The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington 
by Joanna Moorhead.
Virago, 304 pp., £20, April 2017, 978 0 349 00877 6
Show More
‘The Debutante’ and Other Stories 
by Leonora Carrington.
Silver Press, 153 pp., £9.99, April 2017, 978 0 9957162 0 9
Show More
Down Below 
by Leonora Carrington.
NYRB, 69 pp., £8.99, May 2017, 978 1 68137 060 6
Show More
Leonora Carrington and the International Avant-Garde 
edited by Jonathan Eburne and Catriona McAra.
Manchester, 275 pp., £75, January 2017, 978 1 78499 436 5
Show More
Show More

What​ Leonora Carrington remembered most clearly about being a debutante in 1935 was her tiara ‘biting’ into her skull. In her short story ‘The Debutante’, the teenage narrator hates balls, ‘especially when they are given in my honour’ (Carrington’s parents threw one for her at the Ritz), so she engages a hyena to take her place: the animal is about the right size, and she reckons nobody will make it out properly in the candlelight. She gives it her dress, finds some gloves to hide its paws and teaches it to walk upright in heels. Then she summons her maid, whose face the hyena tears off to wear as a mask (it eats the rest of her body, except the feet, which it saves for later in a little bag). The narrator settles down with a copy of Gulliver’s Travels, but before long her mother bursts into her room complaining that as they sat down to dinner, ‘that thing sitting in your place … tore off its face and ate it. And with one great bound, disappeared through the window.’

‘The Debutante’ was written in the South of France, three years after Carrington’s own coming out dance. She left England for good when she was twenty, and spent most of her long life in Mexico City, but in her writing and her painting she returned frequently to the landscapes, rituals and relationships of her childhood. Her work isn’t a reliable guide to the events of her life, but says something about the way they affected her: it often reads like an inventory of her dreams or an encyclopedia of her private mythology. Symbolic creatures (horses, hyenas, crows) and emblematic figures (patriarchs, virgins, crones) recur again and again. But where her paintings formalise these motifs, her stories are more improvisational. The tone is often droll, as in ‘Mr Gregory’s Fly’, about a man who’s plagued by a fly that buzzes into his mouth when he speaks and out of his ear when someone speaks to him. At other times it’s more unsettling: in ‘White Rabbits’ the narrator’s neighbour asks for some rotten meat and when she takes it over she finds the woman’s apartment ‘littered with gnawed bones and animal skulls’, as well as a hundred or so live rabbits and a man with bandaged eyes sitting in the corner. As she flees, the woman waves goodbye and her fingers come off and fall to the ground ‘like shooting stars’. All of Carrington’s writing – she wrote stories on and off till she died – has an Alice in Wonderland matter-of-factness about absurd events, and a fairy-tale insouciance about violence and gore. Her paintings are more inscrutable: the same extraordinary scenes occur but without the (often equally perplexed) narrator to guide us.

She didn’t like to question where it all came from. ‘Do not psychoanalyse my paintings,’ she told one interviewer. ‘If you continue I will go on strike.’ You wouldn’t expect that to put off would-be biographers, but it’s interesting, and perhaps a little disappointing, that Joanna Moorhead, the first of them, didn’t come to Carrington through her work but because of a familial connection (she’s a much younger cousin). Carrington was almost never spoken of by the family after she left England, and it was only through a chance conversation at a drinks party that Moorhead learned that her wayward cousin was just about the most famous painter in Mexico.

The family background, as Moorhead tells it, was one of genteel philistinism. Carrington’s father, Harold – a textiles magnate who became the principal shareholder in Imperial Chemicals Industries – was said to be the wealthiest man in Lancashire, but the family was uneasy about its status, and his wife, Maurie, complained that she was snubbed by the local gentry. They were Catholic too, which may have been part of it. Both parents seem to have viewed their daughter as an instrument for social improvement – Carrington took refuge from their ambitions in a vivid imaginative world. One of her earliest surviving notebooks, from 1927, when she was ten years old, is titled ‘Animals of a Different Planit’ and is full of annotated sketches of horse-like creatures, not unlike the ones in her mature work.

