BLOG Category: Surrealism

Alchemy as Science: The Surrealist Works of Leonora Carrington
Agents Provocateurs: Ringleaders of the Surrealist Circus
How a NYC Department Store Launched Warhol and Friends
Leonora Carrington’s Scenes inspired by Hieronymus Bosch
Magic and Mystery, Fantasy and Fashion: Leonora Carrington in Pop Culture
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.

Agents Provocateurs: Ringleaders of the Surrealist Circus

“Without promotion, something terrible happens…. Nothing!” – P.T. Barnum

Tristan Tzara, André Breton, and Salvador Dalí catapulted artists to world fame by whipping up scandal, shock, and subversion. Masterminds of marketing, they fused old style showmanship with modern commercial savvy. Any publicity was good publicity, and their shows were public spectacles – an electrifying theatre of erotic and violent fantasies.

Nothing was taboo at these 10 stunt shows. Ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, it was just as these masters of spin intended.

#1 THE NON EXISTENT DADA SHOWS, 1920 & 1926 Success for the Dada leader Tristan Tzara was nothing less than a crowd riot. He claimed that Charlie Chaplin (the world’s biggest star) was attending their show at the Grand Palais des Champs-Élysées. Excited crowds raged when Chaplin failed to show, while the delighted Dadaists threw insults back. In 1926 Tzara advertised a Dada Sex Show at the Salle Gavreu. What the crowd got for their money was a large wooden phallus balanced on balloons. The result? More audience rage and more Dada delight. Hear Tzara in his own words here:


A spat between Tzara’s Dada group and Breton’s Surrealists exploded at the famous evening event entitled: Soirée du Coeur à Barbe (The Evening of the Bearded Heart). While Tzara’s Dada play The Gas Heart was being performed people heckled. Breton leapt on stage waving his cane and shouting, allegedly breaking an actor’s arm. A riot broke out, Tzara called the police and the Dada/Surrealist split was settled. The Gas Heart was meant to confuse with a surreal dialogue between a mouth, ear, eye, nose, neck, and eyebrow. You can see one interpretation of it here:


Breton published the Surrealist manifesto and wanted to promote the Surrealist way of seeing to the world. To this end he instigated a Paris-wide publicity blitz offering the public visits to the Surrealist headquarters. He invited people to record their dreams, nightmares, secret desires, and fears in a confession booth. This generated a lot of buzz, but would anyone heed his call? Watch more on the beginnings of Surrealism on this BBC program.


When advertising Surrealist exhibitions Breton promised the public that they would be of “a strictly pornographic nature, whose impact will be of particular scandalous significance.” He was always ready to up the ante. Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim had created the above work, titled Object but Breton rebranded it as Breakfast in Fur – linking it to Freud, fur-fetishism and Sacher-Masoch’s S&M book Venus in Fur – rocketing the scandal into the stratosphere. Hear some reactions to this work on MOMA’s website.


At the London Surrealist Show, Dalí lectured on “Paranoia” from inside a deep-sea diving-suit. The helmet was fixed with metal bolts, but he failed to attach an air supply. As his air ran out, he began to struggle, but the crowd merely applauded – thinking it was part of his act. When the helmet was smashed open with a hammer, he emerged, delighted by his “really deathly pallor.” The Daily Mirror reported attendees “came away shocked, amused, scared, or just bored.” Dalí discusses it in a documentary owned by the University of Texas.


Dalí had created a department store display for Bonwit Teller & Co, New York. The theme was “Night and Day.” “Day” was a hideous mannequin in a fur bathtub, “Night” a mannequin and what Dalí called, “the decapitated head and the savage hoofs of a great somnambulist buffalo extenuated by a thousand years of sleep.” Public outrage meant the store modified it, but when he saw it, Dalí was so enraged that he jumped in the display case and sent the bathtub, buffalo and finally himself through the plate glass window. He was arrested but ultimately let off as the Judge accepted his “artistic temperament,” making worldwide headlines. See more about it here.


