Mythmaking and Leonora Carrington, an Exquisite Corpse

As a side-earner, the writer and artist Leonora Carrington painted fakes. At least, that’s what she once stated in an interview, daring her admirers to doubt her artistic authenticity. To inquire further, I contacted Carrington’s son Gabriel, who has helped to answer various questions regarding the artist’s estate. In this case, I received a single line reply:

This is not true.

It’s a believable untruth–that Carrington may have lied about creating fakes is wholly in keeping with her self-made mythology. Her story is a patchwork of apocrypha and implausible facts: she was the English debutante who outdid the Surrealists, the woman who made caviar from squid ink and tapioca, the asylum escapee who became one of Mexico’s most prominent female artists. Her life would permit the cliché “stranger than fiction” if we didn’t have her own writing to compare it to. The novellas and short stories are as fantastical as her paintings, populated by stooping crones, carnivorous spirits and human-animal hybrids; in her memoir Down Below, dream and reality intertwine to form an account of her brutal treatment in a Spanish psychiatric hospital during the Second World War. These texts have now been republished to mark the centenary of her birth: Down Below has been brought back into print, and her short stories are now available for the first time as a complete collection.

Leonora Carrington died in 2011 at the age of 94; in her absence, the storytellers of her centenary are the women who knew her, including the feminist mythographer Marina Warner, the novelist Chloe Aridjis and Carrington’s cousin and biographer Joanna Moorhead. For these women she is always Leonora, never cold “Carrington”, and there’s element of competition to their anecdotes. Who was trusted to serve the tea? The tequila? Who accompanied her shopping? Varying degrees of intimacy are listed in an ongoing game of one-upmanship. Not to be outdone, I have also decided to be on first name terms with Leonora, and I watch from the sidelines as my compatriots go about their crusade: together they defend Leonora’s posthumous reputation, arguing that her artistic practice extended far beyond her association with the European Surrealists.

It’s an argument worth making. In the past, Leonora’s artistic autonomy has been overshadowed by her youthful relationship with the painter Max Ernst (26 years her senior), who painted and presented her as the “bride of the wind”, his spirited femme-enfant. For the founder of the Surrealists André Breton, she was the madwoman muse, the femme-sorcière, his Nadja incarnate. These men are the villains of the story: for them, Leonora served as a source of vitality and the living incarnation of their theories. However, although much has been made of the male Surrealists’ attempt to appropriate Leonora as their muse, her appropriation as a feminist heroine has rarely been questioned.

 Self-Portrait, Leonora Carringon. 1937-1938. Courtesy © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Self-Portrait, Leonora Carringon. 1937-1938. Courtesy © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


The mission to rescue Leonora ‘s reputation has been ongoing since the 1970s, when she drew the attention of feminist critics. Since then her work been exhibited extensively, including major monographic exhibitions at The Serpentine Gallery, The Irish Museum of Modern Art and Tate Liverpool. Given the resurgence of interest in her work over the last few decades, her reputation is hardly the “footnote in art history” lamented by Joanna Moorhead in her recent biography The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington (2017). That said, it’s all relative: one woman’s footnote is another woman’s doorstopper, and a rescue mission clearly makes for a better story. How many writers does it take to form a footnote into fully fleshed-out subject matter, to attach a foot to a leg, a body to a brain? As versions of Leonora multiply for the occasion of her centenary, their combination is starting to look like an exquisite corpse. This essay is my bid to join the mythmaking game, if the others will let me play.

What shape should the myth take? Leonora always considered herself more animal than human, best expressed by the bat, the horse, the she-hyena, and so a chimeric portrait might make more sense than a corpse. It’s a tale best told, where possible, from the horse’s mouth.

To start with her birth in 1917—in material terms, to a wealthy industrialist family in the north of England. Or, technically speaking, applying the language of her 1965 manifesto Jezzamathatics:

I was born under curious circumstances, in a Eneahexagram, Mathematically. The only person present at my birth was our dear friend and faithful old fox-terrier, Boozy, and an x-ray apparatus for sterilizing cows. My mother was away at the time snaring crayfish which then plagued the upper Andes and wrought misery and devastation among the natives.

