Four books published in this centennial of her birth celebrate painter Leonora Carrington’s life and strongly pictorial narratives. Three of them restore to us her children’s stories, illuminated by her drawings, her death-and-resurrection account of a time of madness, and her short stories.
The Milk of Dreams is a charming production from New York Review Books, right down to the Carrington-appropriate mismatching of end papers in carrot orange and leaf green. In many ways this is a private book, composed of stories Carrington told her two sons, accompanied by drawings. NYRB reminds the reader that these tales were told to Gabriel and Pablo in a room painted with scenes of wild vegetation, creatures, and mountains. (Several of the stories were translated by Gabriel Weisz.)
The book may be as interesting to an adult as to child, though perhaps for different reasons; a young reader will be struck by its flapdoodle and verve. What child will resist Mrs. Dolores Catapum de la Garza, who is clearly a witch—“old, ugly, a nasty person, and smelled of caca”—and gives children “little meats” to eat? Rotten little meats! Señor Mustache Mustache has a daughter who eats spiders. Heads pop off and are stuck on backward or in funny places. Little Angel makes “pipi” on the heads of passers-by, and an elephant and horse make the same on him before the hungry elephant devours Little Angel’s bed. The accompanying pictures give the reader playful simplicity or cunning detail in dialogue with these snips of story. Together they tell us of mismatched eyes—a seamstress has one real eye and one that is stitched on, made of cloth and a button—or a man who has two wonderfully mismatched faces, or a woman who wears only black and washes with black soap but cries blue and green tears like teeny parrots. Silly scatology, sheer surprise, absurdity, and lively sketches will please many children.
But an adult intrigued by the mind and fictions of Leonora Carrington will notice elements of story and absences that govern other, longer works. Typically she drops building blocks that other writers find essential. Not error but choice, these lacunae provide her tales with their distinctive form. She often has little interest in causality as propulsion for stories; she does not care overmuch for plot. Similarly, she tends to reject conventional modes of closure for a narrative. Character development is thin or non-existent. A living sofa with mouths pops up—rather like the mouthy, living chair in Carrington’s early painting, The Inn of the Dawn Horse. The children are as unlikely as the figures in her paintings. They are busy losing their precious heads or transforming a head into a small house or (nastily) making friends with crocodiles. A monster may appear with an absurd proclivity like adoring the portrait of Don Angel Vidrio Gonzalez of the Sanitary Department or, cyclops-eyed, leap joyfully about a black birthday cake. A vulture may tumble into hardening gelatin, there to demolish forever the dream of that culinary piece of kitsch, the jello mold filled with sweeter things like canned fruit cocktail and marshmallows. Carrington’s liking for whimsy and eccentricity (astonishingly, it appears even in a work like Down Below) is allowed to ramble freely.
These are dream milk stories: milk for the growing imagination. Kindred to an Alice in Wonderland bottle, this beautifully designed book says, Drink me.
- Down Below
- New York Review Books, 2017
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The Curious Brain of Leonora Carrington
From childhood, Carrington’s mind appears as an unusual and a curiously divided one. She frightens the nuns by writing forward with her right hand and backward, mirror-wise, with her sinister left. Later on, she wields a brush in each hand. She works with both sides of the brain, looks at microcosm and macrocosm, and joins the big and the small. In Down Below, just out in a handsome paperback from New York Review Books with an introduction by Marina Warner, she declares, “To possess a telescope without its other essential half—the microscope—seems to me a symbol of the darkest incomprehension.” The task of the right eye is to peer into the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope. Warner points out Carrington’s habit of painting faces with mismatched eyes, and how this relates to “a shifting angle of view.”
