Life and Work of Leonora Carrington, Activist and Artist

"I didn't have time to be anyone's muse"

Leonora Carrington's Surrealist self-portrait
Leonora Carrington's "Self-portrait", circa 1937 (Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wikimedia Commons).

Leonora Carrington (April 6, 1917–May 25, 2011) was an English artist, novelist, and activist. She was part of the Surrealist movement of the 1930s and, after moving to Mexico City as an adult, became a founding member of Mexico's women’s liberation movement.

Fast Facts: Leonora Carrington

  • Known For: Surrealist artist and writer
  • Born: April 6, 1917 in Clayton Green, Clayton-le-Woods, United Kingdom
  • Died: May 25, 2011 in Mexico City, Mexico
  • Spouse(s): Renato Leduc, Emericko Weisz
  • Children: Gabriel Weisz, Pablo Weisz
  • Notable Quote: "I didn't have time to be anyone's muse... I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist."

Early Life

Leonora Carrington was born in 1917 in Clayton Green, Chorley, Lancashire, England, to an Irish mother married to a wealthy Irish textile manufacturer. In a family of four children, she was the only daughter, alongside her three brothers. Although she was educated by excellent governesses and sent to good schools, she was expelled from two different schools for rebellious misbehavior.

Eventually, Carrington was sent abroad to Florence, Italy, where she studied at Mrs. Penrose's Academy of Art. When Carrington was ten, she first encountered Surrealist art in a gallery in Paris, which cemented her desire to pursue a career as an artist. Her father strongly disapproved, but her mother supported her. Although she was presented at court when she came of age, Carrington was mostly disinterested in the niceties of society.

Newcomer to the Art World

In 1935, Carrington attended the Chelsea School of Art in London for one year, but she then transferred to London’s Ozenfant Academy of Fine Arts (established by the French modernist Amédée Ozenfant), where she spent the next three years studying her craft. Her family was not openly opposed to her artistic pursuits, but by this point, they were not actively encouraging her either.

Carrington's greatest champion and patron at this time was Edward James, the noted Surrealist poet and art patron. James bought many of her early paintings. Years later, he still supported her work, and he arranged a show for her work at Pierre Matisse's New York gallery in 1947.

Relationship With Max Ernst

At an exhibition in London in 1936, Carrington encountered the work of Max Ernst, a German-born Surrealist who was 26 years her senior. Ernst and Carrington met at a London party the following year and quickly became inseparable, both artistically and romantically. When they moved to Paris together, Ernst left his wife and moved in with Carrington, making a home in the south of France.

Together, they supported each other’s art and even made works of art, such as quirky animal sculptures, to decorate their shared home. It was during this period that Carrington painted her first clearly Surrealist work, Self-portrait (also called The Inn of the Dawn Horse). Carrington depicted herself in dreamy white clothes and with loose hair, with a prancing hyena in front of her a rocking horse flying around behind her. She also painted a portrait of Ernst in a similar style.

When World War II began, Ernst (who was German) was immediately treated with hostility in France. He was soon arrested by French authorities as a hostile foreign national and was released only because of interventions of several well-connected French and American friends. Things only got worse when the Nazis invaded France; they arrested Ernst again and accused him of creating “degenerate” art. Ernst escaped and fled to America with the help of art patron Peggy Guggenheim—but he left Carrington behind. Ernst married Peggy Guggenheim in 1941, and although their marriage soon fell apart, he and Carrington never rekindled their relationship.

Institutionalization and Escape

Terrified and devastated, Carrington fled Paris and headed to Spain. Her mental and emotional state deteriorated, and ultimately her parents had Carrington institutionalized. Carrington was treated with electroshock therapy and strong drugs. Carrington later wrote about her horrific experiences in the mental institution, which also reportedly included assault, abuse, and unsanitary conditions, in a novel, Down Below. Eventually, Carrington was released to the care of a nurse and moved to Lisbon, Portugal. In Lisbon, Carrington escaped the nurse and sought sanctuary in the Mexican embassy.

Renato Leduc, a Mexican ambassador and friend of Pablo Picasso, agreed to help get Carrington out of Europe. The pair entered a marriage of convenience so that her path would be smoother as a diplomat’s wife, and they were able to escape to Mexico. Aside from a few journeys north to the United States, Carrington would spend most of the rest of her life in Mexico.

Art and Activism in Mexico

Carrington and Leduc divorced quickly and quietly in 1943. Over the next couple of decades, Carrington spent time in New York City as well as in Mexico, interacting with the art world at large. Her work was unusual among the Surrealist community in that she did not use the works of Freud as a major influence. Instead, she utilized magical realism and the idea of alchemy, often drawing on her own life for inspiration and symbolism. Carrington also went against the grain with regards to the Surrealists’ approach to female sexuality: she painted as she experienced the world as a woman, rather than the male-gaze filtered depictions of many of her counterparts.

In the 1970s, Leonora became a voice for the women’s liberation movement in Mexico City. She designed a poster, called Mujeres conciencia, for their movement. In many ways, her art tackled concepts of gender identity and feminism, making her an ideal fit to work with their cause. Her focus was psychological freedom, but her work was primarily towards political freedom for women (as a means to this ultimate goal); she also believed in creating cooperative efforts between the movements in North America and Mexico.

While Carrington was living in Mexico, she met and married the Hungarian-born photographer Emerico Weisz. The couple had two sons: Gabriel and Pablo, the latter of whom followed in his mother’s footsteps as a Surrealist artist.

Death and Legacy

Carrington's husband Emerico Weisz died in 2007. She survived him by about four years. After a battle with pneumonia, Carrington died in Mexico City on May 25, 2011, aged 94. Her work continues to be shown at exhibitions across the world, from Mexico to New York to her native Britain. In 2013, Carrington's work had a major retrospective at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, and in 2015, a Google Doodle commemorated what would have been her 98th birthday. By the time of her death, Leonora Carrington was one of the last-surviving Surrealist artists, and undoubtedly one of the most unique.

Sources

  • Aberth, Susan. Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art. Lund Humphries, 2010.
  • Blumberg, Naomi. “Leonora Carrington: English-Born Mexican Painter and Sculptor.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leonora-Carrington.
  • “Leonora Carrington.” National Museum of Women in the Arts, https://nmwa.org/explore/artist-profiles/leonora-carrington.