Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst’s The House of Fear (La Maison de la peur) is currently on view in the mezzanine of MoMA’s Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building, as part of the display Artist/Novelist. The arguments made two years ago in the MoMA exhibition Exquisite Corpses: Drawing and Disfiguration, about the importance to Surrealist artists of collaboration and transformation of the body, provide a good reason to look at this work again. Carrington and Ernst’s collaborative book is in many ways like an “exquisite corpse,” with humans and animals fused in grotesque and comical ways.This was Carrington’s first published work, written when she was just 21, and it was her debut among a network of Surrealist artists. The story linked, in a novel way, the English absurdist storytelling tradition Carrington had grown up with and the Surrealist taste for dark humor. The short, daydream-like tale describes how the girl narrator finds herself “around noon” in a world inhabited by speaking horses that evidence mysterious abilities. The setting recalls, for example, the land of the “Houyhnhnms,” or horses, in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where reason is the prime virtue; or perhaps Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in which Alice converses with creatures both threatening and humorous.
The House of Fear that gives the story its name is a castle inhabited literally by “fear.” This impossible embodiment of an emotion looks “slightly like a horse, but much uglier,” and wears a bizarre dressing gown “made of live bats sewn together by their wings.” The girl is lured to this castle on the promise of a party, which turns out to be a particularly chilly gathering of equines engaged in a rhythmic musical party game. When the girl finally meets the host, the story ends mid-sentence, on the word “but,” in a witty cut-off not unlike waking up from a dream. Ernst, appropriately, mimicked this effect in his collaged illustration on the opposite page.
While her short stories and novels have been published widely (and her artwork sporadically) outside her adopted home of Mexico, the full span of Carrington’s work has only recently received the critical attention it deserves, especially since the artist’s passing in 2011. A large-scale retrospective at the Irish Museum of Modern Art ran until last month. The exhibition catalogue brought together several photographs of the house that Carrington and Ernst shared at St. Martin D’Ardèche, and some illuminating comparisons can be drawn between the illustrations that Ernst made for The House of Fear and the horse-human hybrids wearing flowing robes that Carrington painted on wooden doors around the house. Hopefully, in the coming years, further exhibitions of Carrington’s work will continue to reveal her fusion of traditions in ways that both influenced and exceeded the Surrealist artists of the previous generation.
A digital scan of La Maison de la peur is available through Harvard University and an English translation can be found in Warner, Marina. The House of Fear: Notes from Down Below. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1988.