hats. The wild-looking papier-mache masks she made for a production of The Tempest promise to be especially alluring. The co-curator of the exhibition, writer Chloe Aridjis, who grew up visiting Carrington at home in Mexico City, tracked them down in Britain. There have been many such small detective stories in Mexico City, too, as Aridjis traced Carrington’s old friends to discover little-known works scattered among private collections.
Aridjis’s family met Carrington through a mutual friend, a doctor called Teodoro Césarman who, she says, treated all Mexico City’s exiled artists and writers – flung there on many currents from Europe during the war – in exchange for books and pictures. After that, from the age of 12, every Sunday she would visit the artist, in her “rather spartan and gloomy” house with bronze sculptures in the corners of the living room. Guests would be welcomed into the kitchen. Aridjis remembers a woman who would often slip into Spanish or French mid-sentence, but who was “so extremely British ... she seemed remarkably unchanged, not even one per cent changed by geography”. There were postcards of the Queen Mother, the Queen and Princess Diana taped to the kitchen cabinets – “expensive but harmless”, was how Carrington described the royal family. When Aridjis began to travel to and from Europe the artist would request boxes of PG Tips or Yorkshire Tea that would be kept “in a cabinet under lock and key in her kitchen – she carried the key on a string around her neck”. Carrington and Weisz – a Hungarian photographer who lost many family members in the Holocaust – would speak together in French, the old-fashioned French of the 1930s. She loathed any kind of social convention and, says Aridjis, “was extremely uncompromising. She hated false diplomacy – she could be very sharp, and even make people cry.” She was happiest at home; she was devoted to her two sons and her cats, and the tree she had planted as a young woman in the front yard. “There was this idea of creating your own universe and not needing anything beyond it,” says Aridjis.
Carrington was the daughter of new money – her father had made his fortune in the textiles industry, and became principal shareholder in Imperial Chemicals (ICI); her mother was the child of a country doctor in Ireland who claimed kinship with novelist Maria Edgeworth. Her art often touches on alchemy and magic; and in her memoir of insanity she writes of misreading an Imperial Chemicals sign as “chemistry and alchemy”.
She spent the first part of her childhood in a gloomy gothic pile in Lancashire riding (and to her later regret, foxhunting). She was passionately attached to animals, a love that persisted and is evident in the magical bestiary of her art, her paintings a menagerie of cats and dogs and birds but also griffins and salamanders and many nameless creatures that hover between human and animal. She was expelled serially from Catholic boarding schools; she seemed to have an inbuilt loathing of institutions and authority of all kinds. Her short story, The Debutante – in which the young narrator of the story, about to have a ball held for her, swaps places with a hyena, with gruesome consequences – gives a sense of her absolute hatred of the tropes of upper-class life (and also, perhaps, of the nastiness and even violence veiled beneath manners and polite rituals). Nonetheless, her writing does have a kind of crystalline detachment and light irony that connects her to her class and to a literary tradition that includes Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.
In the teeth of family opposition she studied art, enrolling in Amedée Ozenfant’s academy in London. A fellow student was Ursula Goldfinger, the wife of the architect who would later build Trellick Tower in west London; it was the Goldfingers who invited her to dinner to meet the surrealist artist Max Ernst. There was a coup de foudre as he put out a finger to prevent her beer from rolling off the table. She, barely out of her teens, ran away to Paris with him, her senior by 26 years. There she became part of the surrealist coterie in Paris, drinking in cafes with Louis Aragon, Paul and Nusch Eluard, Marcel Duchamp and André Breton. In 1938, Carrington and Ernst moved to Provence, not least to escape the understandable fury of Ernst’s abandoned wife. In the Ardèche they worked furiously, tended vines, wrote, painted and created splendid apotropaic reliefs of strange beasts in the garden. Guests might find that Carrington had crept into their room at night, cut off a chunk of their hair, and served it up to them in an omelette the next morning.
The relative peace did not last: as war broke out, Ernst was in a doubly insecure position as an enemy alien (as far as the French were concerned) and a painter of “degenerate art” (as far as the Germans were concerned). He was arrested; Carrington’s mental state deteriorated. Friends arrived and urged her to come with them across the Spanish border; at length she was put in an asylum and given a course of Cardiazol, a drug designed to induce convulsions similar to those resulting from electric shock therapy. Her memoir of these events is a pretty horrifying read; it is titled Down Below as if the experience had involved a spiritual descent to the underworld; indeed her paintings often describe places or states that hover between the ordinary, everyday world and another zone of dreams or death.
Her account of her escape from this situation is also remarkable. Her parents planned to send her to another institution, this time in South Africa, and she was accompanied to Lisbon so that she might take a ship. She told her chaperone she needed to go to the lavatory, nipped into a cafe, ran out of the other exit and into a cab which she had take her to the Mexican embassy, where she knew a diplomat, Renato Leduc. He did indeed come to her aid – by marrying her and taking her with him to Mexico (via New York, where she once served André Breton a meal of hare stuffed with oysters). She never saw her father again. No wonder, perhaps, that after this life of reversals, flights, expulsions and exiles, she craved routine in Mexico City. Aridjis remembers someone “sane and stable but giving the impression that she lived in a permanent state of anxiety – had no inner peace”. One day, the neighbours sent in workmen to prune the overhanging branches of the tree she had planted in her front yard decades before. She passionately, angrily, pleaded with them to let its wide-spreading boughs alone.