“I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse…I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.”
Animal/human hybrids, giant goddesses, spaces for magical transformation, and enigmatic creatures populate Leonora Carrington’s artworks and writing. She created a pantheon of subjects that convey her interest in the sacred—one that is untethered to a specific religion or culture—and its presence in the intimate corners of our psyches.
Carrington rebelled against the societal expectations she encountered as an upper-class young woman born in Lancashire, England. She balked at the rules of her Roman Catholic boarding schools, bored by the seemingly endless series of debutante balls. Her interests, instead, lay in Irish fables, and English writers such as Lewis Carroll, Jonathan Swift, and Beatrix Potter. As art historian Susan Aberth remembers, “Carrington, whose childhood was steeped in fairy tales and fantasy literature, never lost that youthful mindset and in her nineties would recite long passages of Lewis Carroll rhymes to me verbatim with a gleam in her eye.”
At 19, Carrington visited the first International Surrealist Exhibition in London. Reviewing the exhibition’s catalogue, Carrington was struck by the work of Max Ernst, and felt a particular affinity for his dreamlike painting Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale (1924). The following year, she met Ernst in Paris and the two began a relationship, soon establishing a home in St. Martin d’Ardèche in the south of France, where they frequently hosted their Surrealist circle of friends. Nevertheless, Carrington remained on the periphery of the movement. As her mentor and friend the Argentine-Italian artist Léonor Fini has said, Carrington was “never Surrealist but a true revolutionary.”
Surrealism’s attitude toward women was ambivalent. André Breton, the founder of the movement and a key impresario, was fascinated by the Freudian idea that the female psyche was unrestrained, mystical, and erotic. And some female artists associated with the movement, such as Carrington, were framed as the femme enfant (woman child) who served as muse to the male artist. But as Carrington once said, “I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse…I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.”
With the Nazi occupation of France in June 1940, Carrington fled south, where she suffered an emotional breakdown and was subsequently interned in a psychiatric hospital in the Spanish city of Santander. She recounted this traumatic event through writing, in her story Down Below, as well as visually. One of these works is Green Tea (1942), a painting Carrington completed during a brief period in New York City, where she escaped following her release from the Spanish hospital.
In late 1942, Carrington moved to Mexico City, where she would remain for the rest of her life. There she joined a growing community of expatriate artists, writers, and photographers, including Varo, Benjamin Péret, Kati and José Horna, and her new husband, Emerico “Chiki” Weisz.
This setting fueled her passion for the unknown, allowing her to discover cooking, healing, and mythologies that were new to her. Her 1943 drawing Kitchen Clock shows the extent to which she saw the kitchen not just as a place of domestic routines, but as a magical realm, one where women could perform acts of alchemical transformation. In And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur (1953), she depicts her two small children—Gabriel and Pablo—among mystical creatures and crystal balls, possibly awaiting an act of divination. Over the course of her eight-decade career, Carrington continued to explore the mystery of the world around her, claiming at the end of her life, “The only thing I know, is that I don’t know.”
Madeline Murphy Turner, The Marica and Jan Vilcek Fellow
The research for this text was supported by a generous grant from The Modern Women's Fund.