On Wednesday, the Venice Biennale announced the lineup for its 2022 edition, a “transhistoric exhibition” emphasizing female and gendernonconforming artists both contemporary and historical. This year’s theme, “The Milk of Dreams,” comes from the title of previously-overlooked Surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington’s children’s book of the same name. Featuring characters like Humbert the Beautiful and Señor Mustache Mustache, but also a two-faced girl who eats spiders and a boy whose head turns into a house, the stories themselves are not necessarily for children. Cecilia Alemani, Curator of the Biennale’s 59th International Art Exhibition, said her six-year-old is “completely terrified” of them.
Self-Portrait (1937–38), by Leonara Carrington.© 2022 Leonora Carrington / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo courtesy of The Pierre and Maria-Gaetana Matisse Collection, 2002 and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur (1953), by Leonara Carrington. © 2022 Leonora Carrington / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo courtesy Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.
Best known for her self-portrait featuring a hyena and an airborne rocking horse, Carrington’s work resists analysis, instead provoking a visceral reaction from viewers. The painting “And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur” depicts a temple scene where two boys are greeted by a moth-like leaf-goddess and a robed cow (who is, presumably, the daughter of the Minotaur). In the lower right hand corner, a whippet watches a ghostly nymph dance down the hallway. When viewing the image, one’s eye moves from the boys to the leaf-goddess, to the daughter of the Minotaur, to the bubble-orbs and fallen rose in the foreground, to the dogs, before finally settling on the nymph. Bewilderment in its purest form, the painting offers just a slice of Carrington’s fully-realized (or surrealized) world. Don’t expect any more than a glimpse: during her lifetime, she “[refused] to be drawn into any analysis of why she has painted what she has,” according to her cousin, Joanna Moorhead.
For the past decade, art aficionados have been increasingly captivated by her work. In 2014, her 1945 work “The Temptation of St. Anthony” sold at Sotheby’s for $2,629,000, while other dreamscapes have been featured in blockbuster group surveys at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Tate Modern. Carrington’s memoir Down Below — which chronicles the phantasmagoric memory of her 1940 incarceration at a Spanish mental institution — was re-issued by NYRB Classics in 2017. Several biographical projects, including Moorhead’s biography, were published in 2017 to mark what would have been the artist’s hundredth birthday. A tarot card deck designed by Carrington was published for the first time in 2021; the same year, the New York Review of Books reissued her satirical, ecofeminist novel The Hearing Trumpet, which Blake Butler called “something at last truly radical” in his New York Times review.
Among the female Surrealists — think Remedios Varo, Dorothea Tanning, Meret Oppenheim, Toyen, Kati Horna, Kay Sage — Carrington is the one approaching Hilma af Klint-levels of exposure, and the one whose life story may be the closest to parable. (Her son Gabriel Weisz-Carrington released his own memoir last May, in an effort to complicate the “consumerist kind of image that could be sold as ‘Leonora the witch’ or ‘Leonora the personality,’” he told me.)
Born into a British textile dynasty in 1917, Leonora Carrington showed signs of rebellion as a child. According to the author and historian Marina Warner, who knew the artist in the 1980s, Carrington was expelled from Catholic school for writing with her left hand, which the nuns found “a little diabolical.” Moorhead reports she was expelled from “three or four schools.” At 20, while studying art in London, Carrington met the married, 46-year-old Surrealist Max Ernst at a dinner party and a year later moved with him to the Rhône Valley. By then, she had already painted “Self-Portrait (Inn of the Dawn Horse),” and was hard at work on “Portrait of Max Ernst.” Though at the time she was often referred to as Ernst’s muse, Carrington famously said, per Chadwick’s book: “I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse…I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.” Seeing as she painted him, Ernst was a muse for her, too.
After Ernst’s 1939 internment at a French prison camp, Carrington suffered the psychotic break she recounts in Down Below; once she escaped the asylum after receiving electroshock therapy, she married diplomat Renato Leduc in order to obtain a Mexican visa. (It was a marriage of convenience for both.) Carrington spent a few months in New York, dissolved the marriage, and moved to Mexico. In 1946, she married the Hungarian photographer Emerico “Chiki” Weisz, with whom she raised sons Gabriel and Pablo between Mexico City and the southern town of Cuernavaca. The family thrived among a community of like-minded expatriate Surrealists, including Varo and Horna. “If one thinks about that environment and imagines a lot of very deep discussions about art, it wasn't like that at all,” Weisz-Carrington tells me of his upbringing. “It was mainly how to play and how to laugh, and how to do all sorts of other things that had nothing to do with art or with literature.” Carrington and Varo, who lived around the block from each other, were very close friends and shared an interest in the esoteric; Carrington grew marijuana on her roof.
Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, Carrington split her time between Mexico and New York, where she lived frugally with a Yorkie named Baskerville in a subterranean studio apartment near Gramercy Park. “She liked to be in a burrow, she didn't like to be above,” Warner said. “She didn't like lifts, she didn’t like skyscrapers. She liked to be in the earth, and identified with burrowing animals.” Her art studio was her kitchen, “so when she made a meal,” Warner said, “she would just clear her paints off the table.” If she produced a painting every month, her gallery, Brewster Arts Ltd., would give her a stipend.
