Born: April 6, 1917 - Clayton Green, Lancashire, England
Died: May 25, 2011 - Mexico City, Mexico
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"I didn't have time to be anyone's muse... I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist."
Leonora Carrington established herself as both a key figure in the Surrealist movement and an artist of remarkable individuality. Her biography is colorful, including a romance with the older artist Max Ernst, an escape from the Nazis during World War II, mental illness, and expatriate life in Mexico. In her art, her dreamlike, often highly detailed compositions of fantastical creatures in otherworldly settings are based on an intensely personal symbolism. The artist herself preferred not to explain this private visual language to others. However, themes of metamorphosis and magic, as well as frequent whimsy, have given her art an enduring appeal.
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Self-Portrait (ca. 1937-38)
This painting perfectly summarizes Carrington's skewed perception of reality and exploration of her own femininity. The artist has painted herself posed in the foreground on a blue armchair, wearing androgynous riding clothes, facing outward to the viewer. She extends her hand toward a female hyena, and the hyena imitates Carrington's posture and gesture, just as the artist's wild mane of hair echoes the coloring of the hyena's coat. Carrington frequently used the hyena as a surrogate for herself in her art and writing; she was apparently drawn to this animal's rebellious spirit and its ambiguous sexual characteristics. In the window in the background, a white horse (which may also symbolize the artist herself) gallops freely in a forest. A white rocking horse in a similar position appears to float on the wall behind the artist's head, a nod to the fairytales of the artist's early childhood. Carrington had been raised in an aristocratic household in the English countryside and often fought against the rigidity of her education and upbringing. This painting, with its doublings, its transformations, and its contrast between restriction and liberation, seems to allude to her dramatic break with her family at the time of her romance with Max Ernst. The distorted perspective, enigmatic narrative, and autobiographical symbolism of this painting demonstrate the artist's attempt to reimagine her own reality.
Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Leonora Carrington was born in 1917 to Harold Carrington, an English, self-made textiles magnate, and his Irish-born wife, Maurie Moorhead Carrington. Carrington spent her childhood on the family estate in Lancashire, England. There she was surrounded by animals, especially horses, and she grew up listening to her Irish nanny's fairytales and stories from Celtic folklore, sources of symbolism that would later inspire her artwork. Carrington was a rebellious and disobedient child, educated by a succession of governesses, tutors, and nuns, and she was expelled from two convent schools for bad behavior.
Carrington was drawn to artistic expression over any other discipline; however, her parents were ambivalent concerning Carrington's artistic inclinations and they insisted on presenting her as a debutante at the court of King George V. When she continued to rebel, they sent her to study art briefly in Florence, Italy. Carrington was impressed by the medieval and Baroque sculpture and architecture she viewed there, and she was particularly inspired by Italian Renaissance painting. When she returned to London, Carrington's parents permitted her to study art, first at the Chelsea School of Art and then at the school founded by French expatriate and Cubist painter Amédée Ozenfant.
Fortuitously, Carrington was exposed to the work of leading avant-garde figures in her late teens, during the internationalization of the Surrealist movement. During her studies at Ozenfant's academy, she was deeply affected by two books. One was a travel memoir by Alexandra David-Néel, a female explorer who walked to Lhasa, Tibet, in the 1920s disguised as a man and became a lama. The other was Sir Herbert Read's Surrealism, with a cover illustration by the German artist Max Ernst. In 1936 the 19-year-old Carrington attended the International Exhibition of Surrealism at London's New Burlington Galleries, and found herself drawn to the Surrealists' mysterious artistic codes. Like many of the Surrealists, Carrington came from a privileged background that was simultaneously an impediment on creativity; feeling suffocated by the rigidity and class prejudices of the English aristocracy, she was attracted to the transformative potency of Surrealist aesthetics.
In 1937 Carrington met Max Ernst at a party in London. The two fell in love and departed for Paris. Ernst left his wife, and he and Carrington settled in Saint-Martin-d'Ardeche in southern France in 1938. During this phase of their romance, Carrington immersed herself in Surrealist practices, exploring collaborative processes of painting, collage, and automatic writing with Ernst. However, their idyll came to an end with the progression of World War II. Ernst was arrested several times in German-occupied France and eventually fled to the United States with the help of Peggy Guggenheim, abandoning his relationship with Carrington. Destroyed by her separation from Ernst, Carrington left France and traveled to Madrid, narrowly escaping the Nazis. In Spain she suffered a psychotic breakdown and was hospitalized in a mental hospital in Madrid. When she began suffering from repeated delusions and anxiety attacks, her parents intervened in her medical care. Carrington was institutionalized and treated with shock therapy. The artist was traumatized by this ordeal, and she eventually sought refuge in Lisbon's Mexican embassy.
