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Art History

Happy Birthday Leonora Carrington

Happy (belated) Birthday Leonora Carrington, born April 6, 1917!  Leonora Carrington was a British-born Mexican surrealist painter and novelist.  She lived a long and interesting life and just passed away just in the last decade.  I hope you enjoy discovering and learning about her as much as I did.

Early Life

Mary Leonora Carrington was born April 6, 1917 in Clayton Green, England to a wealthy upper-class Roman Catholic family.  Her father was a textile manufacturer and her mother was born in Ireland.  She had three brothers.  

 

Painting of woman seated in blue chair with white pants and green jacket, with hyena and white horse out the window
Self-Portrait: The Inn of the Dawn Horse, Leonora Carrington, 1938

Leonora’s childhood home was Crookhey Hall, a large estate in Cockerham, England where she lived from 1920 to 1927.  Leonora enjoyed a childhood surrounded by animals – she was particularly drawn to the horses – and fairytales and Celtic folklore told to her by her mother and her nanny.  She also liked reading the English authors Lewis Carroll, Jonathan Swift, and Beatrix Potter. 

Leonora was seen as a rebellious child and frustrated her parents by not following societal standards or conforming to her Catholic upbringing.  Leonora was taught by a series of governesses, nuns, and tutors, and was expelled from two convent schools.  At age 14 she was sent to Florence to a boarding school.  In Florence she began to study painting.  Leonora’s father did not support her career as an artist and wanted to present her as a debutante at King George V’s court.  Leonora however had no interest in becoming a debutante and brought a Aldous Huxley book to read while she was presented at court.  

Introduction to Surrealism

Eventually, Carrington’s parents allowed her to move to London to study art, first at the Chelsea School of Art and then at Ozenfant Academy of Fine Arts.  Amedee Ozenfant was a French Cubist painter who started a school in London.  It was at this school where she first experienced Surrealism.  Surrealism was a new art movement just beginning after World War I that explored the unconscious mind and combined dreams and reality into art.  

At the age of 19, Leonora Carrington attended the first International Surrealist Exhibition at London’s New Burlington Galleries.  It was here that she was enchanted by the work of Max Ernst, a German Dada and Surrealist artist who was exhibiting in the show.  A year later in 1937, Carrington met Max Ernst at a party and the two began a romance.  Ernst divorced his wife and they moved in together in Saint Martin d’Ardeche in the South of France.  Carrington’s father later disowned her for running away with Ernst, who was 46 while she was only 20 years old at the time. 

Painting of landscape with figures walking throughout, large house in the background.
Crookhey Hall, Leonora Carrington, 1947
Painting of abstract figures sitting at a table in front of a feast
The Meal of Lord Candlestick, Leonora Carrington, 1938

During their time in France, Carrington was prolific with not only painting but also writing.  She finished several short stories and many of her first Surrealist masterpieces there.  She participated in the Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme in Paris and a Surrealism exhibition in Amsterdam.  Ernst and Carrington would often host parties in their villa with their circle of Surrealist friends, some of which including Andre Breton, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Yves Tanguy, and Leonor Fini.    

In 1940 with the beginning of World War II, Max Ernst was arrested first by French authorities as an enemy alien, and then again after the German invasion by the Gestapo in a newly German-occupied France because the Nazi’s judged his art as degenerate.  Ernst eventually fled to the United States with the help of Peggy Guggenheim.  Carrington fled to Madrid, Spain to stay with a friend however she ended up suffering a mental breakdown.  Carrington was hospitalized against her will by her parents in an institution in Santander, Spain and received harsh treatments such as shock therapy.  She later wrote about her traumatic experiences in her book “Down Below” (there’s also a painting of the same name).  

In order to escape further hospitalization in a sanatorium in South Africa set up by her parents, she married Mexican poet and diplomat Renato Leduc and the two fled to New York in 1941.  There they reunited with other exiled Surrealists.  In 1942 Carrington left New York City and settled in Mexico City, Mexico.  Shortly after, she and Leduc divorced and Carrington became a Mexican citizen. 

