Leonora Carrington: One of the Last Great Surrealists
With the passing of the 94-year-old Leonora Carrington last week, we lost a truly great painter and writer, someone whose visionary approach to her art marked her as sui generis. One of the original surrealists, Carrington may have been better known for her intricate, haunting canvases--one of which recently sold for over $700,000--but she also wrote the compellingly strange (and classic) novel The Hearing Trumpet and many short stories, including the long, transformative, and riotously chaotic “The Stone Door.” At the time of her death she had just had a new art exhibit open in Mexico City. (Perhaps proving that surrealism is good for you, Carrington contemporary Dorothea Tanning is still working past the age of 100 and will soon release a new book of poetry titled Coming to That through Graywolf Press.)
There’s more than a dash of Carrington’s influence in the work of Angela Carter, Rikki Ducornet, and many other writers who have advanced the cause of surrealism by combining it with other elements. The filmmaker Jodorowsky is an admirer of Carrington’s art, and her friends included Picasso, Dali, and Remedios Varo. Relatively early on, Carrington ran away with Max Ernst. When Ernst was sent temporarily to a concentration camp, she suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time in a Spanish insane asylum. She would later write about this experience in her powerful account “Down Below,” collected in House of Fear. However, despite appreciations focusing on these colorful aspects, Carrington was mostly defined by her subsequent life in Mexico, where she was a productive and potent creative force for many decades.
Although I had read Carrington in surrealist anthologies and collected her art books, I only realized the full extent of her talent recently, when considering the art and fiction together. My wife Ann and I re-read all of her writings while compiling the 100-year, 750,000-word The Weird: A Compendium of Strange & Dark Fictions (Atlantic, October). I was particularly struck by Carrington’s willingness to let image dictate sense, and in doing so to get to an underlying truth rarely uncovered by surface logic. Such an approach requires confidence and a brilliant imagination. It also results in a kind of essential purity. Stories like “White Rabbits,” which we took for The Weird, “The Seventh Horse,” “The Happy Corpse Story,” “The Oval Lady,” and “The Debutante,” have a kind of oddness and integrity of vision that make them both compelling and timeless.
Paintings such as “How Doth the Little Crocodile”--which we recently saw at The National Museum of Art in Washington D.C.--share this quality, as well as a sharpness and precision in the use of color that defies photography. “How Doth the Little Crocodile” in particular must be seen to be truly appreciated (it’s also been interpreted in sculpture). The composition and style of Carrington’s paintings suggest that she was quite at home with the grotesque--that, in fact, she found the weird beautiful, an impulse equally apparent in her fiction. While some have described aspects of her art as nightmarish, there’s actually a profound sense of wonder and discovery in even the darkest of her paintings. This willingness to embrace the strange encapsulates why much of the art that came out of the Surrealist movement retains its power.
Carrington’s artistic reputation seems destined only to grow over time. It’s more difficult to tell whether there will be a renewal of interest in Carrington’s writings, but readers interested in one of the true originals should put her books on their to-read lists. It’s impossible to fully appreciate certain types of twentieth century weird and non-realistic fiction without reading her fiction.
Here are a few appreciations of Carrington in the media…