The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorhead

Reviewed by Karen Langley

This year is the centenary of the birth of author and artist Leonora Carrington, and we’re being treated to a wonderful array of issues and reissues to celebrate that fact. However, Carrington has often spent years out of the limelight quietly plying her trade, and it’s only because of the determination of publishers like Virago that much of her writing has stayed available. Now a new book from that publisher sheds light on her life and work from a fascinating angle – that of a cousin of Carrington’s who was unaware that her estranged relative was a pioneering feminist artist.

Author Joanna Moorhead is a journalist, and discovered unexpectedly that the disgraced relative she knew as Prim (a childhood nickname) was alive and well, and celebrated in Mexico. Intrigued, she tracked down Leonora (who was her father’s cousin) and found a women still creating art, famous in her adopted country and yet much neglected around the world. The two developed a strong bond over the remaining years of Leonora’s life and here Moorhead tells the story of the Leonora Carrington she knew.

And a fascinating one it is too. Leonora Carrington was born into privilege: her father Harold was a self-made, highly successful businessman with strict and authoritarian views on how a daughter should behave. Carrington’s mother Maurie, to whom she was much closer and with whom she was presented at the court of King George V as a debutante in the season of 1935, came from an Irish background. Leonora was never a biddable child, and in desperation (after several expulsions from educational establishments) she was allowed to study art in London. Here fate took a hand and engineered a meeting with leading Surrealist artist Max Ernst.

Twenty-three years her senior and already on his second marriage, Ernst was instantly attracted and his feelings were reciprocated. In 1937, at the age of 20, Carrington ran off with Ernst and from then on her life took a wild trajectory – Cornwall, France, Spain and America were just some of the places through which she made her way, although much of the focus in this book is on the spiritual home she found in Mexico. In all those places she made art – visual or written – whether married, single, co-habiting, a mother or whatever. Art was the constant in her life.

Carrington was unconventional from the word go; rebellious, constantly clashing with figures of authority, never happier than when she was riding a horse, it was obvious that she would never fit into the normal stereotype of an upper class wife and mother. Her relationship with Ernst and the surrealists was also intriguing; in some ways, Max was a substitute father figure, but one who was the complete opposite of her real one. But he and the other members of the group were rather misogynistic, expecting women to be beautiful muses, and it was obvious that Leonora would eventually break free of the relationship. Despite this, the partnership was a fruitful one artistically, with both parties producing some of their most striking and famous works while they were together.

The crisis came when they were in France in the early days of the war and Max was sent to a concentration camp. Leonora, still young, had a breakdown which led to incarceration in a most nightmarish asylum (and which experience formed the basis of her book Down Below); she finally escaped to America by making a marriage of convenience with a poet acquaintance. She later married Chiki, who was friend and colleague of the famous photographer Capa, and they had two sons whom Leonora adored. However, throughout all of her adventures she never stopped creating – whether art or writing, these were the important things in her life and luckily her legacy is now becoming recognised.

Carrington was actually quick to reject the Surrealist label often applied to her, being unhappy with -isms of any sort. Her work is certainly strikingly individual, and Moorhead offers excellent interpretations of many of her famous paintings. Pleasingly and sensibly, the book has a wonderful plate section which reproduces some of her art in colour – with paintings like these you need to see them like this, not in black and white! As for her writings, as I mentioned above Virago have flown her flag for years, publishing a collection The Seventh Horse and Other Tales as well as The Hearing Trumpet and House of Fear (billed as Notes from Down Below.) There are a number of reissues on the horizon and all of these works are definitely worth tracking down.

The Surreal Life of Leonra Carrington was an excellent read that I really couldn’t put down. In many ways this is a family memoir rather than a rigorously-researched biography; which is not meant as a criticism, but it should be borne in mind that Moorhead is strongly partisan when it comes to Carrington’s actions. Certainly the artist was an independent, pioneering woman, a feminist before there was that label, and Moorhead is at pains to stress how it was not always easy in the patriarchal societies she inhabited. However, I couldn’t repress a wry smile when reading this comment about Carrington plus fellow artists Remedios Varo and Kati Horna making their way independently with children in tow:

Domesticity seemed not to limit their lives; their outsider status, as Europeans, meant they were not bound by the usual rules ascribed to women in macho Mexican society, and in a country in which labour was cheap even impoverished artists could afford maids. (my emphasis)

The artists’ employment of low-paid maids demonstrates that perhaps the definition of ‘feminism’ was tied to what rung of the social ladder you were fortunate enough to be on…

Moorhead covers Leonora’s relationship with her parents in some detail, but the conflicts with other members of the family are only mentioned in passing. There were obviously issues between Carrington and her brothers, but we don’t hear much about them here and it may be that this is something Moorhead felt would be too much to discuss for family members to whom she is close.

The book is not without its flaws; there are odd gaps in the narrative, and for example the longish periods Carrington spent living in New York are glossed over in a few pages so that Moorhead can return to the time in Mexico which she obviously feels was pivotal to the artist’s life and work. The Surreal Life…. is as much the story of Moorhead’s discovery of a family history she never knew she had as a book about Carrington, which doesn’t make it any less interesting!

So this is a vibrant portrait of a very singular artist and author, by a family member who was lucky enough to spend time with Carrington, and all the more valuable because of it. The book offers a personal insight into Leonora Carrington and her life which is eminently readable and would act as an excellent introduction to her life and work. I can’t recommend highly enough that you take the time to find out more about this stunning and individual artist, and this book would certainly be a good place to start.

Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and thinks real life is surreal enough as it is… 

Joanna Moorhead, The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington (Virago, 2017). 9780349008776, 296pp, hardback.

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9 Comments

  1. She’s been on my radar for a long time, but I’ve somehow never got round to reading her works. NYRB are about to publish some of them, I believe. I like your wry note that she was a feminist with low-paid maids!

    1. She’s definitely a writer and artist whose work is worth exploring – and yes, NYRB are doing her proud this year, though Virago have been flying the flag for decades! And I had to comment on the maids – it struck me as somewhat incongruous!

  2. I’m definitely going to dig out my copy of The Hearing Trumpet now, she does sound so fascinating and I love the paintings of hers that I’ve seen.

  3. This sounds so interesting! I love biographies like this that are a little more than a straightforward list of what happened when. This has been added to my TBR. And what a wonderfully written review!

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