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The Forgotten Surrealist Painter Who ‘Didn’t Have Time to Be Anyone’s Muse’

By the time she was 30, the formidable painter and writer Leonora Carrington had had an affair with Max Ernst, endured a nervous breakdown, been forcibly installed in a mental institution, fled to Mexico, and written a harrowing memoir about madness...
Screengrab via YouTube

In Leonora Carrington's 1937 short story "The Debutante," a rebellious, upper-class girl's only ally is a hyena. A frequent visitor of the zoo, the girl laments to the hyena there that she must attend a ball being held in her honor; the hyena offers to go in the girl's place. To carry out the task, the hyena tears off the face of the girl's family maid and dons it as a disguise. Though the ruse works for a time, the hyena eventually reveals itself during dinner and runs out the window, horrifying and shaming the girl's family.


Along with a corresponding self-portrait, this story swiftly and violently expresses Carrington's feelings about the society she was being molded into at the time. The hyena—a smelly, hairy animal associated with witchcraft and androgyny—was an alarming creature to sympathize with, but it was fitting for Carrington's sensibility. "I'm like a hyena, I get into the garbage cans," she told an interviewer in 1999. "I have an insatiable curiosity." That curiosity fed into the theme of her life's work, which could be described as a search for the hidden, lost histories that explained what she felt was missing.

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Known mainly, if at all, as a fantastical visual artist associated with the Surrealist movement, Leonora Carrington was born 1917 in Lancashire, England. She was the only girl of four children and her defiant nature was almost immediately apparent as she racked up several school expulsions for "anti-social tendencies and certain supernatural proclivities." Her strict father, an upper-class textile manufacturer, discouraged her pursuit of the only thing she did enjoy in school—art—and instead pushed her into the debutante lifestyle. Even amidst this stifling upbringing, flashes of wild, fanciful inspiration came through to her: seeing a hyena at the zoo; her nanny and mother's recitations of Celtic myths, which stirred her interest in magic and storytelling; and Herbert Read's book Surrealism, with a Max Ernst work on the cover. At age 19, she met the 46-year-old Ernst in London and ran away to France with him, but during World War II he was arrested, and she never saw him again. Eventually she escaped to New York and finally settled in Mexico, where she would stay for the rest of her life.


Creating art and forging connections almost everywhere she went, Carrington incorporated her experiences across the globe into an ever-evolving style that hit its peak in Mexico, where she became a "national treasure," a sharp contrast to how she felt in her native England. Her process involved continuous rebellion to ensure her independence as well as meticulous, probing research on the subjects she depicted. Though her paintings may look whimsical, they contain the forgotten histories and lucid social criticism that drove her to eschew her upbringing and pursue art in the first place. And while her legacy has been somewhat overshadowed by male Surrealists, two new books, The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington and the reissue of her 1944 memoir Down Below, suggest a renewed interest in the challenging, unapologetic artist and writer.

Carrington's engagement with the Surrealist movement was complex, but it also reflected the fruitful but sometimes narrow, fetishistic path the movement had for women. Her romance with the much older painter Max Ernst quickly made her a candidate to be considered a muse, but she concisely declared the role was "bullshit," clarifying on another occasion: "I didn't have time to be anyone's muse. I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist." She didn't have time, either, for the posturing antics that gained notoriety for many of Surrealism's men. Ernst's long string of conquests and affairs with much younger women caused significant tension, but as Carrington became aware of these dynamics, she largely sidestepped the issue, even befriending many of Ernst's paramours during their relationship. One of them, the Argentine painter Leonor Fini, declared Carrington a "true revolutionary," "released from the image of femininity created by men." In 1939, Fini painted a portrait of Carrington in knight-like armor, a warrior guarding two other women, called "The Alcove."