Likewise, Carrington appears divided in her paintings, often in multiple guises. In her first well-known painting, Self-Portrait or The Inn of the Dawn Horse, she appears embedded in a circle of creation and transformation. We see a somewhat androgynous version of the painter (though with high-floating mane and sexy heels), seated on a living female chair with matching sexy heels, claws, and rosy open mouth or vagina. Close by stands a lactating hyena. The female hyena hints at another mixing of male and female, as the female hyena has a pseudopenis, and the animal was long thought to be hermaphroditic. (The hyena also appears as alter ego and major character in Carrington’s story, “The Debutante.”) Throughout her life, she identifies with horses, and here Carrington finds selves in a runaway white horse (seen through a window) and a white rocking horse that appears to be levitating behind her (rather than simply hanging on the wall) and coming to life. The toy is also linked to her childhood—to her professed desire to levitate, to her rocking horse, and to the rocking horse Tartar in the weird and autobiographical story of a teenager, “The Oval Lady.” The cutaway room exists in the place where order gives way to disorder; on a floor reminiscent of perspective grids—Carrington was not long out of Amédée Ozenfant’s Academy of Fine Arts—whirls a little cloud of energy which, like the hyena, is in line with Carrington’s right hand with its two central fingers tucked under in a magical and apotropaic gesture. The beast’s paw is lifted to mimic the woman’s hand. The female hyena and the woman appear to raise the whirl of power together, and perhaps also are raising yet another, less knowable version of self. Rather than a single self, woman here is myriad and rules over stirring energies.
Musicians and people who are ambidextrous are known for having a thicker, larger corpus callosum than others. More brain plasticity and more communication between brain hemispheres would be expected. (In Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art, Susan Aberth mentions Carrington’s cousin Patricia Paterson, who describes the young Leonora as musical as well as artistic; once she fell into trouble at convent school for playing a saw.) It is too late for an imaging peek inside Leonora Carrington’s head, but an unusual corpus callosum could account in part for her dual abilities and her unusual patterns of thought—her ability to paint and write with both hands, and the multiplicity of selves so often turning up in her paintings and stories.
Carrington’s mode of seeing in her art is richly transformative, as when she takes a domestic realm like a kitchen and makes it into a place of power and alchemy. When she portrays herself as suffering mentally and physically in Down Below, her tendency toward self-mythologizing and magical transformation leaps beyond the bounds of her art to affect how she perceives the outer world.
The medical aspect of Carrington’s breakdown during her flight from France and stay at the sanatorium in Santander, Spain is curious but perhaps less of a mystery than it has appeared to readers. She is quite a young woman who has rebelled against family and raced away from wealth and security, lost Max Ernst twice to internment camps in France (restoring her lover once but being unable to free him a second time; ultimately he escaped and went to the US), been forced to give up her refuge and artwork in Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche, and who (quite sensibly) fears war and the approaching Germans. During the flight from France with her English friend Catherine and Catherine’s Hungarian companion, Michel, she appears to be suffering from depression with psychotic features; she believes that her own powers afflict and “jam” the world. By the time they reach Andorra, she has developed what must be a psychogenic gait disturbance, or astasia-abasia; she walks “like a crab” and her nerves imitate “the noise of the river.” Her symptoms fall into the category called conversion disorder, where anxiety is manifested in physical symptoms. Carrington’s recollection of her own thinking at the time shows an insightful response, for she realizes that her mind is “painfully trying to unite itself with [her] body,” and that the mind may profoundly warp her ability to control her body.
The grandiose plans to save the world, the belief in her mind as able to radically alter events, her exaltation and self-worship, and the conviction that hermetic significance fills all things might even make a psychiatrist in our day assess whether the narrator of Down Below is bi-polar, but a whole raft of responses within the text clarifies what doctors of the time were concluding. When staying at the Ritz in Madrid, she is given “bromide by the quart” by a doctor who “begged me repeatedly not to remain naked when waiters brought me food.” Nakedness and desire are threads that continue to glint here and there throughout the narrative. In the first half of the 20th century, anti-epileptic bromides (particularly lithium bromide and potassium bromide) were administered as sedatives, often to reduce sexual desire of patients or inmates and also to treat epilepsy. Such wholesale bromide administration evidently occurred in sanatoriums and in concentration camps. But bromide could lead to additional psychosis and delirium. During the period of her bromide treatment, Carrington reports being raped by a group of officers, a story that is impossible to either confirm or ignore; whether factually accurate or bromide-conjured and delusional, the passage reveals intense feelings of vulnerability and fear.
