Published  09/12/2013

Leonora Carrington: The Celtic Surrealist

Leonora Carrington: The Celtic Surrealist

Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin
18 September 2013 – 26 January 2014


There is a mistaken tendency to view myths as solid foundation stones and ones locked away, unalterably, in the past. Adam and Eve, Orpheus, Kālī, Oisín and Isis have been with us so long that there is a temptation to think they have always been here.

Leonora Carrington. Ulu's Pants, 1952. Oil and tempera on panel, 55 x 91 cm. Private collection. © Estate of Leonora Carrington/ARS.

Yet there is nothing concrete or inevitable about them. Like every myth, they were invented by an individual and evolved through their retelling. The great epiphanies of Leonora Carrington are the realisations that we create our gods, and these gods, just like us, are in a constant state of flux. This superb exhibition by the Irish Museum of Modern Art demonstrates how Carrington, with reference to her Irish background and Mexican surroundings, embraced the possibilities offered by an art that we are continually reimagining. Nothing is fixed, and there is liberation, mystery and glory in this, as Carrington’s paintings, at their best, brilliantly attest.

Much has been made of Carrington’s membership of the Surrealists, her torrid doomed relationship with Max Ernst, and her acceptance by the patriarchal André Breton, who included her writing in his excellent and overlooked Anthology of Black Humour. Condescension, however, can come in the guise of compliments, and much of the critical evaluation of Carrington has chosen to make her a secondary character in her own life. It matters little who anointed her and only marginally more who she loved. Just as her paintings sought to defy and escape the tyranny of cliche, so too should our reactions to them and to her. Carrington was aware of the dangers of being sublimated to someone or something “higher”. With their myriad characters, narratives and settings, her paintings suggest not only that art and the imagination can liberate our thinking, but also, by implication, that we make attempts to close down the imagination at every possible opportunity. In one sense, the way she looked at the world existed long before that group of professional lunatics the Surrealists, long before Bosch and Brueghel, long before the first recorded myths even. It was born when we were and will vanish only when we do. And yet, for all her explorations of collective lore, Carrington was, and remains, unique.

Leonora Carrington. Darvault, c1950. Oil on canvas, 80 x 65 cm. Collection Miguel S. Escobedo, © Estate of Leonora Carrington/ARS. Photograph: Pim Schalkwijk

One Surrealistic theme that Carrington certainly developed was that of metamorphosis. Beyond the parlour games, pareidolia and optical illusions of others, Carrington developed an art more profoundly concerned with change. As pointed out by the curator Seán Kissane, metamorphosis is rife in her work. Figures appear between one form and another. The image of the chrysalis is a recurring one. It reflects perhaps the view that an artist, especially one living an “exotic” bohemian life, is an act of becoming and self-invention. It is possible to see Carrington’s rediscovery as an Irish artist, both in her own mind and ours, as part of that process. Her mother, Maurie Moorhead, hailed from Westmeath and while it would be too far to state that Celtic mythology was part of her DNA, the tales recounted to her by her mother played an integral role in her formative years. Indeed, she was told as a child that she was a descendant of the fabled Irish race the Tuatha Dé Danann, a charming impossibility that becomes much more than that in the hands of an artist of her calibre. If she emerged from these islands and returned to them in memory and invention, she did so via the world as evidenced here by the Surrealist Map of the World (from Variétés, 1929), in which, appropriately, Ireland and Mexico loom disproportionately large. Life, place and identity are inevitably subject to change, Carrington suggests, yet flux, and an art made from it, can act as an unlikely but effective anchor.

 “A dream that is not interpreted is like a letter that is not opened,” as Freud, the Surrealists’ unwilling patron saint, once wrote. The domesticated skull and crossbones engraving, the upside-down eyeless reflection and the aged azure ghoul, as well as the title of A Warning to Mother (1973), seem to invite Freudian interpretation. Carrington’s paintings are more interesting and evasive though than textbook psychoanalysis. A much less-quoted Freud line is worth recalling: “In classic paintings, I look for the subconscious – in a Surrealist painting, for the conscious.” Carrington’s supposed secrets could well be games or ruses left for those who underestimate her, or even to undermine the assumptions of armchair psychiatrists. Looking closer at the ghoul, it is possible to see the figure as a representation of reason with a wristwatch, miniature pylon and telegraph wires embedded in its skull, bursting crooked and accusingly into the phantasmagoria, almost the way an art critic might.

