PRINT May 2023

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Leonora Carrington, El mundo mágico de los mayas (The Magical World of the Mayans), 1963–64, casein tempera on panel, 6' 6 3⁄4" × 14' 1 3⁄4". © Estate of Leonora Carrington/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

AS LEONARA CARRINGTON’S STAR continues to ascend, propelled by an explosion of exhibitions, publications, theatrical productions, and documentary films—last year’s Venice Biennale was named after her children’s book, The Milk of Dreams—it is gratifying to see that her work holds up under all the scrutiny. She left behind a vast oeuvre—paintings, sculptures, drawings, tapestries, masks, costume and stage designs, plays, short stories, novels, and more—that is so multivalent in its inspiration, inventive in its forms, and radical in its propositions that only now, a little more than a century after her birth, have we begun to fully appreciate her vision. “Leonora Carrington: Revelación,” on view at Fundación MAPFRE in Madrid, is the first retrospective devoted to the artist in Spain and offers a fresh presentation of her influences, thematic concerns, and technical and intellectual development. Coproduced with the ARKEN Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen and organized by Tere Arcq, Carlos Martín, and Stefan van Raay, the show marks a triumphant return to a country that was the site of one of the most transformative junctures of Carrington’s life: her traumatic incarceration in 1940 in the Santander asylum, where she experienced sexual violence and the enduring stigma of mental illness.

The subtitle of the exhibition, Revelación, is apt, given the abundance of important, never-before-shown works from different periods of Carrington’s life. We are first greeted by a wall of watercolors—the majority heretofore unexhibited—from a series titled “Sisters of the Moon,” executed in 1932, when the artist was only fifteen years old. They reveal precocious skill and a nascent interest in fairy-tale imaginings that would facilitate her later engagements with Surrealism. Women are at the center of these exotic scenes, fancifully costumed and mysteriously communing with horses, leopards, fairies, and goblins—all of this, of course, would inform Carrington’s mature work.

Leonora Carrington (in collaboration with Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Roberto Matta), Summer, 1942, oil on canvas, 5' 8 7⁄8" × 11' 9 3⁄4". © Estate of Leonora Carrington/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The daughter of an affluent textile industrialist, Carrington perpetually resisted the conformism of her social class. After being kicked out of numerous boarding schools in England, Italy, and France, she acquiesced to a social debut at the court of George V on the condition that she be allowed to attend art school. In 1936, the nineteen-year-old Carrington, then studying at Amédée Ozenfant’s art academy, visited the International Surrealist Exhibition in London, where she was particularly impressed by the work of Max Ernst. Little did she know that, shortly thereafter, they would meet and fall in love and she would run away to Paris to be with him and join the Surrealist circle. Two years later, the couple settled in a small eighteenth-century farmhouse in Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche in the South of France. A selection of Lee Miller’s photographs on view here attest to its Surrealist transformation, with sculptures and paintings inside and out. Several eye-popping and delightful pieces of cabinetry adorned by Carrington from the house are also on display. A female figure—likely a coded self-portrait—in a diaphanous purple gown with yellow wings and a black horse head appears on the front of a wardrobe; a mermaid with hooves and a fiery mane decorates a kitchen door, and an old window (my personal favorite) is painted over with an orange unicorn with a lolling tongue.

Also from the farmhouse is an assortment of Carrington’s books, abandoned as she fled impending war in 1940. Presumably sent to her from her home in England, they reveal an intellectually curious and well-read artist, challenging earlier characterizations of her as Ernst’s femme enfant protégée. Titles include James Stephens’s Irish Fairy Tales (1920), beautifully illustrated by Arthur Rackham; Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (1929); Herbert Wildon Carr’s Henri Bergson: The Philosophy of Change (1912); and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929). British Insects Shown to the Children (1928), by one Arthur O. Cooke, particularly enchanted me; the dragonflies on its cover seem about to flutter off and into one of the many paintings in this show full of insects—humble creatures of lifelong interest to the artist, probably because of their transformative abilities. Another surprise in this section are the two paintings, both from 1939, by Leonor Fini, a visitor to the house who joined Carrington in various Surrealist shenanigans. Portrait of Leonora endows her friend with a sibylline solemnity that has survived the painting’s partial destruction (the artist took a spatula to the canvas after a heated, short-lived quarrel with her sitter, allegedly provoked by the Stalinist sympathies of Tristan Tzara, another of Leonora’s houseguests); in The Alcove/The Black Room, Carrington stands armor-clad, like Joan of Arc, in a tenebrous interior appointed with heavy velvet draperies. A portrait of Fini and a third, unidentified woman sit on a bed in the background, the entire mise-en-scène suggesting, in Whitney Chadwick’s apposite words, a “ritualized and erotic dream-worl[d] in which women wield power over ancient ceremonies and mysterious cults of the feminine.”

Carrington left behind an oeuvre so multivalent in its inspiration, inventive in its forms, and radical in its propositions that only now have we begun to fully appreciate her vision.