Dalí had proposed building a reproduction of Botticelli’s Venus, with her head replaced by a fish, for the World Fair. Unimpressed, the organizers called it “reckless nonsense” because “a woman with the head of a fish is impossible.” Enraged, Dalí created this Manifesto, and, according to his friend and Surrealist art promoter Julien Levy, allegedly dropped hundreds of copies of it over Manhattan from an airplane. Read more about Dali’s Declaration of Independence at the Victoria and Albert Museum.


By 1941 Dalí’s attention-seeking and mantra “I AM Surrealism” had angered Breton. But Dalí’s adverts for Alka-Seltzer and chocolate, and his practice of signing blank sheets of paper for $10 were the final straw. Breton expelled him from the Paris group and created the derogatory acronym “AVIDA DOLLARS” from Dalí’s name. Completely unruffled, Dalí retorted it was the only “truly brilliant” idea Breton had ever had. See more about their split here:


The front cover of Le Surréalisme, Même used this photograph of Unica Zürn by her lover Hans Bellmer – she was bound up with string, recalling meat trussed up for the oven. The same year, the Surrealist show EROS created public delight and critical outrage with a table on which a naked woman lay covered in fruits, nuts and shellfish. It had been Meret Oppenheim’s idea, and originally titled Fertility Feast, it was intended to celebrate the cycle of life. But once more, Breton gave it a shocking rebrand, renaming it Cannibal Feast, creating an unprecedented sensational art tableau that has been copied ever since. See the show for yourself here.


At the St Moritz Hotel, Alice Cooper and Salvador Dalí, the two arch showmen and ringmasters of mayhem had their iconic meeting. Announcing, in typical egomaniacal style: “The Dalí is here” the older artist promptly decked the rocker Alice Cooper out in $4 million of diamonds and presented him with an artwork titled The Brain of Alice. It was covered in ants and had a chocolate éclair attached. Could it get any more Surreal? See the video here:

The last word, just as he would demand it, should of course go to “the Dalí.” Reflecting on a lifetime of epic attention-seeking, he concluded: “the one thing the world will never have enough of is the outrageous.” And, as long as there is an audience, there will be art impresarios ready to deliver it, by any means necessary.

Learn about Dada and Surrealism on the Art Story.

And visit the individual artists’ insight pages on Salvador Dali, Andre Breton, Hans Bellmer, and Meret Oppenheim.

How a NYC Department Store Launched Warhol and Friends

Around the winter holidays, families, fashionistas, and ordinary Joes alike flock to the impressively-decorated department store windows on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Lush fabrics and mechanized displays delight viewers, and lure them inside to shop.

From 1929 to 1980, Bonwit Teller was one of those dazzling wintertime stops, a high style ladies’ retailer on Fifth Avenue.

But, Bonwit Teller’s window displays were much more than glitter and women’s wear. In 1929, the store hired their first artist as window display designer: the eccentric Salvador Dalí. And a fascinating history of creative collaborations was born.

Salvador Dali in Bonwit Teller window display, 1939. Image via Europa Star.

1939: Salvador Dalí

Surrealist Salvador Dali, who once declared “I myself am surrealism” designed two themed windows for the store in 1939 – one representing Day and the other Night.

In the Day window, Narcissus is personified. Three wax hands holding mirrors reached out of a bathtub lined with black lambskin and filled with water. A mannequin entered the tub in a scant outfit of green feathers. For the Night window, the feet of a poster bed are replaced by buffalo legs and the canopy is topped by its pigeon-eating head. A wax mannequin sat nearby on a bed of coals.

Neither was the most appealing to 5th Avenue shoppers and soon the store censored Dalí’s “crazed” display, replacing it with regular store mannequins in suits. In a rage, the artist jumped into the window display and attempted to pull his bathtub from the floor. It slipped. Both artist and tub crashed through the front window!

Jasper Johns’ Flag on Orange Field behind a Bonwit Teller mannequin, 1957.

1955: Jasper Johns & Robert Rauschenberg

Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were already artists when they began working as freelance window dressers at Bonwit Teller in 1955; however, they were still fairly unknown in the mainstream art world. Using the pseudonym “Matson Jones,” the collaborative pair exhibited their modern artworks behind fashionable mannequins regularly through the 1950s.

Jasper Johns Blue Ceiling, Matson Jones, 1955. Image via Poster Museum.

