'The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington', by Joanna Moorhead - Review

By Rye, Jane | The Spectator, April 15, 2017 | Go to article overview

'The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington', by Joanna Moorhead - Review


Rye, Jane, The Spectator


The surrealists' muse and a distinguished artist in her own right, Leonora Carrington captivated all who met her, says Jane Rye

Leonora Carrington was strikingly beautiful with 'the personality of a headstrong and hypersensitive horse' (according to her friend and patron Edward James); and she fled from her family, renouncing a life of privilege and ease to pursue her calling as an artist. Joanna Moorhead deplores the fact that she is 'not much more than a footnote in art history'.

But she has long been a legendary figure (among recent devotees, apparently, Madonna and Björk); in Mexico, where she lived and worked for most of her life, she is a national treasure; and for the feminist she is a heroine and her art 'a modern woman's codex'. She painted some marvellous pictures in her own, very personal brand of surrealism and wrote, in addition to fantastic, gruesome and often very funny stories, an account of her experience of madness, Down Under, which the Guardian considered one of the 1,000 books everyone should read.

In 2006 Moorhead, a journalist who writes mainly on family matters, discovered by chance that Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), an ancient, vaguely disreputable cousin of her father's, was still alive and one of Mexico's most celebrated artists. She set out to meet her in search of a good story; and the friendship that ensued over the last five years of the artist's life, she tells us (more than once, changed the course of her own life forever. Moorhead was surprisingly unaware of the major exhibition of Carrington's painting at the Serpentine in 1991 or of Susan L. Aberth's 2004 monograph Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art (both of which challenge the idea that the artist was no more than a footnote in art history, and neither of which is mentioned in this book).

'Stultifying' or 'suffocating' are the words customarily used to describe the background against which Leonora so spectacularly rebelled and which she so ferociously ridiculed in her art. Her father was a wealthy textile magnate, her mother an Anglo-Irish Catholic. Her early childhood was spent in Crookhey Hall, a neo-gothic mansion in Lancashire, with three brothers, an Irish nanny and a French governess. But, as Marina Warner observes in an excellent afterword to The Debutante and Other Stories, it was an Edwardian childhood in which 'the paddock on the one hand and the nursery on the other feature vividly as zones of thrill and transgression' and the 'rituals and privileges of her background... provided her with a heaped storehouse to raid' for her stories and paintings. Rather than suffocation there seems to be a prevailing sense of freedom and lightness in the figures who drift about its gardens in Carrington's 1947 painting 'Crookhey Hall'.

A spell at a convent from which she was soon expelled (she told Marina Warner how she had wanted to be a nun or a saint: 'I probably overdid it. I liked the idea of being able to levitate') was followed by finishing schools in Florence and Paris before she was launched into society to find a husband. Moorhead devotes several pages to the dress in which Leonora was presented at court in 1935, but does not mention the charmingly surreal detail that debutantes were required to make their laboriously rehearsed curtsies to a cake (representing Queen Charlotte).

Eventually, her determination to become an artist prevailing against traditional parental warnings about starving in garrets (even Michelangelo's father beat him for hanging around artists' studios) was successful, and she was allowed to go to art school in London. Here, in 1937, she met the surrealist Max Ernst at the home of the celebrated modernist architect Ernö Goldfinger (whose 'most enduring fame', Moorhead rather curiously claims, 'would be as the inspiration for James Bond's most notorious adversary'). They became lovers pretty much on the spot, and Leonora ran away to live with Ernst in Paris and entered the circle of André Breton, Paul Eluard, Marcel Duchamp, Picasso and Dali. …

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