Painting of man in red robe walking on snow-covered ground with a frozen white horse in the distance
Portrait of Max Ernst, Leonora Carrington, 1939
Painting of abstract figures laying on a landscape
Down Below, Leonora Carrington, 1941

Life in Mexico

After moving to Mexico, Leonora Carrington was part of a growing community of artists, photographers, and writers who had also fled Europe.  It was in this circle that she met her second husband, Emerico “Chiki” Weisz, a Jewish Hungarian photographer who she married in 1946.  The couple had two sons together.  Carrington immersed herself into the new Mexican culture, domestic life, and motherhood – themes that began to show up in her paintings and writing during this time period.  

In 1947, Carrington was invited to show her work at an international exhibition of Surrealism at Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York.  She was the only female English painter in the exhibition and gained a lot of attention for her work.  Her work was also part of group exhibitions at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in New York.

With her previous connections in the Surrealism world in Europe, Carrington was able to bring more opportunities to Mexican artists and help spread Surrealism internationally.  She held her first solo exhibition at the Galeria Clardecor after living in Mexico City for seven years.  She received a positive response with both critics and the public for the show and her career took off leading to exhibitions and opportunities around the world.  

Carrington became closer friends with Spanish Surrealist artist Remedios Varo and other Surrealists like Benjamin Peret while in Mexico.  She became part of the Surrealist theater group Poesia en Voz Alta.  Some of Carrington’s paintings from the 1940s and 1950s show glimpses of her friendship with Varo and other women.  

Carrington spent part of the 1960s in New York City before returning to Mexico.   In 1960 The Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno in Mexico City honored her with a major retrospective of her work.  In 1963 she was commissioned by the government to paint a mural which she titled “El Mundo Magico de los Mayas” (the Magical World of the Maya) for the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.  The mural was influenced by folk stories from the region.  

Carrington began creating large bronze sculptures of animal and human figures in the 1990s which were later displayed on the streets of Mexico City in 2008.  In her later years she divided her time between Mexico City, New York City, and Chicago. 

In 2010, her work was exhibited in the UK at Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery and Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts as part of the “Surreal Friends” exhibition exploring the role of women artists in the Surrealism movement.  There she exhibited alongside Remedios Varo and Kati Horna who she had formed deep friendships with after moving to Mexico.   

Painting of abstract landscape with figure in black and white
Green Tea, Leonora Carrington, 1942
Painting of two figures - one in standing in a blue dress and another seated in a green dress, inside a house with children running around and a cat in the foreground
Neighbourly Advice, Leonora Carrington, 1947

Women's Liberation Movement

Leonora Carrington was a founding member of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Mexico during the 1970s and held many student meetings in her home.  She recognized that knowledge sharing and cooperation between women in Mexico and North America was important for emancipation.  In 1973 she designed Mujeres Conciencia, a poster depicting a new Eve for the movement.  Artists of the time spoke out on the issues both through their art and through activism.   

Women were often seen as muses in the Surrealism movement which was heavily male-dominated.  Carrington helped to show that women could be artists in their own right.  “I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse… I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.” (Leonora Carrington)  Carrington is credited with feminising Surrealism by bringing a woman’s perspective to the movement through her paintings and writing.

Leonora Carrington was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1986 at the United Nations Women’s Caucus for Art due to her activism.  

Painting of giant woman in red dress and white cape with birds flying around
The Giantess, Leonora Carrington, 1950
Sculpture of abstract woman
Cat Woman, Leonora Carrington, 1951
Painting of white figure in green dress with black background
Untitled, Leonora Carrington, 1960

Style & Themes

Leonora Carrington’s artwork centered around elements of her life as well as taking in the spiritual world around her.  Her paintings are filled with symbolism, mythology, and feminine iconography.  Her earlier paintings include references to Irish folklore and fairytales from her childhood while her later works include references to Mexican symbolism and mysticism.  