In this year, Johns and Rauschenberg collaborated on a few rare works, including a cyanotype photography print Jasper Johns Blue Ceiling in 1955. Images of these cyanotypes, which Rauschenberg began creating with his wife four years earlier, had been reprinted in the April 1951 issue of Life magazine. At Bonwit Teller, the collaborative Matson Jones photography creations were given new life in display as commercial backdrop.

But, many of the artworks shown at Bonwit Teller would follow an opposite pattern: later becoming the artists’ most famous in galleries. Johns’ first flag painting White Flag on Orange Field was hung in the shop’s window in 1957. And Rauschenberg displayed an altered Untitled (Red Combine Painting) there in 1957.

James Rosenquist with his Brunette Billboard, Vertical, 1964. Image by Dennis Hopper, via The Genealogy of Style.

1959: James Rosenquist

Before he “joined” Pop art, James Rosenquist was a commercial artist. He was employed as a billboard painter for a number of years and in 1959, he also began designing display windows for Bonwit Teller. Robert Rauschenberg helped get him the gig.

Rosenquist describes the experience in his 2009 memoir, Painting Below Zero: “By the late 1950s I’d begun to lead a double life. In the daytime I painted billboards and designed display windows for Bonwit Teller, Tiffany, and Bloomingdale’s; at night and on weekends I hung out with artists and painted.”

Andy Warhol’s Bonwit Teller display, 1961. Image via Art21.

1961: Andy Warhol

Warhol, like Rosenquist, had been a commercial artists for many years – an illustrator specifically. In 1951, Bonwit Teller display director Gene Moore hired Warhol to provide artwork for the shop’s windows, as an extension of his work as a commercial artist. As an avant-garde Pop artist, Warhol’s work was not being taken seriously in New York at the time; the New York School painting style still ruled the mainstream art world.

But 1961 brought his big break. The artist hung five paintings behind department store models and announced the significance of his own artwork – lowbrow subjects with a cheeky take on consumerism. The paintings were based on comic book strips and newspaper advertisements, and the stylishly dressed mannequins in front played directly with the idea of art as advertising.

Left: Bonwit Teller, New York City. Right: Entrance and display windows. Images via The Department Store Museum.

For more than 50 years, Bonwit Teller had an eye for the New York avant-garde art scene; but, it seems that all good things must come to an end. In 1979 the shop was shuttered and acquired by magnate investor Donald Trump. By 1983 a tall, shiny skyscraper had replaced it ­­– the infamous mixed-use Trump Tower, home to both rapper Jay-Z and the Gucci flagship store.

Trump Tower rises from the Fifth Avenue site today but its art history significance is nothing compared to that of the late Bonwit Teller department store. Under Moore’s direction in the midcentury, Bonwit Teller gave many modern artists their starts in the world of art and design. With free creative reign, avant-garde artists experimented in the department store window, turning a glass case into an alternative art space, and introducing the public to new and exciting styles.

Today, we see these kinds of collaborations between artist and fashion houses frequently. Perhaps they, too, have Bonwit Teller to thank!

The New York Times ran an obituary-like commemoration of the ladies’ department store in 2014. For more facts and figures on Bonwit Teller, read it here:

Leonora Carrington’s Scenes inspired by Hieronymus Bosch

Where does the real end and the surreal begin? You could spend hours staring at Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, pondering this question. And one modern artist did just that, before her mind went on a strange journey.

The famous fourteenth century painting is full of tiny figures – human, plant, animal, and monster – in a three-panel landscape thought to represent the Bible’s Heaven, the Garden of Eden, and Hell. On close observation, these figures are engaged in lots of strange activities, some definitely sexual, others, just weird.

Hung in the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain, the Dutch artist’s striking scene intrigued a young Surrealist, 450 years after its creation. Leonora Carrington encountered Bosch’s works here while escaping the 1939 Nazi invasion of France, and her own art found a muse.

Left: The Temptation of St. Anthony, Leonora Carrington, 1947; Right: The Temptation of St. Anthony, Hieronymus Bosch, c 1500-1525

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Carrington’s midcentury Temptation is one of her only works on a Christian theme and very obviously influence by Bosch’s painting of the same Biblical story.