Tragedy would soon disrupt Ernst and Carrington’s Surrealist paradise: In 1939 and 1940, he was incarcerated in several French internment camps, first by the republic as an enemy alien, then by the Gestapo. While fleeing her home for the port of Lisbon with friends, Carrington suffered a nervous breakdown. Her placement in a Spanish mental institution was described in her remarkable book Down Below, first published in 1944. On display at Fundación MAPFRE are two recently discovered sketchbooks (among the biggest “revelations” in the show) from her time in Santander. Drawn with the crystalline precision befitting a student of Ozenfant, the pages are full of fascinating snippets of text, depictions of animals, self-portraits, and mystical symbols that offer heartbreaking testimony to her stretches of lucidity between agonizing cardiazol treatments (an early form of shock therapy). Nearby, Ernst’s painting The Spanish Physician (1940), on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, depicts a monstrous equine creature chasing a terrified woman in a torn dress—a symbolic representation, the curators suggest, of Carrington’s nightmare sojourn in Spain.

Summer, 1942, a large canvas mural from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, is another stunning discovery. Painted while she was destitute and living in New York, it was Carrington’s first commission (for Manka Rubenstein, sister of the cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubenstein), though it is hard to imagine the recipient being eager to hang it in a domestic setting. Purportedly a collaborative effort with Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Roberto Matta, the work seems to be primarily in Carrington’s hand. Elements previously seen in her Santander notebooks feature here, such as the central elaborate compass star with four leopard heads marking the cardinal directions. Her trademark hybrid creatures also make an appearance, in the morbid form of mummified stag men impaled and bleeding on a spit and two draconic she-monsters with crowns and flowing white hair. A man hangs from a gallows in the background, likely a reference to the war-ravaged Europe she had only just escaped. In one corner is a block of text written backward, a witchy habit she practiced from childhood. Two of the sad, enigmatic lines read, “The Bird of Belief is Cracking the / Cold of the Night in his beak.” This mural foreshadows her commission for the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, El mundo mágico de los mayas, 1963–64, also on display in Madrid. Executed some twenty years later, the painting, besides evincing her maturation as a muralist, imaginatively syncretizes cosmological concepts from the Popol Vuh, the foundational sacred text of the K’iche’ people, with depictions of contemporary spiritual practices Carrington observed during her extended research in Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas. A number of the preparatory drawings made for the work are nearby, revealing the depth of the artist’s study of, and respect for, Indigenous traditions and knowledge. 

Leonora Carrington, Transference, 1963, oil on hardboard, 22 1⁄2 × 40 1⁄2". © Estate of Leonora Carrington/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Other works in the exhibition deserving of mention, especially given the rarity of their public appearance: The Kitchen Garden on the Eyot, 1946; Edwardian Hunt Breakfast, 1956; Feeding a Table, 1959; Astral Breakfast, 1964; Molly Malone’s Chariot, 1975. Paisaje, torre, centauro, 1943, a painting by Remedios Varo, Carrington’s close friend in Mexico, is a fascinating inclusion. It was meant to serve as the cover of Carrington’s legendary occult novella The Stone Door, and its discovery confirms this mysterious tale to have been written the year she arrived in Mexico with her then husband, Renato Leduc. In an alcove off one of the galleries, excerpts from Leonora Carrington: El juego surrealista (2012), a documentary film by Javier Martín-Domínguez, highlight Carrington’s irrepressible intelligence and spicy wit.

Carrington was curious about all avenues providing insight into the self, including Jungian psychology, kabbalah, astrology, peyote, Tibetan Buddhism, and tarot, to name just a few. It was in this spirit of exploration that she underwent psychoanalysis in the early ’60s with Abraham Fortes, a prominent Frommian analyst in Mexico City. Transference, 1963, from Tate Modern in London, shows Carrington working out the tangled contents of her unconscious, with many layers of meaning related to her clinical and personal relationship with the doctor. Like the ringmaster at a circus, Fortes stands in the center, clutching a bat to his chest as he wields a Catholic scourge. A hint of the sinister pervades the scene, with black candles, spiders, cats, snakes, and characters reminiscent of Goya’s witches. In typical Carringtonian fashion, the artist’s private and idiosyncratic iconography commingles with symbols from the tarot and other esoteric and shamanic means of transformation. Personal demons are being exorcised as the personage of Fortes is repeated throughout the canvas—an allusion, perhaps, to the therapeutic displacements and projections invoked by the painting’s title. The themes of trauma and recovery bring to mind Carrington’s visceral recollection of the Spanish capital from Down Below. “In the political confusion and the torrid heat,” she wrote, “I convinced myself that Madrid was the world’s stomach and that I had been chosen for the task of restoring this digestive organ to health.” To join Carrington there, in the belly of the beast, felt strangely healing.

“Leonora Carrington: <em>Revelación” is on view through May 7 at the Fundación MAPFRE, Madrid.</em>

Susan L. Aberth is the Edith C. Blum Professor of Art History and Visual Culture at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where she teaches courses on Latin American religious art, outsider art, Surrealism, and esoteric topics including alchemy, Freemasonry, and spiritualism.