Student Ambassadors Program Overview

Alchemy as Science: The Surrealist Works of Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington, Self-Portrait (Inn of the Dawn Horse), 1938.
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I think what most drew me to the work of Leonora Carrington was her determination to stand out from the male-dominated Surrealist circle in Europe. She rejected being defined by her association with Max Ernst and worked hard to become a respected artist in her own right. After the dissolution of her relationship with Ernst and a mental breakdown that lead to her institutionalisation, Carrington moved to Mexico City and became a part of the Mexican Surrealist circle in 1943. Her artworks after this year show a shift from displaying personal symbolic elements (e.g. her most-famous Self Portrait – Inn of the Dawn Horse, 1937-8) to constructing what Susan Alberth considers to be ‘alternate worlds, both fantastical and believable’. This shift, in my opinion, sparked some of her most wonderful and alluring works that combine Carrington’s fascination with religion and occult beliefs based upon the pre-Enlightenment scientific theories of alchemy. 

The most commonly known form of alchemy is the transmutation of base metals into gold but another strain of it is the pursuit of the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone, which can make the elixir of life, rendering the drinker immortal. Many alchemists realised if their experiments were successful, they would be in danger from others who might wish to take the gold or elixir for themselves. As a precaution, then, ‘the alchemists used to describe their theories, materials and operations in enigmatical language, effervescent with allegory, metaphor, allusion and analogy’.

Leonora Carrington, The House Opposite, 1945.
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In 1943 after developing a deep bond with fellow Surrealist, Remedios Varo, Carrington created The House Opposite (1945). What initially drew my interest to this work is the way in which Carrington creates an intimate setting that becomes a locus of mysticism and alchemy through her many fantastical creatures and figures. The stirring of the cauldron in the far right of the composition acts as an example of Carrington’s own unique alchemical symbolism, alluding to the alchemical process of melting base metals in order to produce gold. The table in the centre acts like an altar for the female figure clad in red, making the kitchen a substitute for the laboratory in her alchemical ritual. Many figures in the centre and outskirts of the composition are moving, rushing, to bring food to the priestess. As an ensemble, they act as one cohesive unit in an organised chaos to aid in the enacting of the feminine ritual of food preparation. On the whole this work becomes not only a prime example of alchemical theory in practise, but also a form of transmutation of the role of the domestic female which exposes the spiritual work that domestic nurturing entails. 

Leonora Carrington, AB EO QUOD, 1956.
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The priestess figure is one that recurs in Carrington’s body of work during her time in Mexico and acts as the catalyst for the alchemical ritual present in the compositions. A later artwork of Carrington’s with similar influences is her painting of 1956, AB EO QUOD. She implements the contrasting and complementary iconography of Mexican Catholicism and Greek mythology to depict alchemical transmutation in a domestic setting. The wine and bread on the table are representative of the Eucharist, a cleansing ritual in Catholic culture, as well as a transformative process that brings one closer to God. The religious tone is offset by the inclusion of a pomegranate, indicative of the Greek underworld and the goddess Persephone whose desire for pomegranate seeds led to her demise. Simultaneously, the Catholic ritual of mass is juxtaposed by the alchemical process apparent in the work, beginning with the white rose on the ceiling dripping onto the large white egg on the table, a symbol of the Philosopher’s Stone and metamorphosis. Furthermore, the fantastical creatures painted on the walls and the moths hatching and flying from their cocoons contribute to the themes of transformation and metamorphosis.

Carrington’s choice in giving priority to the role of the female alchemist and celebrating the spiritual work of domestic nurturing gives her a unique perspective among the predominantly male Surrealist group. To me, her art was its own Philosopher’s Stone, becoming her elixir of life as through her art she will continue to live on. 

Artists and movements on The Art Story that connect to similar topics and are interesting to explore:
Leonora Carrington
Max Ernst
Remedios Varo

I’m Isabella Hill and I’m part of the third cohort of students working on the Student Ambassador Project here at The Art Story! I’m an MA student studying Art History at the University of Birmingham, focusing my dissertation on the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, having written my undergraduate dissertation on the series Pygmalion and Galatea by Edward Burne-Jones.