Many women working in or around Surrealism formed strong relationships with each other, with Carrington demonstrating a particularly moving knack for befriending an international network of women, including her later circle in Mexico with Remedios Varo and Kati Horna. Roland Penrose's photograph "Four Women Asleep" illustrates the connections shared among women of the era. The shot shows four women who worked in the movement, some perhaps best-known as muses or significant others: Carrington, the photographer Lee Miller, Nusch Éluard, and Ady Fidelin. (The latter three were associated with Man Ray, though Miller was also in an open marriage with Penrose.) Carrington tended to side with the women of Surrealism: She specified she liked Frida Kahlo over Diego Riviera, Fidelin over Man Ray ("What she saw in him, I'll never know," she told her cousin Joanna Moorhead. "It certainly wasn't his looks.") The furious sense of purpose she had to sustain to ensure her pursuit of art meant she had a low tolerance for those with narrow visions for female artists. Of the important men in the movement, she said: "I wasn't daunted by any of them."

I'm like a hyena, I get into the garbage cans. I have an insatiable curiosity.

In 1940, during World War II, Ernst was arrested and detained for being an "undesirable foreigner," resulting in Carrington's mental breakdown at age 23. (Ernst was released and arrested again, but he ultimately escaped to the United States.) She was deemed "incurably insane," sent to an asylum in Spain, and subjected to a pharmaceutical that produced effects like electroshock treatment. She shared her experience in the memoir Down Below and it gained her more attention from the Surrealist circle. The harsh realities of not only mental illness but the horrifying treatment she endured did not align with their romanticized conception of madness: "Not Breton or anyone has ever seen the inside of a Spanish madhouse," Carrington said, according to Susan Aberth's biography of the artist.

Like many European Surrealist emigres, Carrington ended up in Mexico City towards the end of the war. Her move catalyzed her maturation as an artist; she was finally able to build an environment that nourished her wide-ranging aims and interests. Her friendship with the painter Remedios Varo deepened into something that Carrington says "changed my life" and together they launched into a new series of research, experiments, recipes, story writing, and art. Their paintings evolved into often elaborate tableaux that depicted a dissolve of binaries: between domesticity and power, witchcraft and science, astrology and mathematics, gender. (In Varo and Carrington's stories, they would cast each other as men, or, in the case of Carrington's novella The Hearing Trumpet, 90-year-old women.) In contrast to the tendency of Surrealism's male artists to depict women as thin, young, fragmented, static, and perpetually naked muses, Carrington's women fell across a spectrum: often very old, powerful and threatening, in a state of action and transformation. Her idiosyncratic way of filtering them through her imagination and experiences meant a Carrington painting or story had a uniquely charged, multi-dimensional meaning. As her patron Edward James said, her paintings were "not merely painted. They are brewed."

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The violent humor of "The Debutante" had a cathartic sense of anarchy and escape that Carrington would hone and refine as she aged. In the 1970s, Carrington became a founding member of the Women's Liberation Movement in Mexico. It was an issue of reclamation for her: In a 1976 exhibition text, she wrote, "A woman should not have to demand Rights. The Rights were there from the beginning, they must be Taken Back Again, including the mysteries which were ours and which were violated, stolen or destroyed, leaving us with the thankless hope of pleasing a male animal."

Carrington implored people to question the erasure of women in history, to question men and those in power, citing in "The Cabbage is a Rose" history's "convenient[…] gaps and peculiarities that only begin to make sense if understood as a covering-up for a very different kind of civilization which had been eliminated." She spoke regularly of the multiple identities she felt she inhabited, delighted in depicting the complexities of the self, and writhed at the idea of settling into the roles imposed on her by others—whether that was the debutante, the Surrealist muse, or the madwoman. Despite her relative obscurity, the strength of her distinctive vision has snuck its way into pop culture nonetheless, as in Tim Walker's editorials and Madonna's acclaimed music video "Bedtime Story": Among the clip's many references to female Surrealists, Carrington's painting The Giantess is echoed in the flock of birds flying from Madonna's robe. As the mainstream begins to acknowledge the forgotten female artists of the past, it's fitting that Carrington, a writer and painter so dedicated to mining the neglected and concealed, is finally being celebrated.