My father, a practising golf professional, invented the famous perforated bunker…

That same father, whose earthbound status as a textile tycoon afforded him certain social standards, was repulsed by his daughter’s ambition to become an artist. After all, as Leonora later reported, “you didn’t do art—if you did, you were either poor or homosexual, which were more or less the same sort of crime.” He suggested that she might breed fox terriers instead—a suitable career, considering the circumstances of her birth.

In 1934, having been expelled from two Catholic convents and a French finishing school, Leonora was ready to attend the London season balls. Her short story “The Debutante” provides an account of one such event, relating how she managed to persuade a young hyena to take her place at a ball while she stayed in and read Gulliver’s Travels. Her mother was furious—then again, she had been the one to allow Leonora to fraternize with animals, taking her to Blackpool Zoo as a treat after her first communion in 1925. Equally irresponsibly, it was that same mother who later introduced 19 year old Leonora to the work of Max Ernst, giving her a copy of Herbert Read’s Surrealism. Had she known that her daughter would shortly run away to Paris to join Ernst and the Surrealists, the gift would certainly have been retracted.

Other than passing off the usual stories about Café Flore symposia, nude parties, the omelette seasoned with human hair, it’s best not to dwell on the next section of the myth. “I was never a Surrealist,” Leonora later said, “I was just with Max.” Eventually, even he was expurgated from her account of her life: “Ah!” Leonora exclaims in Down Below, “I must kill him myself.” Although the book opens with Max’s arrest and dispatch to a Nazi concentration camp in 1940, the event which triggered her breakdown, his presence in the text is minimal. The man who dominates Down Below is the sinister Dr. Morales—it is he who submits her to the convulsion-inducing drug Cardiazol, very nearly breaking her spirit. She is briefly transformed from a “tigress” to a “young lady.”

As it happened, it was Leonora’s training as a young lady which gave her the lead to escape. When her parents decided to transfer her to a sanatorium in South Africa, a stop-over in Portugal provided an opportunity to escape her escorts.  After “a bit of hard thinking” Leonora announces:

“The weather’s going to be terrible for my hands. I must have some gloves. And I haven’t got a hat.”

“Of course you must. Nobody goes out without gloves.”

This civilized mission to buy a hat and gloves is a good enough premise to get her to Lisbon. Feigning a stomach upset she rushes to a café to use the bathroom (her escorts primly grant her privacy), and manages to escape through the window.  A few sentences later she’s “landed” at the Mexican consulate in Lisbon, manuvering a marriage of convenience with the diplomat Renato Leduc, a bullfighting friend of Picasso’s. “Eventually we went by boat to New York, where I stayed for almost a year, until we left for Mexico. That was the story.”

It’s a story which, for years, appeared to stop here, as showings of her work became increasingly rare in Europe. Her life in Mexico doesn’t translate to Eurocentric art history – it’s too messy a setting, a place where Leonora found she could be protean, could forgo fixity—where she could be “anything, from pasta soup, scissors, a crocodile, a cadaver, a leopard, or half a litre of beer, etc.” Instead of being part of a movement she found a new milieu among the disparate émigré community of artists and writers, and in 1946 (having separated amicably from Leduc) she married the Hungarian photojournalist Chiki Weisz; their two sons were born in at the end of the 1940s. Whether Leonora may have made a bit of extra cash at this stage by painting fakes, is still uncertain. However, by now it should be clear that the distinction between real and fake is irrelevant; that there is no such thing as artistic authenticity when one might not be an artist after all, but half a liter of beer.

The transformation of matter was a key concern she shared with her closest friend, the artist Remedios Varos, with whom she cultivated a world of mystical domesticity. The making of art became one part of a wider alchemical practice, and several of their creative experiments took place in the kitchen. Here is one of their recipes, for erotic dreams:


A kilo of strong roots
three white hens
a head of garlic
four kilos of honey
a mirror
two calf livers
a brick
two clothespins
a corset with stays
two false moustaches
hats to taste

Put on the corset and make it quite tight.  Sit down in front of the mirror, relax your nervous tension, smile and try on the mustaches and hats according to taste (three-cornered, Napoleonic, Basque, Beret, etc.)… Run and pour the broth (which should be very reduced) quickly into a cup.  Quickly come back with it to in front of the mirror, smile, take a sip of broth, try on one of the mustaches, take another sip, try on a hat, drink, try on everything, taking sips in between and do it all as quickly as you can.