With the encouragement of André Breton, Carrington wrote about her experiences with mental illness in her first novel, Down Below (1945), and created several haunting, dark paintings evoking her psychotic breakdown, including one also titled Down Below (1941). Carrington would often look back on this period of mental trauma as a source of inspiration for her art. In 1941 Carrington married the Mexican poet and diplomat Renato Leduc, a friend of Pablo Picasso. In their short-lived partnership, Carrington and Leduc traveled to New York before eventually requesting an amiable divorce.
Carrington settled in Mexico in 1942. In Mexico City, she met the Jewish Hungarian photographer Emeric ("Chiki") Weisz, whom she married and with whom she had two sons, Pablo and Gabriel. Carrington devoted herself to her artwork in the 1940s and 1950s, developing an intensely personal Surrealist sensibility that combined autobiographical and occult symbolism. She grew close with several other Surrealists then working in Mexico, including Remedios Varo and Benjamin Péret. In 1947 Carrington was invited to participate in an international exhibition of Surrealism at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York, where her work was immediately celebrated as visionary and uniquely feminine. Her work was also featured in group exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of this Century Gallery in New York.
Carrington's early fascination with mysticism and fantastical creatures continued to flourish in her paintings, prints, and works in other media, and she found kindred artistic spirits through her collaboration with the Surrealist theater group Poesia en Voz Alta and in her close friendship with Varo. Her continuing artistic development was enhanced by her exploration and study of thinkers like Carl Jung, the religious beliefs of Buddhism and the Kabbalah, and local Mexican folklore and mysticism.
Carrington was a prolific writer as well as a painter, publishing many articles and short stories during her decades in Mexico and the novel The Hearing Trumpet (1976). She also collaborated with other members of the avant-garde and with intellectuals such as writer Octavio Paz (for whom she created costumes for a play) and filmmaker Luis Buñuel. In 1960 Carrington was honored with a major retrospective of her work held at the Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno in Mexico City.
From the 1990s onward, Carrington divided her time between her home in Mexico City and visits to New York and Chicago. During these late years, she began producing bronze sculptures of animals and human figures in addition to her paintings, prints, and drawings. She occasionally gave lively interviews about her life and career, from her early Surrealist experiments to her later artistic exploits. Carrington died on May 25, 2011, in Mexico City of complications due to pneumonia. She was 94 years old.
Carrington played a significant role in the internationalization of Surrealism in the years following World War II, and she was a conduit of Surrealist theory in her personal letters and writings throughout her life, extending this tradition into the twenty-first century. Although her significant artistic output is frequently overshadowed by her early association with Ernst, Carrington's work has received more focused attention in recent years. Her visionary approach to painting and her intensely personal symbolism have most recently been reconsidered in the major retrospective exhibition 'The Celtic Surrealist' held at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in 2013. The relationship between Carrington's writing and her visual art is another subject of current interest. Lastly, feminist theory also plays a significant role in recent analysis of Carrington's art: Carrington's personal visual language of folklore, magic, and autobiography led the way for other female artists, such as Louise Bourgeois and Kiki Smith, who explored new ways to address female identity and physicality.
Influences and Connections
Artists, Friends, Movements
Artists, Friends, Movements
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Useful Resources on Leonora Carrington
| Carrington and Fashion |
Entry on Art Story Blog
| Carrington and Hieronymus Bosch |
Entry on Art Story Blog #2
| Leonora Carrington |
By Dawn Ades, Alyce Mahon, Sean Kissane, and Sarah Glennie
| Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art |
By Susan L. Alberth
| Leonora Carrington: The Mexican Years |
By Leonora Carrington
| In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States |
By Ilene Susan Fort, Tere Arcq, Terri Geis, Dawn Ades, and Maria Buszek
| Surreal Friends |
By Stefan van Raay, Joanna Moorhead, Teresa Arcq, and Sharon-Michi Kusunoki
| The Leonora Carrington Estate || Leonora Carrington: The Celtic Surrealist at the Irish Museum of Modern Art |
| Leonora Carrington at Gallery Wendi Norris |
| Leonora Carrington |
By Kris Wilton
| Nobody's Muse |
By Edward M. Gomez
| Leonara Carrington |
| Leonora Carrington Obituary |
By Joanna Moorhead
| The Mystery Woman |
By Elaine Mayers Salkain
| Leonora Carrington: The Celtic Surrealist at the Irish Museum of Modern Art || Leonora Carrington: Britain's Lost Surrealist |
| Interview with Leonora Carrington |
| The Flowering of the Crone: Leonora Carrington, Another Reality on IMDB |
Documentary on Carrington, directed by Ally Acker