The Ritz soon gives way to more institutional settings as the world responds more forcefully to Carrington’s off-kilter vision. She finds herself in a sanatorium with nuns, but nuns could never corral and manage Leonora in childhood, and they certainly cannot manage Leonora the young woman. So she is whipped away to Santander, and on the journey she is given Luminal three times and “an injection in the spine: systemic anesthesia.” The Luminal (Bayer’s phenobarbital) was used at the time as a sedative and hypnotic; thus she enters Covadonga “like a cadaver.”
The very next line (first of the next chapter) voices a fear that she may “drift into fiction, truthful but incomplete.” This is a wise fear, for Carrington’s perceptions are unreliable, and she is repeatedly drugged. As the world becomes more and more mysterious to her, she invents elaborate fictions to explain its motions and intentions. In order to tell her story, Carrington-the-narrator must deal with the dual nature of what happened—what she believed versus what literally took place—plus the passage of time, which obscures all things.
In her compressed but fascinating biographical introduction, Marina Warner describes the stay as one where Carrington is “given a course of drug therapy with Cardiazol, which induced epileptic fits of appalling severity.” Cardiazol (studied and promoted by Hungarian doctor Ladislaus von Meduna) was a major mental-hospital armament against schizophrenia in the 1930s, though in fact it proved to be more useful for psychotic depression and manic depression. During the time when Carrington received Cardiazol, doctors had not yet learned to use curare and scopolamine to avoid painful muscle contractions and to sedate the patient; in Down Below, the experience leads to her startling, evocative description of grimaces springing out all over her body.
Many of the strangest images and events of Down Below involve such transformed medical procedures; in an especially interesting instance, it seems possible that both Carrington and her critics have misunderstood the facts. Carrington battles the staff but is pierced by a syringe “wielded like a sword.” Rebellious as ever, she decides that she will not succumb to sleep, but the injection proves not to be a soporific. Instead, she watches her “thigh swell around the puncture, till the bump grew to the size of a small melon.” The melon becomes immense and paralyzes her thigh. She observes that one of the other patients, “the Marquis da Silva,” suffers in the same manner. The wild growth around the injection site connects in her mind to the doctor’s “domination” that she senses as swelling inside her and the “congealed” nature of the world. Then the lump transforms; it “no longer seemed to form part of my body and became a sun on the left side of the moon; all my dances and gyrations in the Sun Room used that lump as a pivot. It was no longer painful, for I felt integrated into the Sun.” Though Frau Asegurado tells her that they have induced an “artificial abscess in her thigh” in order to slow and control her, the text also shows staff playing jokes on patients. A joke is a playful affront to reality but cruel when the recipient has but a tenuous hold on the real, as in Carrington’s case.
The history of medicine may offer a more logical and less medically dangerous and unpredictable cause than an induced abscess. Patients in hospitals and sanatoria of the time were often inoculated with BCG—bacilli Calmette-Guérin—to combat the tuberculosis that could and did spread in such places. Each country maintained its own supply of vaccine, and there were various strains. It seems likely that BCG was the source of her trouble; the lump might have been an unintended abcess, an allergic reaction, a hematoma, or a cyst. Whatever it was, the swelling looms, gigantic in her mind, and is eventually transformed into light that she circles with a planetary motion. Here in Down Below, as in The Inn of the Dawn Horse, she is transformed, though now she understands herself as dominated and powerless rather than powerful. Yet this is paradox, for she still possesses grand illusions. As in the painting, she becomes myriad in madness: “an androgyne, the Moon, the Holy Ghost, a gypsy, an acrobat, Leonora Carrington, and a woman.” In dreams she is a white colt like the runaway Dawn Horse. She rules all and is the savior who discloses religions and bears sins that she changes into knowledge.