Carrington’s art could be describe as part of the Surrealism movement or as magical realism.  Her paintings were often haunting and dream-like, including mystical creatures, animal-human hybrids, goddesses, or magical transformations.  She saw art as a line of communication between her inner world, the outside world, and the myths of her ancestors.  Through her work she explored themes of transformation and identity in an ever-changing world.  She often included a white horse in her paintings as an animal surrogate of herself.  

Carrington was continually curious about the world around her; she studied the religious teachings of Buddhism, local Mexican folklore, the Kabbalah, alchemy, the writings of Mayans, and theories of psychiatrist Carl Jung and other psychoanalysts.  She was also inspired by Renaissance paintings and the Netherlandish artist Hieronymous Bosch. All of these influences can be found incorporated into her work during different periods of time.

After reading “The White Goddess” by Robert Graves which was about ancient matriarchal societies in Western Europe and the Middle East, she discovered the universal practice of worshipping the Earth Goddess and began incorporating themes of these mythological figures and feminist symbolism into her artwork.

Carrington used small meticulous brushstrokes while painting, building up layers and detail.  She explored different mediums including oil painting, mixed media, and cast iron and bronze sculpture.  During one period of time, she incorporated tempera paint where she mixed pigment with egg yolks believing that it gave her paintings the physical substance of life.

In addition to visual art, Leonora Carrington was a prolific writer.  Her short stories and novels mirror her visual work, including strange mythological creatures and autobiological elements.  In her Book, “Down Below” she detailed her experience being admitted into a mental institution and the traumatic treatment that she endured.  In “The Hearing Trumpet” she wrote about aging, the female body, and gender identity through the story of an older woman who is being committed into a retirement home by her family.  She wrote many letters, articles, and books that included thoughts on Surrealism theory also.  

Painting of mystical woman with dark background
La Maja Del Tarot, Leonora Carrington, 1965
Painting of dark figure in center with two masked figures in white to either side and hints of medical equipment with dark moody purple background
Operation Wednesday, Leonora Carrington, 1969

Death & Legacy

Leonora Carrington died on May 25, 2011 in Mexico City, Mexico at the age of 94.  She was one of the last surviving members of the Surrealist art movement of the 1930s, having a career that spanned nearly eight decades.  She is recognized as being both part of the Surrealist movement and having a more individualistic style that goes beyond Surrealism. 

In 2005 Carrington set the record for the highest price paid at auction to a living Surrealist painter.  Her painting “Juggler” sold for $713,000 at Christie’s.   

In 2013, a retrospective exhibition titled The Celtic Surrealist was held at the Irish Museum of Modern Art that explored the influences of Celtic folklore in her childhood and Mexican cultural influences on her work.

After her death, her son Pablo Weisz Carrington helped to establish the Museo Leonora Carrington with two locations in Mexico that contains a large collection of her paintings, drawings, sculptures, and personal belongings.  Most recently in 2021, a set of tarot illustrations by Carrington were discovered and published into a book by her son. 

Leonora Carrington’s art, activism, and story continue to be celebrated and inspire.

Painting of figure on skates with dark robe and hat grabbing a crow's tail with tree and crows in the background
The Crow Catcher, Leonora Carrington, 1990
Painting of overlooking a green circular labyrinth with white, black, and red figures and creatures throughout the maze
Labyrinth, Leonora Carrington, 1991

Resources & Further Learning

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About the Artist

Photo of Laura Jaen Smith

Laura Jaen Smith is an artist who lives and works out of Horseheads, New York. Her inspiration comes from observing the beauty she sees around her.  After a decade living out west, she returned back to New York State and started seeing the same old places with new eyes.  She is most interested in capturing small moments in nature that might otherwise be overlooked.

Visit her shop or ask about available works.

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