She liked to claim that her Irish-born mother, who shared her love of stories, came from Gypsy stock (Moorhead thinks this is unlikely). Her relationship with her father was more fraught. She said he was like ‘a mafioso’, and he clearly expected deference and devotion from his daughter, though he received neither. ‘The Oval Lady’, a story written around the same time as ‘The Debutante’, conjures up the atmosphere of paternal tyranny and filial insubordination. Its young heroine, Lucretia, likes to play with her rocking horse, Tartar, even though her father (‘the bastard’) has forbidden it; when he catches her, he throws Tartar into the fire, producing ‘the most frightful neighing … as if an animal were suffering extreme torture’. Moorhead, who sometimes seems nonplussed when faced with her cousin’s fiction, writes that Harold Carrington ‘did not burn Leonora’s rocking horse, because it was still there … when my father was a child’.

Carrington was expelled from her first convent school, the Holy Sepulchre in Essex (for ‘mental deficiency’) and then from St Mary’s, Ascot, where the nuns saw something sinister in her habit of writing backwards. Her parents decided to try something different, and sent her to Miss Penrose’s Academy in Florence, a finishing school with fewer rules. There she encountered the work of Arcimboldo, Francesco di Giorgio and Uccello. Along with Bosch, they were to be the most important influences on her art, inspiring her palette of greens, browns and brilliant reds, her crowded compositions and her use of egg tempera – which explains why, when you see her paintings in galleries, they can seem to belong to a much earlier period than the Dalís, Ernsts and Magrittes they’re hung alongside.

Against her father’s wishes, she began to study painting in 1935 at Amédée Ozenfant’s academy in London. The first International Surrealism Exhibition was held at the New Burlington Galleries the following year, and after reading about it in the paper, Carrington’s mother sent her a copy of Herbert Read’s Surrealism. The picture on the cover was Max Ernst’s Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale, which shows three female figures: one lying on the ground, fainted or dead; the second fleeing towards the left of the frame; the third slumped in the arms of a male figure. ‘I thought, ah, this is familiar; I know what this is about,’ Carrington said.

Her early twenties were so dramatic that accounts of her life tend to be lopsided, and Moorhead does little to buck the trend, devoting almost half of her book to the years between 1937 and 1942. Carrington had already fallen in love with Ernst’s paintings, so she said, when they met at a dinner party given by Ernö Goldfinger and his wife, Ursula, another pupil of Ozenfant’s. They began an affair ‘almost instantly’. Moorhead finds it hard to get her head around the 26-year age gap, the contrast between ‘the beautiful, sparky young woman with her dark eyes, crimson lips and cascade of raven curls, and the white-haired, slim, middle-aged man with his lined forehead… He was old enough to be her father.’ Harold Carrington was equally distressed, perhaps for similar reasons. He called the police and demanded that they close down Ernst’s ‘pornographic’ exhibition; an arrest warrant was issued, and the couple fled – first to Cornwall, then on to Paris, where Ernst went back and forth between Carrington and his wife, Marie-Berthe (they divorced the following year).

Carrington stood out on the Paris art scene, partly because of her youth and Englishness, but more sharply on account of her gender. Breton called her a ‘femme enfant’, a ‘conducteur merveilleusement magnétique’ for the imagination of the (male) artist, but she had other ideas. When Jean Miró handed her some money and told her to get him some cigarettes, she handed it back and said he could get them himself. Soon she was threatening more serious embarrassment: Peggy Guggenheim visited one day to buy a painting from Ernst, and ended up leaving with one of Carrington’s instead. Ernst put a stop to that by marrying Guggenheim a few years later, securing a place for his work at the centre of her collection.