Commenting on it, the artist said: “Naturally, one could ask why the venerable holy man has three heads, to which one could always reply, why not?”

This playful yet cryptic response was typical of Carrington’s character. Inspired by Bosch, her surreal paintings are just as mysterious.

Left: The Giantess, Leonora Carrington, 1947; Right: The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1500

Choice of symbolic imagery is key in these two paintings.

Like Bosch, Carrington depicts hunters in an uncertain landscape and winged fish and seafarers floating in an ocean-like sky. Her central giantess holds an egg while birds fly from her cloak.

Figures, animal, man, and object, interacting in a strange way… sound familiar?

Left: Adieu Ammenotep, Leonora Carrington, 1960; Right: The Stone Operation, Hieronymous Bosch, c. 1494

Both artists explore the boundaries of magic and medicine.

A man extracts a “stone of madness” from the head of a patient in Bosch’s The Stone Operation. His funnel-like hat suggests he’s less doctor and more charlatan, and the “stone” is a flower. One previously removed sits on the café-style table.

Carrington’s figures also perform a magical operation over the mummified body of Amenhotep, an Egyptian pharaoh. In a kind of medical operating theater, figures pull red strings through the body, whose insides are a flower.

For this Surrealist, Bosch as muse is clear. But, Carrington’s mind was filled with strange and uncanny thoughts long before she could release them in paint.

She crossed the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain and visited the Prado Museum in 1939. However, it was not long before the artist suffered a psychotic break and was mandated to an asylum. She describes the traumatic experience in her memoir, “Down Below,” (1944, revised in 1988). For Carrington, the line between real and surreal is never drawn.

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Learn more about Carrington’s life and career here:

In the documentary film “La Novia del Viento” by Andrea Di Castro, Delmari Romero Keith and Rafael Segovia, the artist gives her final interview in 2010, one year before her death. Watch an excerpt here:

Magic and Mystery, Fantasy and Fashion: Leonora Carrington in Pop Culture

Leonora Carrington might not be as well known as some other Surrealist artists, but her art has been quietly influential in popular culture and fashion.

Left: Madonna in "Bedtime Story," 1995 Right: The Giantess, Leonora Carrington, c. 1947

Left: Madonna in “Bedtime Story,” 1995; Right: The Giantess, Leonora Carrington, c. 1947

In 1995, Madonna’s “Bedtime Story” music video gained fame as an homage to the work of several female Surrealists. Directed by Mark Romanek, a filmmaker of most recent fame for pop singer Taylor’s Swift’s “Shake It Off” video and rapper Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby” art film at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, it includes a scene in which the singer opens her robe to release a flock of birds, much like the central figure in Carrington’s The Giantess (ca. 1947).

The dialogue between Surrealist art and fashion has a precedent long before Madonna. Artist Salvador Dali collaborated with designer Elsa Schiaparelli in the 1930s, and Surrealism continues to inspire contemporary designers. (Visit this Elle slideshow for some recent examples!)

In 2013, W Magazine published a Surrealist-themed fashion editorial photographed at the historical estate Las Pozas in Mexico.

Here are a few photographs from the W feature that echo certain figures and motifs from Leonora Carrington’s art:

Left: Tilda Swinton for W Magazine, 2013; Right: Darvault, Leonora Carrington, c. 1950

Top left: Tilda Swinton for W Magazine, 2013; Top right and bottom: The House Opposite, Leonora Carrington, c. 1945

Left: Tilda Swinton for W Magazine, 2013; Right: Green Tea, or La Dame Ovale, Leonora Carrington, 1945

Left: Tilda Swinton for W Magazine, 2013; Right: Tuesday, Leonora Carrington, 1987

In addition to paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, Carrington created costume designs, stage designs, and playful, esoteric items such as decorative masks over her long career. Surely she would have enjoyed knowing that her work is still a source of ideas for creative artists of all kinds.

Learn more about Leonora Carringtons life and career here:

View the entire W feature here:

Las Pozas is located near the city of Xilitla in San Luis Potosí, Mexico. It was once owned by Edward James, a major patron of Surrealist art. You can read more about it here:

For more analysis of Madonnas Bedtime Story video, see here: