Prim and Improper

Joanna Moorhead, The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington (2017, revised edition)

The journalist Joanna Moorhead knew that she had an older cousin, Prim, who was estranged from the rest of her family and was some kind of artist in Mexico. At a party, she discovered that Carrington was not only an artist, but one of the most respected artists in Mexico and was still alive. Moorhead decided to travel across the Atlantic to meet her and the two became friends, with Carrington agreeing that she could write a biography.

Carrington was born into a rich textile family in Chorley, Lancashire, in 1917 and was a debutante in 1936. But she was already rebelling against her destiny as trophy wife of industrialist or minor aristocrat and wanted to become an artist. After a year at the Chelsea School of Art, she moved to the modernist Ozenfant Academy of Fine Arts in London. At a party — held by Ernő Goldfinger — she met Max Ernst, whose work she knew from the International Surrealist Exhibition at the Burlington Galleries the previous year, and fell in love. They moved to Paris and worked together, before moving to the south of France. When the Second World War broke out, Ernst was interned as an enemy alien, but was discharged just in time to be arrested by the invading Nazis as a degenerate artist. Carrington  was heading south to Spain, where she had a nervous breakdown and spent time in an asylum. Her family intervened, insisting she go home or to South Africa, but on her way to the port in Portugal she escaped. She met and married a Mexican ambassador, Renato Leduc, and the two decided to travel to New York; Ernst arrived in Lisbon, having escaped the Nazis and France, but the two were not reconciled.

Carrington The Pomps of the Subsoil

Carrington was part of the artistic community in New York, but after a year they moved to Mexico City, where she was to spend most of the rest of her life, but she divorced Leduc. She married a Hungarian photographer Emerico Weisz (“Chiki”) and was to have two children. She continued painting her surreal canvases, never quite gaining or wanting the fame that, say, Frida Kahlo had. She was friends with the Spanish painter Remedios Varo and the Hungarian photographer Kati Horna. She did travel to and across America, and lived there for a while, and went at least once back to Lancashire. She was content to continue with her own vision, fobbing off journalists, lunching with her adult sons, eventually befriending her cousin. She died in 2011.

Carrington The Old MaidsMoorhead has done a great job of assembling a life when so many of the characters are dead, and so much must be beyond archives. She hadn’t been an art expert, so there’s no fetishization of technique and perhaps more time is devoted to unpicking the autobiographical elements in Carrington’s surreal fictions — which I must reread. It’s an all star cast — Goldfinger, Ernst, a holiday in Cornwall with collector and artist Roland Penrose and his wife, photographer Lee Miller, patrons Peggy Guggenheim and Edward James, Pablo Picasso, Luis Buñuel, Paul Eluard, Eileen Agar and Man Ray, even a walk on part from another Hungarian photographer who was one of the most famous photojournalists… I think she skipped a little over the schooling, and raced a bit through the later years, but only because I’ve seen her costime designs and the film The Mansion of Madness.

She, like a number of female artists, is finally getting her due — with Surreal Friends at Pallant House, Chichester, and Leonora Carrington at Tate Liverpool, but perhaps I’d already seen her at Angels of Anarchy at the Manchester Art Gallery. Tate has a canvas on loan and a couple of drawings, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art has at least one painting. Dulwich Picture Gallery recently smuggled a couple of her works into and around their British Surrealism exhibition. Clearly she has her place as muse — although Ernst replaced her with the artist Dorothea Tanning after she rejected him — but her own vision is much more important.

After the first edition of her book appeared, Moorhead was contacted by more people who had known Carrington, including during the war. There is no doubt much more to learn about the life — and definitely about the work.

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