THE LEGENDS OF LEONORA CARRINGTON: A QUESTION OF
ART AND LIFE
Amparo Serrano de Haro
The advantages of a long life for an artist are many: he can bequeath his work in the way he deems most convenient for its memory and appreciation, he can retract rivals who have died before, he can leave explanations in the first person about his life or his work that will be difficult to contradict… That is, he will leave the story of his life and work well established, well threaded and as closed as possible. All these circumstances are fulfilled in the case of the English painter and writer Leonora Carrington, who died in 2011, aged 94.
Carrington’s work has remained linked to the art of the past for its figurative and narrative aspect, and for his undisguised admiration for the Italian Renaissance and the work of Hieronymus Bosch. But she also has ties to the future because of her ecological, feminist, and visionary concerns. Above all, she will persist over time as a surrealist creator and, consequently, because of her incessant metaphorical game in which symbols of all origins are mixed, both zoological and linguistic, legendary as well as vital.
Carrington’s paintings, immense in their smallness, small in their immensity—this ambiguous game with the scale of what is narrated is one of their peculiarities—tell a disturbing “scene”, almost always the same, although the characters vary.
It is an act of “revelation” (as stated in the title of the Fundación MAPFRE exhibition) that takes place on his canvases and in them the protagonists and the observers who combine, unfold, associate and alternate, are , at the same time, symbolic and transcripts of a possible reality that we are unaware of, or that we can only assume, capricious and detailed calligraphy of a world that is not entirely incomprehensible, not entirely “other”, but certainly dressed and cross-dressed as a volunteer mystery. At the heart of each painting, there is a mysterious act around which the characters are gathered. It is a discovery that can be individual or collective, but it takes place in public.
The figures on his canvases act and speak, but above all they look, they are witnesses of something that was previously hidden, in dreams, in secret actions or in enigmatic words… His paintings narrate the unique moment in which secrets, improbable relationships or truths, suddenly, they become evident, they come to light, for an eternal moment, before being hidden again.
The painting —and also the literature— that Carrington makes, directly challenges, sometimes kindly and other times cruelly, the conventional understanding, the “normal” course of things, the foreseeable… with the promise —or threat— that there is another layer of meaning under the evidence, another truth behind the appearances, another veil behind the “naked” truth… His art implies the certainty that “realities” deceive and it is possible to foresee that in many of his works the figure is also of the painter herself is present hidden under different disguises.
The Carrington Initiation
Carrington made it abundantly clear in numerous statements and interviews how she wanted to be interpreted, judged, and admired. The magnificent MAPFRE exhibition, the first anthology devoted to the artist to be held in Spain, it allows us to judge for ourselves, by encouraging us to take a more careful, detailed, attentive and investigative approach to his work.
Some of his initial works appear for the first time in this exhibition. In addition to watercolors of conventional and elongated female figures —the most numerous—, two small oil paintings: Nice not Hyde Park y in the house of masks, They attract attention. These little works appear clumsy, but dense, with an agglomeration of intentions that obscure her senses and that reveal a primal magma of inspiration that will later give rise to Leonora’s undoubted creative fecundity and the subsequent development of her talent.
When and how did your real artistic initiation take place then? Actually, in an indirect way it is made explicit in the exhibition through the appearance of some works by the two people who were most important in his life and work: the German artist Max Ernst and the Spanish painter Remedios Varo.
Carrington y Ernst
Carrington herself made an immense effort in life to diminish the importance that Max Ernst had in her career, in her destiny and in her painting. And, although we can never know exactly what really happened between them after that beginning of crazy Love and unleashed passion, with whom they began their love affair in England, despite their sixteen-year difference in age, language, country and context, and their flight to Paris, it is clear that Carrington was very young and did not had developed as a painter. Her first years were undoubtedly extremely happy, and Leonora immediately began exhibiting and publishing with the support of the Surrealists. All that happiness was cut short when, at the outbreak of World War II in France, Ernst was arrested and imprisoned —for being German— and Carrington, desperate, fled France and ended up in a psychiatric hospital in Santander (Spain). Despite the fact that both met again in New York, married to other people for reasons of survival more than love (Ernst with Peggy Guggenheim, Carrington with the Mexican diplomat Renato Leduc), and although they were surely lovers again, they could not get your relationship back on track. Carrington’s subsequent refusal to acknowledge Max’s importance in her life is so deliberate that it indicates that something very serious or just very sad took place.
On the one hand, it is logical that she wanted to symbolically free herself from that history so painful that it was about to kill her, to plunge her into madness. However, by all accounts he was her first teacher. You can see that in how closely his works resemble those that Ernst was making during the time they were together from their escape from London in 1937, to their last refuge, the house in Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche, bought with the money from Carrington’s mother in 1938, where they lived until 1940. The works that both did together in the d’Ardèche house tell us of an immense artistic symbiosis between the two and we must assume that, possibly, also personal and loving.
Carrington and Varus
In 1943 Carrington settled permanently in Mexico. He had given up on Ernst and parted ways with Leduc. Remedios Varo and her partner, the poet Benjamin Péret, welcomed her into her house on Gabino Barreda street, in the Roma neighborhood. Varo and Carrington knew each other from Paris, as they belonged to the most important avant-garde of those years, Surrealism. But then Varo went almost unnoticed, she was just another painter, a poor refugee from a country defeated by a fratricidal war and the partner of the humblest poet of French surrealism, while Carrington was welcomed like a queen, for her beauty, youth—and social status—which, together with the great importance of Max Ernst in the group, made them a power couple celebrated by Breton and inaccessible to the less important, with which they were hardly dealt with.
In Mexico, however, Carrington was unknown and Varo had made a wide circle of friends, many from Spanish exile. There, Varo welcomed her almost immediately and introduced her to her group of friends, who would protect and nurture her during those initial years in Mexico. She even introduced her to the man who would later be her husband, the Hungarian photographer Chiki Weisz, and to Kati Horna, a close friend of both of them, also a photographer and wife of José Horna, a Spanish communist artist who was a classmate of Varo’s from the San Fernando School of Fine Arts. .
The importance of Varo in those initial years of Carrington in Mexico does not seem to me to have been sufficiently recognized, nor do I think I have read that Carrington had expressed any explicit gratitude to Remedios in a voluntary, intentional and clear way. He is not present in those who write about her either, although yes, of course, her great friendship with Varo is mentioned.
It is even often insinuated from Carrington’s environment that Varo was artistically inspired by Leonora… However, from the perspective of her technical knowledge of painting, it is more likely that it was the other way around, since, contrary to Carrington, whose artistic studies were scarce and irregular, Varo had completed some professional art studies, both at the School of Arts and Crafts and, later, at the San Fernando School of Fine Arts, both in Madrid.
I don’t think it’s appropriate to enter into discussions to place one artist above the other. Although, since artistic triumph is a solitary success, I understand the capitalist logic of isolating Carrington, to turn her into a new Frida Kahlo and distance her from an artistic “rival” like Varo. But both are extraordinary creators, close friends and with common experiences, similar readings and intellectual interests towards the occult sciences and the different dimensions present in time and space, topics that they surely dealt with in their long conversations and which are recorded in their personal libraries; which easily explains many of their convergences.
This exhibition, therefore, not only presents a series of remarkable works by Carrington, which both from the past and from the future open his art to a wide range of interpretations. She also makes an approach to the vital substratum of her art, to the truth of her life, to the people who accompanied and influenced her.
Leonora Carrington. Revelation, Fundación MAPFRE, Sala Recoletos, Madrid. From February 11 to May 7, 2023.