Her mental illness is a chaos of the mind; in Down Below, Carrington recalls her attempts to master shapelessness and bring order through image and metaphor. Even in psychosis, she is still playing with shape and color. She is still making stories. Imagine a Modernist exploring the edge between chaos and order, experimenting with using the smallest number of marks to create an image—that is, to create order. Carrington does something similar. She takes a few coins, a pencil, eau de cologne, Tabu powder, jars of face creams, a nail buff, a little mirror, and a Tangee lipstick and attempts to combine them into “solar systems to regulate the conduct of the World.” Objects become metaphor. Tenor and vehicle yoke the humble with the metaphysical: “A box of Tabu powder with a lid, half grey and half black, meant eclipse, complex, vanity, taboo, love. Two jars of face cream: the one with a black lid was night, the left side, the moon, woman, destruction; the other, with a green lid, was man, the brother, green eyes, the Sun, construction.” Escape and quest find their place in the nail buff “shaped like a boat,” evoking “a journey into the Unknown, and also the talisman protecting that journey.”
In the end, the artist finds the Ariadne’s thread out of the labyrinth. She is no longer in chaos but living on the fruitful border between chaos and order, where artists and writers need to live. Carrington’s deepest problem in France and Spain now is revealed—a collection of extreme historical and personal circumstances that caused uncontrollable anxiety and stress. Now she begins to find joy again. Her “cosmic objects” lose their significance. Ever rebelling against institutions of authority and those who wish to dominate or own her, whether her father or the Surrealists or the invading Germans, Carrington is not thankful to her doctor; she is free from him and concludes that he is not sorcerer but scoundrel.
The immersion in the asylum is a burial, the drugged days a death leading toward new life. She will never return to her old life with Max Ernst, lover and teacher and father figure all at once. Carrington recalls saying, earlier in Madrid, “ ‘I must kill him myself,’ i.e. disconnect from Max.” That life was already wrenched away; the death-like experience she finds in Santander confirms the end. But the magic of painting and making is not over, and it includes this text that we read as Down Below, dictated in French to Jeanne Megnen and translated by Victor Llona. Years later, she tells Marina Warner in the Postscript, “I was tormented by the idea that I had to paint, and when I was away from Max and first with Renato [Leduc], I painted immediately.” Last, she speaks of her first authority figure: “I never saw my father again.” These are her final words: simultaneously a rejection of convention and paternal authority, a refusal to be what others wish her to be. Once more she is free to wield her terrible and beautiful power of choice.
Thank you to neurologist Michael T. Miller, M. D., of Bassett Hospital and the Columbia-Bassett medical program for answering my many questions about Leonora Carrington’s symptoms and early 20th-century medicine.
- The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington
- The Dorothy Project, 2017
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The Arts of Transformation
In The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, transformation and rebellion rule. The stories declare that human beings can at once be mundane and mythological, single and multiple, uncontrolled and creative. The remarkable transformation of Leonora Carrington colors these stories—the change from unruly child, impossible-to-tame convent girl, and debutante to bold runaway and independent-minded young artist struggling to slash a path through the world. Like the paintings she made, these tales display an unconventional artistry.
In the stories, Carrington often exhibits a dislike of tidy closure that resembles the patterns of her own life, the consistent breaking away from prior established order into the chaotic realm of an unknown future—the hyena leaps from the window and runs away, just as the narrator wishes to do in “The Debutante.” She has a tendency to reject resolution, for as soon as life reaches toward resolution, it must be overturned. The narrator of “White Rabbits” flees as leprous fingers fall like stars. Even in a slip of a tale like “A Man in Love,” the narrator skips out on the demands of story (here a gothic confessional anecdote that she hears and later records) and escapes with a pilfered melon. Carrington often is unwilling to play the game of the well-made story; she confounds the reader’s expectations. For example, the narrators of “The Royal Summons” and “The House of Fear” abruptly cut off their stories before the reader reaches an expected denouement. In the case of “The House of Fear,” to move beyond what we sense as truth would be to take metaphysical ideas and pin them down too forcefully. She resists the pat answer and values ambiguity and uncertainty. She maintains the impulse to run away from tidy endings, to escape from the conventional laws of the short story and the understood contract with the reader.
