United Kingdom • 1917−2011

Biography and information

Leonora Carrington (6 April 1917, Chorley, Lancashire, UK — 25 May 2011, Mexico City) was an English surrealist painter, sculptor, and writer.

Peculiar features of Leonora Carrington's art:
The artist used styles and images of different cultures to enrich her mystical and fantastic subjects, inhabit her canvases with magical creatures, characters from dreams, while leaving their interpretation at the discretion of the viewer. She drew inspiration from Celtic tales and myths, and later from the art of the Mexican Maya, Toltec and Aztec Indians, Tibetan Buddhism and Tarot cards. In her works, images of a hyena and a horse are often considered the artist’s alter ego.

Famous paintings of Leonora Carrington:
Self-Portrait (The Inn of the Dawn Horse)The Temptation of St. AnthonyThe Juggler.

Painting was the main meaning of Leonora Carrington’s life. It seemed that she was born with only desire to draw, transfer mystical and fantastic creatures living in mysterious worlds of her fantasy to canvases and paper. “I’ve always had access to other worlds. We all do because we dream,” Leonora Carrington said. The rebel Carrington broke stereotypes and always strived for freedom of expression, opening amazing pictures of the other world to her viewers.

Irish Tales and Catholic Monasteries
Little Leonora was introduced to the old tales of the little hill folk by her Irish nanny, Mary Cavanaugh. Magical creatures from Celtic tales seemed to inhabit the entire large Carrington house in Lancashire and the surrounding forests. They also lived in the house of their Irish grandmother, to whom Leonora often went to visit. Many animals were kept at the Carrington estate; Leonora was especially fond of horses, their beauty, grace and desire for freedom. Subsequently, the horse will become one of the artist’s “totem animals” and often appear in her paintings.

The noble, wealthy family of textile industrialists and true Catholics Harold and Maury Moorehead Carrington took care of raising their only daughter in accordance with the traditions characteristic of their position: at the age of nine, Leonora was sent to study at the Institute of Noble Maidens at the Monastery of the Holy Sepulcher. Only a few months passed, and the nun sent the girl back home, describing Leonora as an incorrigible and obnoxious child with strange inclinations. The nuns were frightened by the girl’s ability to write with both hands, mirrored and backwards. At the next monastery school, she did not stay long either. Stubborn parents, who wanted to give their daughter a decent education, continued their unsuccessful attempts — right until at 13 Leonora found herself under the harsh regime of a Miss Simpson, who ran a no-nonsense boarding school in Paris. This time, the angry letter from the management was late: Leonora ran away from school and came home.

Creative freedom
After long disputes, the parents were forced to agree to the only option acceptable to Leonora: their daughter dreamed of an art education. The girl went to Florence, then to Rome and Paris, studied at the art school in Chelsea, then entered the London Academy of Art. Her dream of becoming an artist came true, but at what cost! The parents expressed their disapproval through refusal to support their daughter; Leonora rented a penny house, barely making ends meet.

Nevertheless, Leonora had her debut in high society. At the age of 19 she went to the races in Ascot. The artist recalled: “In those days, if you were a woman, you were not allowed to place bets. It was not even allowed to enter the paddock, where the horses were paraded. What else was there to do? So I took the book.” It was Aldous Huxley’s new novel, Blind in Gaza, in which the protagonist finds his refuge in Mexico at the end of his life. Young Leonora did not yet know that within ten years she would follow in his footsteps, escaping from Europe that would be engulfed in fire. In the meantime, there were dinner parties at Buckingham Palace, a presentation to the court and the parents’ hopes for a happier marriage of their daughter.

Love and beer
Surrealist Мax Ernst Max Ernst burst into Leonora Carrington’s life like a hurricane; their inner worlds sounded in the same key, they spoke the same language of mysticism and grotesque. Leonora was twenty, Max was forty-six, but who cared? It was love at first sight and glass of beer: the artist recalled how, at one of the parties, Ernst kept the foam slipping from her glass with his finger — wasn’t it the surrealism? However, she fell in love with the greying elegant German a year earlier, when she had seen his paintings at the exhibition.