After Remedios’ death in 1963 Leonora became increasingly involved in womens’ movements in Mexico, and in the 1970s she caught the attention of second wave feminists. Gloria Orenstein was one of the first who sought to wrest Leonora’s reputation from the male Surrealists, and the search for “forgotten female artists” heated up after the publication of Germaine Greer’s The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work (1979). The obstacle race of the title took on a different meaning as curators and critics sought out sleeping beauties, resuscitating the reputations of artists including Yayoi Kusama and the spiritualist painter Hilma af Klint (recently glimpsed being googled by Kristen Stewart in the film Personal Shopper). Marina Warner was commissioned to make a documentary featuring Leonora, and arguably it was Whitney Chadwick’s Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (1985) which consecrated Leonora as feminist heroine.

Chadwick made Leonora’s paintings political; in her essay “The Evolution of Leonora Carrington’s Feminist Consciousness” (1986) she charts the movement of Leonora’s “uniquely female visionary language” from a private to a political sphere. However, in her portrait of a staunch activist Chadwick does not allow for Leonora’s fundamental irony and individualism – that she remained the schoolgirl who was expelled for “not collaborating”. When Leonora uses the language of activism it is not without irony, as suggested by her capitalized call to arms in an exhibition essay from 1975: “a woman should not have to demand Rights. The Rights were there from the beginning; they must be Taken Back Again”. What’s more, her notion of “Rights” was centered on a specific model for womankind: herself. When Chadwick asked her in 1986 about her political focus, she responded: “I am 70 years old, and I am trying to figure out how to live the remainder of my life. The things that interest me most now are issues surrounding aging, illness, and death.”

 Leonora Carrington photographed by Chloe Aridjis 1994 Leonora Carrington photographed by Chloe Aridjis 1994

We read into a person what we need from them. It was Breton who first encouraged Leonora to write Down Below, hoping that the Surrealist technique of autobiographical record would channel the knowledge reserved for those who have had navigated insanity. Likewise, the approach of feminist critics to Leonora’s life and work was based on supporting a cause. However, it’s clear that this reading was not easily won.

Leonora had a horror of interpretation and, based on her interview manner, it would be tempting to characterize her as brutally recalcitrant, defensive, contemptuous or, at her best, playing a game of cat and mouse with her interviewer. Even her friend and patron Edward James contributed to this impression, stating that he had initially thought her “a haughty, brittle, witty but a slightly arrogant woman” before realizing that this was a façade “to protect the secret world of her inner vision from the invasive touch of the banal, the ugly, the sordidly pretentious.” That ferocity of individuality is what has made Leonora such an iconic figure, why Madonna and Björk are keen to cite her as an influence. It is also what makes her so unamenable as a heroine or role model: she breaks the mold before anyone else can use it.

If Leonora created a mythology around herself, it seems unfair that others shouldn’t do the same–just because a story is made up doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Leonora was happy to invent stories about herself but loathed what she termed “gossip”, and perhaps the difference is that between a good story and a bad one. In Leonora’s terms, to be fixed in a singular state is either banal or tragic; a good story, on the other hand, is one which resists resolution, a story which ends with “but…” or “her fingers fell off and dropped to the ground like shooting stars.” If others made myths to create archetypes, hers were about staying protean.

That commitment to fluid identity and personal freedom is taken into account in the updated version of Leonora presented for her centenary. True to contemporary feminism, this version extends beyond women’s rights and towards a wider conception of Leonora Leonora as liberator—the Leonora of whom it was said, on the occasion of her first solo show in Mexico in 1950: “her temperament is not of one who is limited by geographic environment—the world in which she breathes is one of extraordinary amplitude.” In this guise, she can be incorporated within an academic trend which seeks to move away from the idea of folk or fairytales as representative of national identity (as exemplified by the Brothers Grimm), and toward a notion of “tale-telling” as a way to transcend political boundaries. One of the main advocates of this approach is Marina Warner, who is well known for championing oral storytelling as a viable subject of study and a means of processing human experience; a theory put into practice in her ‘Stories in Transit’ project, which “undertakes nourishing storytelling and creativity in refugee communities”. One can see how the form of the fairytale, with its celebration of transgression and acknowledgment of horror, does seem a preferable alternative to, say, the American Dream.