Not surprisingly for a painter, one element of the story she values highly is setting, and in her stories the world of the upper-class drawing room and wealthy private chambers is set against wilderness. Alliances with rooms and wild places work to characterize her people and beasts. The realm of her childhood houses (particularly Crookhey Hall, a sandstone manor house designed by Alfred Waterhouse and now a National Heritage site) is opposed to the outer world of escape and freedom. Much of the conflict in the stories is created by the settings, and the clash between the tame world in chambers and the world beyond appears repeatedly—in “The Debutante,” “Pigeon, Fly!,” “As They Rode Along the Edge,” “Jemima and the Wolf,” and others. Even in tended pleasure grounds, dangers rise up: in gardens are secret, mysterious paths and unexpected animals; the rich garden of “The Sisters” appears bewitched.
Flat acceptance of a fairy-tale barbarism allows magical, monstrous events to occur: the hyena eats the maid so that she can use her face and pretend to be a young lady in “The Debutante.” (When the hyena tears off her mask-face and eats it, the abrupt revelation that the debutante is absent and has been replaced by the hyena is highly reminiscent of Isak Dinesen’s earlier “The Monkey,” also associated with the bridal market, a closure of boisterous unmasking, and a bond between animal and woman—in Dinesen, it is the monkey and the Prioress.) In “A Mexican Fairy Tale,” cultures and mythologies mix wildly. The unfortunate Juan is chopped into pieces. María must act as Isis, collecting bits of her Osiris in order to unite as a new being, Juan-Mari, and then transform into Quetzalcoatl.
Transformation, wild events, and wilderness bind to Carrington’s passion for animals, especially horses, in a manner that evokes thoughts of her paintings with hybrid creatures or beast-human mixes (“El Rarvarok,” “The Conjuror,” “Who art thou, White Face?” and others.) Horses can be friendly guides, as in “Uncle Sam Carrington” or “The House of Fear,” where the narrator and the horse she encounters are parallel, both bored, one by his job showing a tile floor, the other by the endless stories she tells: these stories, perhaps! A fluidity of identity allows Lucretia of “The Oval Lady” to lend life to Tartar the rocking horse and to become a horse herself.
This case of metamorphosis is the most remarkable one in the collection, for Lucretia not only becomes something other but she achieves not just transformation but glowing transfiguration and appears “beautiful, a blinding white all over, with four legs as fine as needles, and a mane which fell around her long face like water. She laughed with joy and danced madly around in the snow.” In the biblical transfiguration of Christ we find astounded witnesses, a glowing, snow-white appearance, and an immediate come-down as Christ meets the demon-inhabited boy his disciples have failed to heal. In “The Oval Lady,” we have the narrator as enthralled witness, a glowing Lucretia in snow, and Lucretia herself as the difficult, mad child that Papa cannot control but will attempt to cure through punishment, destroying the rocking horse that is an extension of herself—a striking, skewed use of the biblical motifs.
Just as Lucretia’s transformation opposes the conventional, controlled life of Papa, so other characters consistently tilt against authority—patriarchal, maternal, ecclesiastical, or conventional and bourgeois. The debutante resists her mother’s wishes, Lucretia’s refusal to eat or drink protests against Papa, and Virginia Fur is hell-bent on opposition to the poet-saint, Alexander. In “Jemima and the Wolf,” Jemima spits on the carpet and rebels against mother, governess, and all drawing-rooms. “Uncle Sam Carrington” targets the absurdity of convention in two ladies who redeem social shame by whipping vegetables. A reader should not be surprised that someone repeatedly kicked out of convent schools takes a certain pleasure in the mocking of priests, nuns, and organized religion. Saint Alexander proves to be an extreme narcissist. God punishes the descendants of a little boy who ate too many beans the night before his first communion. In a much later story, the ecclesiastical figures have grown modern and up-to-date and therefore are complete atheists.
The rejections and rebellion of girls and young women in the stories point directly to a transformation of biographical facts, often with one person appearing as multiple selves. As the Goddess tells the narrator of “My Mother is a Cow,” “one human creature” is “a legion of mannequins,” made up of lies or fictions. Leonora’s own story is the ground below and inspiration for many of these characters. So we meet Leonora as debutante, Leonora as big-maned animal lover Virginia Fur who is trailed by cats and stinks of stables and pelts, and Leonora as wild-haired Jemima.
Similarly, it is impossible not to notice that a transformed Max Ernst plays a role in stories where pale men in striped stockings and feathery attire appear. Such men are an obvious match for Leonora’s 1939 Portrait of Max Ernst (she appears in it as both frozen horse and small trapped lantern-horse). As noted by Warner in the introduction to Down Below, he is the inspiration for Célestin des Airline-Drues. This strange white figure summons a dark-maned artist, Eleanore / Leonora, to paint (and become, in a Ligeia-like twist) his dead wife Agathe in “Pigeon, Fly!” To a diary she leaves for Eleanore, Agathe confesses that she fears losing herself, just as Leonora feared being overpowered by the older, established artist; Eleanore finds that her art vanishes in the presence of Airline-Drues. As she completes the painting, she discovers that the face is her own. The canvas empties, and her hands are cold.
In Carrington’s tales, the line between lover and father or artist and rich man erodes, stirring together elements of her own biography. Like Ernst, who was also Loplop or the Bird Superior, the aesthete Monsieur Cyril de Guindre (in the eponymous story) owns a pair of Ernst’s striped socks and wears an angora gown. Kissing himself in the mirror, he leaves a crimson mark in the shape of a flying bird. He appears reflected again in de Guindre’s beloved Thibaut with his pants of rosy beige fur, delicately striped. The wealthy man’s unfortunate past encounter with a woman, “an uncivilized creature” who ends up—like Leonora—in a sanatorium, has produced a wild child. Both mother and child suggest Leonora as source, for the child Panthilde tempts and alarms, disturbs and is disturbed. Like Pan, she is a hybrid creature, a mix of daughter and frightening potential lover with a black-painted kiss.
Again and again, Carrington portrays danger when she uses the motif of a white bird in a garden or wilderness setting, repeatedly echoing the dilemma from her own young life: the problem of being over-shadowed and kept from the work she must do by Max Ernst and, by extension, any male force. “Jemima and the Wolf” follows the trajectory of a privileged “she-devil” and “difficult child,” her wild hair investigated by tasty insects, who is irresistibly attracted to a wolfman. His form at times flickers into that of a bird, animal, plant; he gifts Jemima with the head of a huge white rooster. She is no Little Red Riding Hood, dutifully heading through the forest toward the safe island of grandmother’s house. Her pursuit of the mysterious man’s alluring beauty and power from the stately drawing-rooms of home through wilderness ends inevitably in the realm of the dead.
In “The Sisters,” the Ernst-bird and Leonora-horse appear in the form of ex-king Jumart, who calls himself “a poor stuffed bird” and adores a woman with a “long and ferocious” face. His horse-faced Drusille hides the mad, white, vampiric wildness of a bird-sister in the attic—an interesting twist on the problem of Jane Eyre, where it is a husband who hides a rebellious madwoman with vampiric tendencies in the attic. As elsewhere in Carrington’s stories, the bird-human hybrid is a threat. Marble-white, feathered, and an adorer of the moon, Juniper the bird-woman escapes and achieves a perverse transfiguration through drinking blood; she is associated with luminosity, moon, and sun-struck snow after tearing out the throat of the maid, Engadine. (Like poor Nanny Carrington, the would-be rescuer of Leonora, house servants have a rough path in Carrington’s stories.) The suggestive Carrington-Ernst pattern appears again in the 1941 story, “The Seventh Horse,” which includes an angry and wild-haired woman with an attachment to horses, a white bird, a no longer desirable wife, and a man who is a lover of horses.
Transformation as an engine powers many of the stories, along with dense settings that reflect character or create conflict between character and place. Additionally, a perpetual liveliness reminds the reader of Carrington herself, in flight from boredom. Her tales can reach for sensationalism—incest, vampiric thirst, murder—and yet never lose their sense of humor, composed of a kind of Laputan absurdity and touches of drollery and whimsy. (In “The Mad Queen,” sudden, frenetic activity evokes the Alice books: “When he saw me arrive, the Prime Minister called out, ‘Take your places,’ and everybody rushed to the tables and began to play ferociously.”) The queen is mad, feeds her horses on jam, and dispels heaviness with noodles or beef morsels in the nose.) The proscriptions and prescriptions found in a how-to book about writing fiction would never interest Carrington.
