The End: Leonora Carrington's Self-Representation

I. Introduction
A. Biographical Sketch of the Artist

I. Introduction
A. Biographical Sketch of the Artist

II. Discussion of the Critical Literature

A. Introduction

B. The Beast in Me is the Best in Me: Animal Hybridity in Carrington's Paintings and Fictions

C. How Do Others See Me?: Scholars Identify Leonora Carrington

D. Who Am I and Where Do I Fit?: Carrington's Own Identity Anxiety

E. Assessment of the Critical Literature

III. New Model for Critical Analysis
A. Figuring Mimesis: Marsha Meskimmon

B. Mexico and the Marvellous: Claudia Schaefer

C. Aardvark Groomed by Widows (1997)

D. Kron Flower (1986)

IV. Coda

V. Bibliography


Jessamyn Steimer
HART 399 Senior Conference
Senior Thesis
Professor Levine
April 6, 1999

Leonora Carrington had no idea what to expect on arriving for her first day at Amedee Ozenfant’s Chelsea School of Art in London. Her new teacher handed her an apple, a rough piece of newsprint, and a number three pencil. He asked her to make a simple line drawing of the apple. After she had completed her task, which she compared to drawing with a bit of iron, he asked her to repeat the exercise. She drew the same apple for an entire day.

Eager for her artistic training to begin in earnest, Carrington returned the next day hoping she would be able to draw from a model, or practice with different still life forms. However, Ozenfant met her again that morning with the same apple. Only after Carrington had drawn the apple for an entire year, resulting in many sketches of a mummified fruit, did Ozenfant allow her to move on to new forms. She remarked much later that, despite her growing revulsion for the rotten apple, she was grateful to her teacher for insisting that she learn to see.

Carrington had concerned herself with representation of alternative realities from a very young age. Her experiences at Ozenfant’s art school helped her create a unified vision of a magical world. In 1920, at the age of three, Carrington fell ill with a high fever which produced hallucinations. Fascinated with what she saw in her mind, she spent a great deal of time drawing pictures to try to replicate these images. Her sketches became more elaborate as she incorporated characters and settings from fairy tales and Celtic legends her Irish nanny told her and her three brothers as they grew up.

Carrington adored these stories, and remembers her childhood as a time in her life when she felt happiest, engaging in make-believe outdoor play with her brothers. Unfortunately, Carrington’s general disregard for the decorum of femininity concerned her aristocratic parents. They sent her to two convent schools in succession with the hope that she would set aside her tomboyish impulses in exchange for the behavior of a young lady of good breeding. However, the nuns deemed her “uneducable,” and she was expelled for a variety of rebellious offenses including practicing mirror writing, declaring she wanted to become a saint so she could have adventures, and exposing herself to a visiting archbishop.

When Leonora turned fifteen her parents sent her away to a boarding school in Florence where she took her first art classes. During her study of Renaissance art, she made up her mind to become an artist in order to have a creative outlet for the colorful tapestry of images which played themselves out inside her mind. However, she did not inform her parents of her plan.

By the time she was seventeen, Carrington's parents decided her extended stay in Europe had civilized her enough for her to return to England. After much argument, they allowed her to attend art school with Amedee Ozenfant, but only if she promised to make her debut. She did so, reluctantly, in 1934 at the age of seventeen, presented at the court of King George V. Her mother wanted her to marry into the royal family, and was so excited to see her exhibiting feminine charms that she threw her daughter a coming-out ball at the Ritz.
But Carrington’s art education had introduced her to a different peer group. In the same year of her debut, she met Max Ernst, then age forty, at an art school party, after recently having read Herbert Read’s book on Surrealism. She spent time with him and learned about his work because she felt it had spoken to her. In 1937, Carrington ran away with Ernst to Paris as a final act of rebellion against her parents, and there she first contacted the Surrealist group. Andre Breton, the group’s founder and leader, liked her artwork and her sense of humor, and in 1938 he allowed her to exhibit some of her paintings at the International Surrealist Exhibitions in Paris and Amsterdam.

Afterwards, Carrington and Ernst moved to a small house outside Paris in Saint Martin d’Ardèche where they engaged in an intense romantic relationship which inspired their artwork. Carrington refers to her time with Ernst as “paradise time” (Suleiman, “Bird Superior” 101). However, when World War II broke out in 1939, Ernst, a German, was captured by Nazi soldiers and interned as an enemy alien. Beside herself, Carrington worked to secure his release, and eventually did so. Unfortunately, soldiers soon captured him again. When Carrington discovered she could not rescue Ernst, she suffered a nervous breakdown.

Selling the house at Saint Martin to a soldier for a bottle of port wine, she escaped to Madrid with two of her friends. Soon after, at her family’s intervention, she was institutionalized at a hospital in Santander, Spain, where her family sent her childhood nanny to care for her. When her nurse arrived, doctors released Carrington from the hospital. The two of them traveled through Spain together, where, in the Prado, Carrington first saw paintings by Bosch and Breughel.