It’s an argument I’d love to apply to Leonora, but frankly it’s impossible to align her with any cause or idea, short of bad storytelling. Her notion of liberation was as self-specific as her feminism, and her radicalism—her determination to act exactly as she pleased—was a product of her privileged upbringing. For all her protean fluidity a part of her remained moored to the island that was her sense of self. A self which was, as Edward James insisted, essentially English.

As a Londoner who moved to America shortly after Brexit, I’ve been trying to define that Englishness for myself; or at least, the Englishness which made me leave. If I can’t capture it in Leonora, I wonder if I might track its scent to one of her animal avatars: the she-hyena.

The hyena appears in her self portrait The Inn of the Dawn Horse (1937-8), and it was the hyena who first led me to Leonora when I read “The Debutante” at the age of 15. At that point, interned at one of England’s more lackluster boarding schools, Leonora struck me as the perfect candidate for a heroine, partly because she seemed the female incarnation of Saki, whose tales of Edwardian aunts and killer ferrets already occupied my imagination. Although Leonora’s kinship with Carroll, Blake, and Lear is often referred to, for me it’s Saki to whom she has the greatest affinity.  They share a pantheistic sensibility which prioritizes animals, the same ability to eviscerate English traditions, the same manifest contempt for readers who choose to take offense. In fact, Saki was shot by a sniper the year before Leonora was born—making it very likely that there was a transference of souls (for a sense of how this might work, refer to Saki’s ‘Laura’).

Their sensibilities fuse in the form of the she-hyena, who also appears in Saki’s ‘Esme’; in this case, she is let loose in the polite social setting of a country fox hunt. It’s worth noting that the victims of ‘Esme’ and ‘The Debutante’ are not the upper classes but a maid and a ‘gypsy brat’, and while this is certainly not the place for moralistic talk of “punching up” and “punching down”, the stories do reflect some of the nastier elements of English wit. It would be foolish to associate the writers too closely: Saki was an ardent right-winger wedded to the British Empire, Leonora was a forthright critic of colonialism. Nonetheless, here the fantastical serves as a safe space for feudalism, a structure which is still the scaffolding of English national identity.

On the morning after the Brexit vote, I happened to wake up in the renovated gatehouse of a ruined castle. I walked to the window and looked out onto rows of perfectly regimented lettuces, lettuces tended by Polish gardeners who now risked being deported. It all felt horribly symbolic. It felt like a failure of fairytelling. The filmmaker Luis Buñuel once claimed that “reading Leonora liberates us from the miserable reality of our days.” But I am still here. Just not in England any longer.

Leonora will not be my liberator, my heroine. But she did know about growing vegetables, and vegetables in her stories are always renegades. In “Uncle Sam Carrington”, in which the narrator seeks a cure for a socially embarrassing uncle, she stumbles upon a distressing scene:

It was two cabbages having a terrible fight. They were tearing each other’s leaves off with such ferocity that soon there was nothing but torn leaves everywhere and no cabbages.

“Never mind,” I told myself. “It’s only a nightmare.” But then I remembered that I hadn’t gone to bed that night and so it couldn’t possibly be a nightmare. “That’s awful.”

When the narrator meets the two ladies who are to deliver her family from disgrace, she observes them enter the kitchen garden armed with huge whips, ready to make the vegetables “suffer for the sake of society.” She is subsequently handed a parcel containing two carrots and a courgette. This is the cure—the one for her uncle. However, by this point the premise has long been forgotten, and the story loses efficacy once the quest is at an end. The same goes for any attempt to gain reward from Leonora’s work, to use her paintings and stories as road-map to get somewhere; instead, it is best to exist in-between, in the heightened state of contradiction which Carlos Fuentes termed “ironic sorcery.” And that is what I take from Leonora. Not liberation but the ability to exist in a liminal state. And perhaps that is my act of reclamation—a toenail or wart to add to the exquisite corpse. She remains, mythologically speaking, my heroine.


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