Carrington often turned to another language than her native one, setting another barrier between her life in England and her created worlds at the same time that she made use of her childhood’s rocking horse, Crookhey Hall, gardens, and family. This attractive edition would not exist without translators from French and Spanish—Kathrine Talbot (at times with Marina Warner) and Anthony Kerrigan.
Kathryn Davis’s enjoyable, lively introduction skirts the edges of legend, pointing to the rumor that Nanny Carrington arrived to rescue her Leonora by submarine rather than ship, but also turns Renato Leduc into a mere “retired bullfighter”—surely he would have thought of himself as poet, diplomat, and former soldier with Pancho Villa? And surely the presence of Boozy the fox-terrier at Carrington’s birth ought to be credited less to “a cousin” than to the 1965 mock artist’s statement, “Jezzamathatics or Introduction to the Wonderful Process of Painting.” The introduction also wipes from the record Carrington’s time in the United States—understandably, as more needs to be known about those forays.
- The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington
- London: Virago Press, 2017
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Gaps in a Life
A motivation to read Joanna Moorhead’s The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington (London: Virago Press, 2017) is the chance to hear opinions about painting, writing, theatrical design, and more from Carrington, the words transcribed by a cousin who was a relatively frequent visitor at the end of Leonora Carrington’s life. This reader found herself wishing for less summation and more specifics about art and writing—for Moorhead to be a Boswell and Carrington a Johnson. The book will no doubt be particularly interesting for those readers who do not know Carrington, and who have not encountered, say, Marina Warner and Susan Aberth’s writings about the artist and her work. The story of how Moorhead learned of her famous relative and became friends with her in old age is interesting.
The book suffers from a lack of proportion. The best-known parts of Carrington’s life, her time with the Surrealists in Paris and her stay in Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche with Max Ernst, are laid out generously enough, and the sanatorium episode in Santander with its aftermath is clear. The account we get of the Lisbon episode and Carrington’s subsequent departure for New York is also lucid. But without further clarity about her time elsewhere, and without closer treatment of what she accomplished in the last sixty years of her life, the book feels lopsided and light, a little like the subject of gossip Carrington did not want to be. As Warner says in her introduction to Down Below, “Those old days [with Ernst] were long ago for her, and she was not pleased when the intervening decades of work were not given their due. ‘A lot of people want to make me into gossip,’ she said, “and it’s missing the point of anybody to make them into gossip.’ ” Her later stays in the United States are given the shortest of short shrifts, and the book does not reveal a lot of what happened in the “intervening decades of work.” Moorhead wishes to tell “Leonora’s story . . . in the way I believe she wanted it to be told,” but to do so fully, those years of dedicated labor would have to be given their due.
Moorhead claims the older Carrington for feminism, as do many, though implicit in the facts of her life is the question of whether it is right to lock her in any sort of box. Like the image of the self-willed, runaway horse she finds congenial, Carrington always stands in uneasy relationship to movements, groups, theorists, critics, and settled ideas. She rejects her privileged English childhood with its pretensions and pre-written narrative of how a woman should live, even though that very childhood appears to have also provided her with the confidence and force of will to put her goals first. She rejects Ernst and the roles that the Surrealists provide to women, even though she learns much from him and others. She has something large and specific to protect that would be tarnished by yielding to the touch of group, convention, or banal slogan: her own unbending, inward vision.
Also frustrating is the book’s cloudiness in regard to family issues, an interesting lapse given the family relationship between author and subject. For example, details might color the picture of the New World relationship between Leonora and the father she never again saw, as well as clarify the bond to her mother. The difficulties with the brothers who “held all the cards” remain in gloom, so the handling of the trust funds and lack of inheritance is unclear. How often was she away from Mexico City? One minute she’s running away from authority in Mexico and finding a perch in the United States; in the next instant, she’s visiting, evidently with no worries about a return. Such depictions jolt the reader and need more clarity.
But the book is a work of affection and will please many. Rambles with the Surrealists cannot help but amuse, and flights from a Nazi advance are always compelling. And perhaps Moorhead will yet prove a Boswell with a trove of quotes.