Leonora dropped out of the Academy of Arts and left for Paris together with Ernst, in the thick of the bustling life of the artistic capital of Europe. PicassoDali, Мan Ray, Miró, Duchamp… Picasso, Dalí, Man Ray, Miró, Duchamp... Leonora absorbed the very spirit of surrealism and freaked out with might and main: she came to parties wrapped in a sheet, served guests omelet with their own hair and smeared her feet with mustard in front of visitors to an expensive restaurant. Among Ernst’s friends, she was known as a brave and direct woman, and most importantly, intelligent. Suffice it to recall that the writer André Breton included her story, The Debutante, in his Anthology of Black Humour (1939) — Carrington was the only woman writer there.

Shocked by her relationship with Ernst, the parents broke off relations with their rebellious daughter, but Leonora had already chosen her own path and did not look back. 

Art and the end of freedom
With the money from the paintings sold, Leonora bought a house in the village of Saint-Martin-d'Ardèche, where she and Ernst moved in 1938. Their home became a laboratory in which two artists experimented on equal terms. “I was not a surrealist — I lived with Max Ernst,” Carrington recalled this happy time. The façade of their house was decorated with an image of Loplop, Ernst’s favourite bird character, and the Bride of the Wind, the image of Leonora. The enjoyment of art and freedom did not last long. The Second World War began, and the German Max Ernst was arrested as a citizen of an enemy country. Leonora went to Largentier prison after her lover, then to an internment camp. Thanks to Ernst’s friend, Paul Éluard, the artist was released, but soon got to prison again. Without friends, without relatives, apart from her beloved, Leonora experienced severe stress. Before the German invasion, one of her friends persuaded her to go to Spain with him. 

After a huge scandal at the British Embassy, Leonora was placed in a psychiatric clinic in Santander; at the insistence of her father, she was treated by very inhumane methods. However, the mother sought to help her only daughter; according to historians, her Irish nanny went after Leonora... in a submarine. Leonora was released under the responsibility of a family member; according to another version, she escaped from the clinic. One way or another, emotionally depressed, confused Carrington got to Portugal and found herself a refuge with Picasso’s friend, poet and journalist Renato Leduc. Leonora Carrington contracted a fictitious marriage with Leduc and went with him overseas, to New York.

Adversity hardened Leonora Carrington; in New York, she met her love, her dear Max Ernst married to the famous collector of paintings and men, Peggy Guggenheim. She accepted the news with her head held high. The artist continued to paint, she wrote prose and shocked the New York public with extravagant antics, including alchemical experiments.

… and long-awaited freedom! 
Soon Leonora moved to Mexico, where many European surrealists had already settled by that time. She was friends with André Breton, Wolfgang PaalenFrida Kahlo, Carlos Fuentes; the surrealist artist Remedios Varo would become her friend for years to come. 

In 1946, Leonora Carrington married Chiki Weiss, a Hungarian photographer who fled the horrors of war like she did. They lived together for nearly half a century, until the Weiss’s death in 2007. The couple had two sons — Gabrielle (later a poet) and Pablo, who followed in the footsteps of his mother and became a surrealist artist.

In Mexico, Leonora’s talents were fully revealed, fuelled by absolute freedom of expression and the richness of a distinctive national culture. The artist became interested in psychological practices and Tarot, studied under a Zen master, was friends with the infamous Mexican writer and director Alejandro Jodorowski, took part in theatrical productions and hosted friends in her favourite old house in Mexico City.

In her books, she remained faithful to surrealism: her stories and novels resemble magic pictures that are described in words. These are The House of Fear, The Oval Lady, Down Below, The Seventh Horse and Other Tales, The Stone Door, and The Hearing Trumpet. The undisputed literary talent of Carrington was appreciated by Julio Cortázar. She collaborated with newspapers and magazines, wrote articles, essays and poetry. In 1972, Leonora Carrington became one of the founders of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Mexico City. She produced thousands of paintings, sculptures, tapestries... She had many successful exhibitions.

It is interesting that the descendants of the three brothers of Leonora Carrington lived in England and knew nothing about the fate of their impulsive relative for many years, as she left no one knew where at the age of twenty. And only in 2006, the venerable and famous aunt was visited by one of her nieces.

The artist lived a long and eventful life, she was recognized by her contemporaries and only did what she loved and believed in. “Happiness and age have nothing to do with one another. Happiness depends on ability,” she said. Leonora Carrington passed away at the age of 94; her heritage has been declared a national treasure in Mexico.

Written by Rita Lozinska