My Idol: Surrealist Leonora Carrington
My love letter to Leonora Carrington:
I heard about you first when I stole The Hearing Trumpet. I saw it on the bookshelf of a friend’s living-room. It beckoned to me on many visits before I finally plucked the slim novella when no one was looking, and bore it away in my handbag. I don’t condone stealing, so let’s say… it was something magical, an attraction I couldn’t resist…
From then on, you were all I could think about. The Hearing Trumpet was written in the late 70s, and it’s a treasure of a story about ‘disgraceful’ old ladies being in an old people’s home. How did you make something that should have been so bleak funny and uplifting? I read the biography at the back of the book, but it didn’t tell me much. I wanted to get to know you better.
You were born in 1917, the only daughter of a textile magnate in Lancashire, and your looping, dark, dense curls were no doubt legacy from your Irish Catholic mother. You got expelled from a string of convents, but hey sister, (pardon the pun) I feel you – I got chucked from my religious school too. It didn’t teach me to be sorry, it taught me how good it felt to be free of boundaries.
You came out. I don’t mean you were a lesbian; I mean you were a debutante with a formal ‘coming out’ ball. You were presented to George V at Buckingham Palace and your parents threw a party afterwards at the Ritz. You hated it so much you wrote a story called The Debutante in which the main character makes friends with a hyena at London Zoo, and together they hatch a plan to swap places so the hyena can attend her ball instead and cause mass destruction.
After royally pissing off your parents by choosing to study art; you went to a bohemian party in London and met German painter Max Ernst. He was 46 and married, you were 19 and underage, but nothing stopped you running away with him. I can’t say if that was good or bad, I know only this: people can be quick to judge mistakes, but slow to realize the courage it took to make them. You inspired me to be more adventurous and take risks.
A New Start: Paris with Max’s surrealist friends in Monmarte. You began to concentrate seriously on art. You were one of the first women who refused to be a muse, an ‘object’ or model. Wanting to be judged by your work, you particularly liked Dali; he flattered you by calling you “a Most Important Woman Artist”. Picasso, Juan Miro, Marcel Duchamp, Andre Breton, Paul and Nusch Eluard were all your playmates amongst the painting… And boy did you lot get up to tricks! Once, eating out in a restaurant, you sat coating your feet in the mustard. When people stayed with you and Max; you’d sneak up to their bedrooms at night, chop off chunks of their hair, and cook it up in an omelette for breakfast. In the middle of a snobby party, you arrived wearing nothing under the bedsheet you were wrapped in… which you dropped in front of the crowd for a laugh.
But the War came, and you were only 23. Your lover Max Ernst was arrested (alien in France, dissident in Germany). Dazed and confused you crossed to Spain with some friends, then had a complete nervous breakdown.
They locked you in a Madrid asylum and fed you Cardiazol (which triggers spasms and fits). Afterwards you said, “did the trick though – they made me think, I’m never going to go mad again.”
In one quick phrase – you sum up what so few of us know: all that matters is what’s within.
I’m glad you got out of the asylum – I breathe a sigh of relief for you 70-odd years later. Your parents tried reclaiming you, sending your old nanny to the rescue in a submarine… proving you lived the surreal as well as painted it!
On the way home you managed to escape from Nanny Carrington, making a speedy getaway to the Mexican Embassy where you had a friend. Renato Leduc was introduced to you a while back by Picasso, and you knew he was working there at the time. In answer to your woes he married you on the spot, and took you to Mexico.
This marriage dissolved, but in Mexico you met Hungarian photographer, Chiki Weisz, and stayed with him till he died in 2007. You were tired of the mad and scramble life, tired of exile and expulsion, of institutions and illness. You were clever enough to know when to stop. I respect that.
You settled down but kept painting. Never speaking to your wealthy English family again, you had to make a living off your art. You and Weisz built a haven for yourselves; planted a huge tree in front of the house. Inside there were magnets from Manchester, English tea and postcards of the Queen Mother, Queen and Princess Diana taped on the kitchen cupboards (you branded the Royal family “expensive, but harmless.”) You made new friends, like Frida Kahlo. You built new cultural communities. You grew old, thin-lipped, sun-kissed.
You wrote more, things that are witty and sarcastic and magical, a bit like Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland. You never stopped painting- canvases crammed to the brim with fantasy, half-animal half-human forms with gentle faces, soft colours and bewitching spaces.
They awarded you an OBE in 2000 and you died at 94 in 2011, leaving behind 2 sons, Gabriel and Pablo. Your whole life reads like a madman’s dream sequence. But ultimately you taught me that we can survive anything the outside world throws at us, because of “this idea of creating your own universe and not needing anything else beyond it.”