In 1938, Carrington and Ernst moved to Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche, a small village near the Rhône Valley. Moorhead describes their time there as an idyll cut short by the outbreak of war. Ernst was rounded up as a German national and thrown into prison. Catherine Yarrow, another British painter who’d moved to France to be closer to Surrealism, convinced Carrington it wasn’t safe to stay there on her own and they left together for Spain. She had to sell the house to pay for the trip – she was swindled out of its true value – and took what she could in a suitcase, leaving behind all their work, but taking Ernst’s passport in the hope of getting him a visa in Madrid. He didn’t need a visa in the end: after escaping from his internment camp he rescued what paintings he could from the house at Saint-Martin and headed for the border. When officials tried to stop him, he showed them the canvases (Carrington’s as well as his own) and was waved through with a wink. ‘You really ought to go back to France,’ they said. ‘Be careful not to board the wrong train,’ the one for Madrid, which he did.

Moorhead is good at capturing the romance and excitement of Carrington’s story, with its elopements and abandonments, incarcerations and escapes. Her prose is lively and unpretentious. But she tends to view the more prosaic aspects of Carrington’s work as autobiographical fact (going so far as to call the unnamed narrator of ‘The Debutante’ Leonora), while leaving the fantastical stuff out of her analysis altogether. Despite having the word ‘surreal’ in her title, she doesn’t seem to care what it means, and often uses it as a synonym for ‘bohemian’ (as in ‘the wild surreality of the days and evenings when they all gathered amidst the creative chaos to talk, drink, smoke and to eat’). And she is happy to catalogue Carrington’s kooky behaviour without delving far into the psychology: ‘the key to Leonora was that she was a rebel, and a rebel to the very core of her being.’ With keys like that, who needs locks?

This attitude is calamitous for her treatment of Down Below, Carrington’s memoir of mental illness and recovery, about which she cautions: ‘how much … is true, and how much is a result of being unbalanced, is unclear.’ Carrington doesn’t make such distinctions herself, and would have thought it missing the point to do so. Down Below opens with her abandonment of Ernst, which, encouraged by Yarrow, she attributes to ‘an unconscious desire to get rid for the second time of my father … whom I had to eliminate if I wanted to live’. She goes on to describe her drive to Spain in Yarrow’s battered Fiat:

Twenty kilometres beyond Saint-Martin, the car stopped; the brakes had jammed. I heard Catherine say: ‘The brakes have jammed.’ ‘Jammed!’ I, too, was jammed within, by forces foreign to my conscious will, which were also paralysing the mechanism of the car. This was the first stage of my identification with the external world. I was the car. The car had jammed on account of me, because I, too, was jammed between Saint-Martin and Spain. I was horrified by my own power.

The Surrealists talked a good deal about madness, but Carrington was unusual in knowing what it felt like. In Andorra, she lost the ability to walk in a straight line. She saw secret messages on advertising billboards, and ‘heard the vibrations of beings as clearly as voices’. She became convinced that half the world, including Hitler and the SS, had been hypnotised by a Dutchman called Van Ghent, and that she was the only one who could bring them round. After telling the British Embassy this she was detained, and a few weeks later sent, heavily sedated, to an asylum in Santander. When she came to she found herself in ‘a tiny room with no windows on the outside, the only window being pierced into the wall to the right that separated me from the next room … I was being watched bya repulsive-looking nurse who looked like an enormous bottle of Lysol. I was in pain, and I realised that my hands and feet were bound by leather straps.’ Her treatment at the asylum was appalling, even sadistic. She was strapped down for days at a time, ‘lying in my own excrement, urine and sweat, tortured by mosquitoes’, to prevent her from trying to escape. At one point, the nurses induced an artificial abscess in her thigh to stop her moving. She was given regular injections of Cardiazol, which produced massive convulsions. Her first experience of the drug was, she writes, ‘the most terrible and blackest day in my life’.

