Long ignored, Leonora Carrington’s surreal art is finally getting the attention it deserves

Nearly twenty years ago, I travelled 5,000 miles to meet my father’s cousin, who had been estranged from our family for seventy years. At the time, Leonora Carrington – though celebrated in her adopted country of Mexico – was barely known in her native Britain. She was as neglected by the art world at large as she was by her country and our family.

Twenty years later the story is very different. In April this year one of her paintings appeared – Les Distractions de Dagobert (1945) – sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $28.5 million, making her the best-selling female artist in British history. In recent years, exhibitions of her work have been held around the world: in Madrid and Copenhagen, Dublin and Mexico City, and at Tate Liverpool. Next month, an exhibition at the Newlands House Gallery in Petworth, Sussex, will celebrate her wider work, moving beyond the dreamlike canvases of her paintings and the surreal fictional texts for which she is now best known. Because in addition to being a painter and writer, Carrington was also a sculptor, maker of tapestries and jewelry, maker of lithographs, playwright and designer of sets and theater costumes. The Sussex show will include examples of these works, many of which have never been seen before in Britain.

In the 1980s, the feminist art collective The Guerrilla Girls produced a tongue-in-cheek list called The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist. Among the “advantages” were “knowing that your career might pick up after 80” and “being included in revised editions of art history.” For Carrington, this was precisely the case. After my first visit to her in Mexico City in 2006, I visited her many more times over the next five years, until her death in 2011 at the age of 94. We would sometimes joke, sitting at her kitchen table, that her work, like that of her one-time friend Frida Kahlo, would one day make for T-shirts and refrigerator magnets, tote bags and headscarves.

It was a joke, really, but today I have all of these items and more. Like Kahlo, who was virtually unknown at the time of her death in 1954 (her husband, muralist Diego Rivera, was the couple’s “famous” artist), her status has been a slow process of recognition. The reasons why some artists become sought-after and fashionable are a multi-layered and complex phenomenon. Carrington, like Kahlo, had an extraordinary life story: she ran away from her family and England to join her lover, Max Ernst, in Paris in 1937, becoming the youngest member of a circle that also included Picasso, Dalí, Duchamp, and Miró. After eighteen months of idyllic living with Ernst in a farmhouse in the south of France—which still stands today, decorated with their artwork—she fled to Spain and, after a terrifying stint in a psychiatric hospital, fled war-torn Europe for the United States and then Mexico.

Like Kahlo, Carrington’s work was always interwoven with her own experiences: she once told me that everything she did, both her art and her writing, was interwoven with her biography. Another reason she is so popular today is that her concerns—unusual and even eccentric in her own time—are now ubiquitous. Ecology, feminism, the interconnectedness of all life forms, spirituality outside of organized religion: these are issues we are all aware of today, but 80 years ago they were central to Carrington.

We joked that her work would one day result in T-shirts, tote bags, and fridge magnets. Today I have these items

Joanna Moorhead

‘Great’ artists are always experimental; they push boundaries, try out new ideas, change the way they do things. They do not seek a comfort zone; they are curious and constantly seeking challenges. All this was true of Carrington: as her friend and patron Edward James, who was also the most important patron of both Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, wrote in a 1975 essay: ‘She has never given up her love of experiment; she has been able to diversify and explore a hundred or more techniques to express her creative powers. She continues to try out new media that help her to clothe her vital ideas in new forms.’

The new show, which I am curating, will bring together more than 70 of Carrington’s works, many of which have not previously been seen in Britain. These include a series of masks made for a theatrical production of The storm in the 1950s, as well as a 1974 collection of lithographs of costumes made for a production of S An-sky’s play The Dybbuk, or between two worlds, in New York City. The exhibition highlights Carrington’s work as a playwright: she wrote several plays, including Penelope And Judithboth with strong female leads. And her play The Story of the Last Eggwritten in 1970, is a precursor to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which envisions a world in which greedy overlords have robbed the planet of all its resources, including its women. There’s only one left – and she only has one egg left.

Carrington’s rebellious spirit underlies the new exhibition: As a child, she was sent from various boarding schools to convents, where she was admonished by the nuns for not cooperating “in work or play,” she later recalled. Later, when she was launched as a debutante in the London season in 1936, her parents hoped she would find a ‘suitable’ husband: instead she fell in love with the divorced, remarried, penniless (by Carrington standards) artist Ernst. When she left her family home in Lancashire to join him in Paris, her father Harold warned her that she would no longer be part of the family: she never saw him again.

As the new show explores, her rebellion continued throughout her long life: Carrington never fit in anywhere. She turned against the Mexican art world, her base for 70 years; she severed her ties with the “official” Surrealist movement when she left New York in 1942; she attracted the attention of neither art historians nor journalists (if I hadn’t been her cousin, I would never have been welcomed into her life). In her 50s and 60s, she lived alone for long stretches in New York and Chicago, sometimes so poor that she later told me she ate ice cream because it was the cheapest way to get calories.

In her late 80s and 90s – the period in which I knew her – she rebelled against old age: and as she had already written the story of her later life, through a fictional character called Marian Leatherby, in her novella The hearing trumpetit was a matter of life imitating art. The hearing trumpet, published fifty years ago in 1974, was written when Leonora was in her fifties; it describes a fantastic and stereotypical retirement home, where the residents subvert all conventions to hunt for the Holy Grail, and plan to escape to Lapland with a knitted tent. The Hearing TrumpetThe anniversary is the starting point for a new exhibition opening in Colchester later this year.

Throughout her life, Carrington never stopped working: her home in Mexico City, recently restored as a museum yet to open to the public, contained a studio, but she worked in every room of the house. For ten years in the 1950s, a family of weavers lived there with her and her own family: husband Chiki, a Hungarian photographer she met and married after arriving in Mexico, and their sons, Gabriel and Pablo. The Newlands House Gallery exhibition features tapestries from that period. In her final years, unable to paint, she turned to sculpture, concentrating on individual figures from her paintings. During the time I knew her, she alternated our cups of tea in the kitchen with visits to the garage, where she worked with an assistant on sculptures of strange and wonderful creatures, many of which will be on display in the Newlands House Gallery.

Leonora Carrington: Rebel Visionary is at Newlands House Gallery, Petworth, Sussex, from 12 July to 26 October; Leonora Carrington: Avatars and Alliances is at Firstsite in Colchester, Essex, from 26 October to 23 February.

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