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A Leonora Carrington A to Z

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Leonora Carrington would have turned 100 today. I met her in Mexico City in the early 1990s, through our family doctor, and we embarked on a friendship of nearly twenty years. Most Sunday afternoons, my parents, my sister and I would visit her at home in the Colonia Roma, arriving at five and staying until after dusk. I often wrote down my impressions, and her words verbatim, as soon as I got home.

Ambidextrous: Leonora could write and paint with both hands at once, forwards and backwards. ‘Yes, I’m ambidextrous, like madmen,’ she once said.

Bullfighting: ‘Horrific. It’s a disgusting, shameful demonstration of human stupidity and cruelty. Horrible. I was once put out at a bullfight. I got up and clapped when the bull jumped over the thing and chased all the attendants around, and I just clapped and clapped, and they put me out.’

Cats: The last cats Leonora owned were Ramona and Monsieur, two green-eyed Siamese who followed her around the house. She wanted a dog too but worried the cats would stop speaking to her.

Devils: ‘I think there are very dangerous devils, and I think there are interesting devils, and I think there are very stupid devils, I think there are probably intelligent ones, and angels and anything that has been invented. Hundreds, thousands of them, all over the place … Well, I use the word invented when I mean seen. I don’t know what invented means, really, do you?’

England: Leonora would express nostalgia for England but at the same time no desire to return. She missed the trees and the architecture rather than the people, since most of those she knew had died, and the eventful moments of her life had taken place abroad.

Filters: Until her final days, Leonora smoked. Her choice of cigarette varied but she always attached them to short plastic filters, which she would clean and reuse.

Grey: More than anything, Leonora wore grey. Baggy grey trousers, long grey sweaters, grey shawls, grey turtlenecks, grey lace-up shoes. Occasionally she’d bring in a bit of purple but my memory of her is distinctly in monochrome.

Haunting: Leonora would sometimes mention a middle-aged woman in pink who’d appear in different rooms. A few friends claimed to see the ghost too, standing behind her. She was never scared, however; in previous times, her home had been a printing house, ‘which is not a very sinister thing’.

Imagination: ‘Nothing is created by the imagination. Imagination is a very mysterious force which we know very little about. We don’t know if it creates anything … I think that things occur, like for instance somebody one time must have invented a cup, because it was easier than putting your face into a river and lapping up the water.’

James, Edward: Englishman in Mexico, patron of the Surrealists; Leonora was fond of him, despite saying he lacked respect for his friends and would wash his hands with her shampoo.

Kabbalah: The book Leonora would mention most often, important to her throughout her lifetime.

Lapland: Often when we’d ask Leonora what place she would most like to visit, she would reply: ‘Lapland.’ She loved reindeer and wished the Laps would stop eating them.

Manipulation: she said manipulation is what makes ‘the great cosmic yoghurt’.

Nagas: Some of Leonora’s favorite mythical creatures, from Indian mythology, which featured in her paintings and sculptures.

Orange Pekoe: Leonora would often ask me to bring her a tin of tea from England, especially Orange Pekoe. She also loved PG Tips, ‘bog standard English tea’, and said she much preferred it to fancy teas. Whatever I brought her she would keep under lock and key so that no one else could use it. ‘Cacher la boîte de PG Tips.’

Painting: ‘I rarely paint images from dreams. Images occur just like that. They occur from something that is further away from my consciousness, I think. But any painter would tell you that.’

‘Quel désir d’extravagance!’ André Breton’s words on first seeing her paintings, in Paris, when Leonora was twenty.

Roma: Colonia Roma was the neighbourhood of Mexico City she lived in from the 1940s; over the decades, it underwent an enormous transformation. Across the street lay the debris of a collapsed building, a victim of the 1985 earthquake, which housed a growing community of cats and homeless people. Leonora called it ‘a garden of scorpions’.

Spiritualism: Leonora could see through the hocus pocus of people who claimed to have supernatural powers. She once played a trick on a ‘very serious ex-Nazi with a thick German accent’ who held a séance. She brought along one of her sons and before the session they attached a small instrument to the bottom of the table. It made metallic noises whenever it was pulled by a string. Everyone sat down. After a while, Leonora began to grow bored. She or her son pulled the string. Noises were heard coming from beneath the table. ‘I think there’s something there,’ Leonora said. ‘Who are you?’ the ex-Nazi asked. ‘I think it’s a horse,’ Leonora replied. The man stood up and tipped the table over to reveal the hidden instrument. He was livid, and never spoke to Leonora again.

Time: ‘I don’t need to kill time. It’s killing me.’ (When asked whether she played chess, she said she was uninterested in board games, and would rather draw.)

University of contraception: Leonora would often complain there were too many people in the world and wished they would establish such a university.

Varo, Remedios: feline-faced Spanish painter, one of Leonora’s closest female friends, with whom she shared a love of cats.

Weisz, Emerico, also known as Chiki: Hungarian photographer to whom Leonora was married for over fifty years, largely in silence.

Xanax (Tafil in Mexico): Leonora would take half a tablet every night for sleep and anxiety. ‘The darkness’ would set in by late afternoon, she said.

Yeti: Leonora’s last pet (after Ramona and Monsieur: see Cats), a small, white, hyperactive Maltese.

Zoology: Leonora adored animals, mythical and real. ‘I draw completely from my mind. Well, I don’t know if it’s my mind … But if I’m drawing an animal like a cat, I’d like to draw it from life.’

Comments on “A Leonora Carrington A to Z”

  1. Simon Wood says:

    I would urge anyone with an interest in surrealism, in these unreal times we live in, to visit Two Temple Place in London for the current exhibition about the “Sussex Radicals” including James, Edward (above), surrealism’s English patron and a big fan of Leonora’s.

    http://twotempleplace.org/exhibitions/2017-2/

    Dali’s Mae West “lips” sofa is there from his famous pad in Sussex, West Dean House, but the most surreal exhibit is a short documentary film by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy about lobster fishing off the Sussex coast.

    In the confines of Two Temple Place, a sort of large Tardis owned by the Astors in which every inch of the wood-panelled walls are hand-carved, the tale of the lobsters and how the canny, weathered southern-English fishermen put one over these prehistoric arthropods and inadvertent surrealist memes, is a refreshing, almost intoxicating, dose of reality, like a strong mug of “bog standard English tea” (above, under “Orange Pekoe”).

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