Down Below is unlike most of Carrington’s writing. The events it records aren’t exactly less bizarre than those in ‘The Debutante’ or ‘White Rabbits’, but there’s much more physical and psychological texture. The characters are picked out with expressive flecks of detail: Don Mariano, the owner of the asylum, wears a robe ‘covered, at the level of his stomach, with a crust of old food dried over time’; one inmate walks around holding a matchbox that contains nothing but a small, sad piece of human shit. The book’s most extraordinary feature though is Carrington’s unsettling lack of self-pity. She describes how her parents sent her nanny to see her: ‘Tirelessly, Nanny repeated, “What have they done to you … what have they done to you,” and wept by my bed … I was exasperated by it, for I felt at that moment that my parents were still trying to pull me back through her.’ If they were, it wasn’t much of an attempt. ‘One would have thought they would have come themselves to Santander,’ Carrington said to Marina Warner in 1987. Would she have liked it if they had? After getting out of the asylum, she was taken to Madrid in the care of one of her father’s colleagues, who gave her a choice: either she become his lover, or be sent to South Africa, as her parents wished. She opted for the latter, but gave her minder the slip in Lisbon, and travelled to Mexico via New York City. She never saw her father again.

In his autobiography My Last Sigh, Luis Buñuel describes meeting Carrington in New York in the 1940s:

Leonora suddenly got up, went to the bathroom, and took a shower – fully dressed. Afterwards, dripping wet, she came back to the living room, sat down in an armchair, and stared at me. ‘You’re a handsome man,’ she said to me in Spanish, seizing my arm. ‘You look exactly like my warden.’

Moorhead puts this down to ‘performance art’. ‘How else to explain the curious incident?’ Buñuel took it as a return to madness, although he may have been influenced by a subsequent episode (not mentioned by Moorhead) when Carrington smeared her menstrual blood over the walls of his studio; he didn’t speak to her again. Her sense of humour extended to cutting her guests’ hair while they slept, then cooking it in their breakfast omelettes. She liked being provocative, but she must also have felt it her right as a Surrealist.

One person who did enjoy Carrington’s practical jokes was the Spanish painter Remedios Varo. They had known each other slightly in Paris, but their friendship quickened when they both settled in Mexico City, and for almost two decades (until Varo’s death in 1963) they met every day, often at the apartment Varo shared with the poet Benjamin Péret and a horde of cats. They spent their afternoons cooking spoof delicacies, such as tapioca dyed black to look like caviar, and sending letters to people chosen at random from the phone book. Along with the Hungarian photographer Kati Horna, they developed their own strain of Surrealism, influenced by myths and occult rituals but also concerned with reimagining feminine symbols (their influence on one another’s work was the subject of an exhibition at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester in 2010). They also formed the theatrical group Poesía en Voz Alta with Octavio Paz and the painter Juan Soriano. ‘Remedios’s presence in Mexico changed my life,’ Carrington said in 1983, and it’s easy to see why: theirs was a real artistic collaboration, and she didn’t have to be anyone’s muse.

It was through Varo that Carrington met the Hungarian photojournalist Imre Weisz, who had managed Robert Capa’s studio in Paris. They married in 1946, and the first of their two sons was born the same year. Motherhood didn’t hurt Carrington’s productivity – she worked, she said, with ‘the baby in one hand, and her paintbrush in the other’ – but it did affect her output. Her sons feature in some of her pictures, ethereal creatures cloaked in black, and she increasingly used domestic settings in paintings and stories to trace connections between cooking, magic and the imagination.

In her short novel The Hearing Trumpet (written in 1950 but not published until 1977), Carrington handles the mystic and domestic with comic panache. The story is narrated by Marian Leatherby, who is 92 and has no teeth left, which doesn’t bother her since she never has to bite anybody. She also has a short grey beard that she thinks is ‘rather gallant’. After her friend Carmella (a red-wigged Spaniard modelled on Varo) gives her a hearing trumpet, Marian catches her grandson calling her ‘a drooling sack of decomposing flesh’ and arguing for her to be locked up in an institution. ‘People under seventy and over seven are very unreliable if they are not cats,’ Carmella reflects. This isn’t very helpful to Marian, who’s packed off to a Christian care home which in some ways resembles the asylum in Santander, but where she unexpectedly flourishes, eventually helping to stage an uprising against the regime. The novel is a hurrah for the inner lives of elderly women; Carrington was only 33 when she wrote it but felt she had lived well beyond her age. In 1945 she had written to her French publisher Henri Parisot: ‘I am no longer the ravishing young girl who passed through Paris, in love – I am an old lady who has lived a lot and I have changed.’