If it is a mistake to view Carrington’s work solely through the prism of Freud, so too is it an error to see her repository of folkloric characters as Jungian. If we borrow one of the female archetypes she was drawn to and gloriously destabilised, Carrington was no Pandora opening a box and unleashing its contents on to the world. Rather she learned of their whereabouts and created them by hand. To simply say the images were floating in the ether for her to collect would be to denigrate her creativity, individuality and dedication. To a cursory viewer, her arcane symbolism and intricate stagings may have seen her assigned to the holding pen of Outsider art, with works like Crow Soup (1997) vaguely reminiscent of Henry Darger and Adolf Wölfli. In a related way, the flora and fauna in her work appear at times like extracts from the Voynich manuscript. Again, this is to take a restrictive view of the paintings as products of neurosis or hieroglyphs to be deciphered for the “correct” answer, when the essence of Carrington’s painting is an expansion of thought and an evasion of the oppressive definitive. There is every possibility that her similes were actually metaphors; the vivid murk in her use of colour, for example The Ordeal of Owain (1959), existing in and of itself. Carrington avoided explaining her work, knowing the spell would be broken. The poetry is in the unsaid, and she was precisely that; a visual poet.

A sense of the unexpected is intense and invigorating within Carrington’s paintings. In the traditional depictions of legends, characters are often framed in mock-heroic poses, unsuited to an age of irony and kitsch. While not entirely adhering to modern cynicism, Carrington does offer alternative perspectives. Rather than undertaking adventures, her supernatural creatures are shown socialising; whether the Three Women (1951) feasting together at a table beneath a doom-laden crow-infested sky, or the female figures playing avian table-tennis in Bird Pong (1949). Here is the private life of ghosts; what they do with their time between hauntings. A mix of modern and ancient, material and ethereal is subtly displayed in her Portrait of Madame Dupin (1947) where the hybrid figure, as much butterfly or tree as human, still wears stylish boots and a fitted dress. Even faeries have fashions. Similarly, her portrayal of the Sidhe, the white people of the Tuatha Dé Danann (1954) seems contemporaneous to the age in which it was painted, given that the translucent wispish sprites have the bug eyes of 50s sci-fi aliens. Myths, to Carrington, were not awaiting rediscovery underground, but rather they exist now as the substance from which personal visions can be conjured. The White Goddess, which appears again and again in works such as And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur (1953), is not a relic from a lost religion but a living (dancing) entity in the present. Often, it gives the effect of the viewer having surreptitiously glimpsed a frozen moment of a secret ritual, one that will begin again in motion when they walk off to the next painting.

The prevalence of anthropomorphic figures gives Carrington’s work the sense of a bestiary at times. In Occult Scene (Jacobs Ladder), 1955, birds and other animals are not the traditional sacrifices or witches’ familiars, but seem in charge of ceremonies. The monumental long-eared cats of Are You Really Syrious? (1953) recall Assyrian iconography as well as the Egyptian goddess Bastet and the tetramorph Four Evangelist illustrations from the Book of Kells. The playful nature of the painting reflects Carrington’s open-minded polytheistic approach to faith. “If gods exist, I don’t believe they have human form,” she claimed. “I prefer to envision deities with the appearance of zebras, cats or birds.” The artist created deities rather than vice versa.

For all the flights of fancy, Carrington could be an incisive political artist. “This is the Lepidoptera,” she wrote of her 1968 poster. “This is not the portrait of a politician. Neither is she a grenadier. She isn’t in the army. She does not abuse or murder anyone. This picture is free. I want to keep my liberty.” Included on the work was an excerpt from John Donne’s mortality-haunted poem The Damp. It was not just an assertion of artistic independence; rather it was a statement of solidarity with the stirring opposition forces and defiance towards the increasingly repressive authorities. The poster was dated 13 August. Less than two months later, on the evening of 2 October 1968, Mexican government forces massacred student protesters who had gathered in the capital in advance of the Olympics. Carrington was appalled and devastated, even leaving Mexico for a time. The disgust and empathy arose in her art, most explicitly in Operation Wednesday (1968). Yet the initial threat of the work with the apparently sinister veiled surgeon figures becomes more complex and life-affirming on further analysis. The central doctor in the scene was a real, and honourable, person to whom the painting was also dedicated; Dr Fernando Ortiz Monasterio had used his plastic surgery skills to treat the horrendous wounds of the victims of the Tlatelolco student massacre. The memento mori aspect of the painting is clear in the skeleton who writes a variation on the last words of Christ in blood: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The message is clear.

While there is no shortage of harbingers of death in Carrington’s work (the Georg Grosz-esque 1970 sketch The Surgeon, for example) or even depictions of the underworld (the corpse candles atop the heads of the primeval creatures in the gloam of Tower of Nagas, 1991), Carrington is wholeheartedly on the side of life in the face of the forces of death. Eschewing any dogmatic approach to politically aware art, Carrington’s stands came implicitly whether in the persecuted witchery of Green Tea or La Dame Oval (1942) or in the simple assertion of complex femininity in the face of degenerate machismo. In an oppressive puritanical environment, assertions of sensuality, ambiguity and free thought on canvas, as in life, are radical acts.

Carrington had a remarkable receptivity to everything around her and a unique ability to transform what she picked up into something barely recognisable, often breathing new life into it. Much scorned and yet greatly influential, the fairytale, for example, is rehabilitated in Carrington’s visions. Her reworkings are dark, but fairytales were dark before Disney, as were myths, whether of the Irish Sidhe or the Mexican netherworld of El Mundo Mágico de los Mayas (1963). It is a darkness deepened by Carrington’s own experiences; losing Ernst, being incarcerated in a Spanish asylum and fleeing for her life from Europe. Mexico broadened her influences, little surprise given the fertile artistic climate there at the time and the alleged nature of the place (“the most Surrealist country in the world,” according to her old benefactor Breton). Mayan culture entered her visual language, sometimes tangentially, as did a votive element to composition. It joined an eclectic array of touchstones from Dante to the Kabalah. Tarot gave rise to Hierophant (1958), alchemy to The Garden of Paracelsus (1957), the occult to the remarkably late sketch Beasts: Snake (1998). Her tapestries resembled a reimagined Matter of France. There are hints of Expressionism in etchings such as Sopa de Pollo (Chicken Soup, 1985), naive Elizabethan art in Neighbourly Advice (1947), psychedelia in Lepidoptera, as well as snippets of nursery rhymes, harlequinades, chess and astrology.

Leonora Carrington. The Giantess (The Guardian of the Egg), c1947. Tempera on wood panel, 117 x 68 cm. Collection Miguel S. Escobedo. © Estate of Leonora Carrington/ARS.

At times, the disconnected nature of the symbolism and the teeming assemblies can be overwhelming and even somehow dissonant. When a rare still life appears, you half expect a multitude of tiny surreal figures to pour out from behind the inanimate objects. Yet recurring imagery forms several bursts of Morse code that hold the matrix of narratives that crisscross the globe and the centuries, as well as the exhibition, together. The most successful moments come when Carrington increases her focus and the ambiguity of the work, trusting her audience to tell themselves the stories rather than being told. While The Horses of Lord Candlestick (1939) is slightly too polished and cluttered to be as effective as it should be, it introduces the Houyhnhnms from her fellow Celtic Surrealist Jonathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels. The novel’s influence culminates in Carrington’s brilliant The Giantess (The Guardian of the Egg), 1947, in which the main character is all-conquering and yet handicapped by her size, beset by wild geese (a common trope of Irish folklore). It is a curiously out of time image, with the background seascape more akin to a Renaissance masterpiece than a modern work. As with the equally sublime Darvault (1950), there is an obscurity here that works all the more due to a lightness of touch rejected elsewhere. Even with an artist as surreal as Carrington, less can be more. However, as esoteric as her paintings are, they are remarkably accessible. Raising more questions than answers, they silently beckon the viewer to fill in the blanks.

Whether she believed in magic or just the iconography of it, it would seem a folly to call Carrington a magician. Yet in a sense, that is what she was, as this fascinating and extensive exhibition demonstrates. Her conjuror portrait El Nigromante(c1950) is a typically paradoxical one; simultaneously forlorn, ridiculous and yet supplied with codes hinting at hidden powers and knowledge. Rather than frame her as a purveyor of cheap tricks, we can regard La Maestra, as she was known in Mexico, as a creator of convincing other worlds. Gazing at a painting like Ulu’s Pants (1952), we view the unrecognisable as familiar as a half-remembered dream. Art, at its best, contains mystery. Carrington added immeasurably to that. Perhaps the magic resides not in the ability to smuggle cryptic messages or absurd spells into her art, but in transforming the viewer’s gaze. This is the real alchemist’s trick; to see the world as bizarre as it really is. As Carrington once wrote, salvation will take the form not of a knight or a hermit but the Sphinx, the puzzle, the unanswerable question that sets the imagination racing.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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