When the two women arrived in Lisbon, Carrington’s nurse informed her that her family wanted to send her to another mental hospital in South Africa. Alarmed at the news, Carrington escaped out the back door of a café and ran to the Mexican consulate, where Renato Leduc, a diplomat to Mexico whom she knew through Picasso, agreed to protect her. Carrington and Leduc stayed in Lisbon for a few months, and married each other in order to secure the proper paperwork for her passage to North America. While in Lisbon, she had a chance meeting with Ernst, and noticed Peggy Guggenheim on his arm. This meeting was painful for both Carrington and Ernst, and at that point Carrington knew her life with Ernst was over. Leduc and Carrington moved to New York City in 1941.

Still in Leduc’s company, Leonora Carrington became a Mexican citizen upon her arrival in Mexico City in 1942. Even today she maintains what Whitney Chadwick refers to as a “schizophrenic dual citizenship” between Mexico and England (Chadwick, interview 1998). Once in Mexico City, Carrington and Leduc contacted other exiled Surrealists they had known from the Paris circle, including Günther Gerszo and Enrique “Chiki” Weisz, Kati Horna, Wolfgang Paalen, Alice Rahon, Paul and Nusch Eluard, Benjamin Peret and Remedios Varo.

These exiles came into Mexican modernism at a time when the muralist movement still exerted a strong influence on artistic practice both in Mexico and in Latin America as a whole (Kaplan 81). They often felt marginalized by artists in Mexican circles such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Kahlo once said of Carrington and Varo, “I’d rather fry tortillas on the street than associate with the European artistic bitches” (Kaplan 81). Carrington and Varo encountered further marginalization within the exiled European Surrealist group (Sawin 278). Once in Mexico, the Surrealists split into two factions, one which embraced Freudian psychoanalytic theory and the other which rejected Freud for the theories of Jung (Sawin 279). The group including Carrington and Varo called itself the Grupo de Calle de Gabino Bareda, and prided itself on being “a circle far more informal” than that of Breton (Sawin 279). These artists were concerned less with total revolution and more with “the struggle for survival” (Sawin 279).

As Carrington adjusted to a new continent, a new language, and a new culture, throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, Varo became her closest friend, and the two saw each other almost every day. Their friendship fed each other’s creative spirits during a difficult period and allowed them to be productive rather than depressed and lonely. While these two women’s artworks from the period immediately following their emigration share many common themes and pictorial symbols, as they gradually became accustomed to Mexican culture and society, they found their independence both as artists and as women.

In 1943, Carrington and Leduc divorced amicably, and she married Chiki Weisz, a Surrealist photographer exiled to Mexico from Hungary. The couple became increasingly isolated from the transplanted Surrealist group as they settled into domestic life together, working intensely and rearing their two sons Gabriel, born in 1946, and Pablo, born in 1947. Critics agree that while working in Mexico, Carrington became more focused and reached her full maturity as an artist.

Her first solo exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1948 included paintings greatly divergent from the rigid geometry of the drawings she practiced during her training at the Chelsea School of Art. These paintings charted her development as a painter from her earlier associations with Surrealism to her mature style.

Few detailed accounts of Carrington’s life during the 1950s and 1960s exist in the critical literature. During these decades she not only became a prolific painter, but also studied the hermetic tradition in the alchemical writings of Jung and Gurdjieff, as well as The White Goddess by Robert Graves. As her children grew older, her attention turned more to the theatre. She produced two of her plays, Penelope (1946) and A Flannel Nightshirt (1947), for the stage in Mexico City, and worked on costume and mask design for numerous Shakespeare plays.

In 1963, the Instituto de Antropología Mexicana commissioned Carrington to paint a mural commemorating the Indian heritage of the people of Mexico. In order to get a better grasp on the life of Mexican indigenous people, Carrington did fieldwork with the Indians of Chiapas, and lived among them for six months. The result of this fieldwork was the mural El mundo mágico de los Mayas, now displayed at the Instituto de Antropología Mexicana.
By the late 1960s, both Carrington’s sons were students at the University in Mexico City. In 1968, several incidents of police brutality toward student protestors prompted the family to leave Mexico and live in New York for a short time.

Carrington returned to Mexico in 1969 to help found the national Women’s Rights Movement, and became increasingly politically conscious. Throughout the 1970s, Carrington participated in political action for the rights of women, and continued to show her work in solo exhibitions, mostly at smaller Mexican galleries rather than large art museums. Her work received increasingly positive critical attention within Mexico, but she was virtually unknown in the United States. Octavio Paz included her in a collection of writings about contemporary Mexican artists, and although she left Mexico for New York in 1985 after an earthquake, Mexican and Latin American authors continually cite her as an example of one of the greatest contemporary Latin American artists.

At present, Leonora Carrington, 83, divides her time between New York, Mexico, and Oak Park, Illinois. While she still considers herself a Mexican, she stays in New York and Illinois for extended periods of time because her sons live there. She continues to paint, and her works are exhibited all over the world; Japanese art critics have recently discovered her. Whitney Chadwick, an art historian, characterizes Carrington as follows: “…she is considered an English painter in England, a Surrealist in France, a Mexican in Mexico, and a good investment in New York” (Chadwick, “Visual Narrative” 105). NEXT