By the time The Hearing Trumpet was published, Carrington was becoming well known in her adopted country. The Galeriá de Arte Mexicano regularly exhibited her work, and in 1961 she had been included as a Mexican artist in a show at the Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno. Shortly afterwards, she was commissioned to paint a mural for the anthropology museum in Mexico City. She spent months gathering material in the southern state of Chiapas, observing local people and reading up on their customs and beliefs. The immense finished work, El Mundo Mágico de los Mayas (The Magical World of the Maya), is a rich panorama, featuring mythical creatures swimming across a crimson sky, a bustling village at ground level, and beneath it a shady strip of underworld, teeming with the dead. The country’s mythology entered her writing in ‘A Mexican Fairy Tale’, a strange story (even by Carrington’s standards) about two children, Juan and María, who have a series of magical experiences and are eventually fused into one being, Juan-Marí, otherwise known as Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent of Mesoamerican folklore. She became increasingly engaged in national politics around this time too, opening her house for meetings during the student protests of the 1960s and advocating on behalf of the women’s movement.

Towards the end of the 1970s, as feminist scholars looked into the women who had been involved in the Surrealist movement, Carrington started to attract serious critical attention in the English-speaking world, and her work has had some distinguished advocates over the years, including Gloria Orenstein, Marina Warner and Angela Carter. The editors of Leonora Carrington and the International Avant-Garde are right to argue that she ought to be seen as ‘a major artist and writer in her own right’, though that isn’t the same as believing that she ‘figures centrally in modern art and literature’. Attempts to situate her at the heart of movements and debates seem misguided. She had a streak of anti-intellectualism, and stuck to the Surrealist principle of using the subconscious to dictate form and content; it doesn’t make much sense to talk about the ‘poststructuralist tendencies’ of her writing or to suggest that oblique references to Marx in her letters illustrate the ‘larger political purpose of Carrington’s work’. But many of the contributions here offer overdue research into her wider work and interests, such as her pieces for the Mexican journal S.NOB, her writing and illustrations for children and her interest in Mexican history and Tibetan Buddhism.

Carrington didn’t have much time for critics, and after Varo’s death she increasingly kept her distance from the art world. By the time she was in her eighties she was regularly being described as a recluse. Moorhead (who relies heavily on interviews with her subject) is keen to let us know that she wasn’t ‘an old lady fading into the twilight’, but rather ‘the warrior she had always been’. But she also says: ‘Her memory was fading … she took refuge in the poetry she remembered from her childhood and youth’; ‘She struggled. Sometimes she was terrified at the prospect of dying; at other times, she seemed resigned to its inevitability’; ‘I have come to realise that what I was doing, through all these hours and days we spent together, was simply being alongside her while she waited.’

It’s an odd definition of ‘warrior’ that includes ‘one who fearfully and forgetfully waits for death’, but then Moorhead’s subject seems to keep eluding her. Carrington was ‘wary’ and ‘circumspect’ by nature, she tells us, but at the same time she was ‘a woman of passion’, an ‘unstoppable adventurer’ who relied on ‘a strong and almost spiritual instinct’. She was ‘unconcerned by the approval of others’, except that ‘like every human being, she was flattered to hear she had created something that someone admired’; she was ‘strong-willed, determined, unflinching, hard-nosed’, and yet characterised by ‘a fragility that she sometimes acknowledged’. The problem isn’t that Carrington was many things – it’s what makes her such an interesting subject – but that Moorhead often wants to show her just being one thing, only to find her cousin contradicting her a few pages later. In the end, she doesn’t get much further than the inscription Carrington’s friend and patron Edward James wrote above her front door in Mexico: ‘This is the house of the Sphinx!’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences