RIP, Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington died on Wednesday at age 94.

She was the last important surrealist artist still living.  Originally from England, she was already a great admirer of the surrealists when she met Max Ernst in 1937 and he brought her to Paris.  They lived together for two years, during which she wrote several short stories, which he illustrated.  Despite or because of her refusal to play the Surrealist role of female muse, it proved an artistically fruitful relationship; her Portrait of Max Ernst (1939) shows him as a guide through an icy wilderness.

But the Nazi occupation of France brought disaster.  Ernst was arrested by the Gestapo.  He managed to escape to New York, but in the meantime, Carrington’s life was completely shattered.  She fled and ended up suffering a mental breakdown in Spain, where she was institutionalized and given experimental seizure-inducing drugs.  Upon release, she rejoined many of the Surrealists in New York, including Ernst, now in the company of art collector Peggy Guggenheim.  She finally settled in Mexico, already home to her friend and fellow surrealist Remedios Varo.  Mexico’s rich pre-Columbian mythology became her source of inspiration and she remained there, mostly painting but also sculpting and writing, for the rest of her life.

Carrington’s work is immensely important to me personally.  She was the only living artist that I really wanted to meet.  I love her refusal to take crap from anyone, especially men.  I’ve talked Jordan’s endlessly indulgent ear off explaining her artistic merits.  She inspires me.  I was writing a short story about her and Max Ernst (pictured here in 1937 with fellow surrealists E.L.T. Mesens and Paul Eluard) when I heard about her death.

Surrealism’s connections to the hermetic tradition appeal to me; as a chemist,  I’m slightly disappointed that alchemy as science has been replaced with something more productive but far less picturesque, and thus I find alchemy as a spiritual and psychological journey to be immensely appealing.  Carrington’s work is rife with hermetic imagery.  In Mexico, she began painting with egg tempera, which involves both the egg (the alchemical vessel of creation) and a creation process very like cooking (an art both alchemical and feminine, as in Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen, 1975).  Symbols from Celtic and Mexican mythology proliferate in mystical landscapes, like Labyrinth (1991).

Animals fill her work.  A white horse (as in her portrait of Ernst) represents her spiritual self; a hyena represents her sexual self.  Mythical creatures are often seen as the province of children and immature artists, but Carrington used them liberally and powerfully (pictured is Who Art Thou White Face?, 1959).  Inspired by her and by Ernst’s animal identity, Loplop the superior of birds, I represent myself as the mythical chimaera.

Finally, her work is beautiful.  She displays technical mastery over her media and meticulous attention to detail, creating works that appeal equally to the art enthusiast and the layperson.  I hope that she will live on and be remembered through the wonderful images she created.

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Images found here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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