Alemani, the Biennale curator, told me that Carrington’s work helped her “visualize” the themes of the contemporary art show: metamorphosis and body transformation (including those related to the pandemic), definitions of humanity, and humankind’s relationships with technology and nature. “While these seem like sort of contemporary themes, they were very much anxieties of many artists of the early 20th century,” Alemani said. Still, she added, “I think the pandemic has made them very real and concrete in another way.”
According to Warner, the renewed interest in Carrington’s work can be traced back to Whitney Chadwick’s 1985 book Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, which seriously considered the work of artists such as Frida Kahlo (who herself did not identify with the movement), Tanning, and Sage while interrogating the “undeniable paradoxes and problems” of Surrealism’s treatment of women as “femmes-enfant, muses, and love-objects.” Today, Carrington’s paintings stand out as figuration dealing in its own richly-constructed mythology, where humans and animals coexist with creatures fabled and of Carrington’s own invention. Her writings draw from the same lexicon. For Warner, the work crackles with “an incandescent sense of sexuality and things breaking apart, there being something explosive under the veneer of gentility or bourgeoisie,” she said. “It's also, strangely enough, rather English.” Carrington is part of Lewis Carroll’s creative lineage; both exist within a strain of the British imagination embracing “delinquent fantasy, with a shot of humor,” Warner said. “That’s not what you get in French Surrealism. It's not what you get in American Surrealism, this slightly offbeat humor.”
Beyond paintings, Carrington made sculptures, puppets, and tapestries. She designed costumes and sets for the plays she wrote, including Penelope. “Leonora was always prepared to play,” Weisz-Carrington said. “She was open to that. So that's why I think she discovered so many things, because she wasn't really looking to be original. She was looking for something that told the truth, a kind of inner truth.” Today, her son believes, “we are living in a kind of artistic disaster” where the imagination is limited by the passivity encouraged by screens big and small, and art is often derivative of its predecessors. “There are a lot of people looking for something that is real,” he said. “So when they find something that is real, they know because it resonates.” (He’s not wrong; tech companies like Instagram have reported time and time again that “authenticity” is the most important quality for online images, and the most indicative of their performance on social media.)
Sometimes, it resonates to the point of fascination. After the author Michaela Carter saw Carrington’s work at the Tate Modern in 2014, she purchased Susan Aberth’s book Surrealism, Alchemy, and Art and began a yearslong quest to read everything she could about Carrington, in order to convincingly write her as the protagonist of her historical novel Leonora in the Morning Light, which was published last year. “Her paintings stopped me in my tracks,” Carter said. “They felt, to me, completely idiosyncratic. She wasn't trying to emulate anyone else, and seemed completely in command of her art.”
Likewise, after writing the introduction to Carrington’s short story collection The House of Fear: Notes from Down Below, in 1988, Warner wanted to meet her, so she and a director friend pitched a film about an actress who gets to know Carrington before playing her in a biopic, then drops out of the film-within-a-film because it portrays Leonora as muse and not an artist.
“In the course of researching the script, which I was writing, I spent a lot of time with her,” Warner said. (The script remains unproduced.) “I respected her so much because she had not gone down the path of wanting worldly fame. She was still a rather spiritual person. She used to go to the Tibetan monks of New York State to meditate.” In Mexico, Carrington was interested in shamanism, “enlightenment drugs,” and altered states of consciousness. (Though according to Weisz-Carrington’s memoir, she “always avoided using drug-related stimulants in her pursuit of self-knowledge. In her opinion, they were full of dangers and not worth the risk.”) Warner isn’t quite sure whether Carrington believed in the existence of supernatural forces, or whether her dream world was just that. “Because she was so witchy and because she was so irreverent, I never thought she really believed in magic. With time, I've come to think that I underestimated that and she was more committed to the forces of the supernatural.”
This blurriness between reality and fantasy permeates the stories that made her notorious, the stories Weisz-Carrington called “gossip” with an eye-roll and a shrug of his wing-like eyebrows. In one such rumor, her father supposedly dispatched a submarine and Leonora’s childhood nanny to collect her from Spain in the late ‘30s. “I mean, that was true,” Warner said, but Weisz-Carrington isn’t so sure, because his mother was her own best mythographer. She also had a zany sense of humor. “Truthfulness or untruthfulness, I don't think are good measuring tapes, especially for Leonora,” he said. “She lived in her imagination, and her imagination was real. Right? I don't think that one can stop at one detail or another and say, ‘Well, did her nanny really arrive with a submarine or not?’ Who knows? Probably she did, from the point of view of Leonora’s imagination. Or an air balloon. Or a zeppelin.”
In defying convention so spectacularly, Carrington has made it difficult for curators or writers like myself to posthumously reduce her story to one narrative or another. Like her paintings, she remains an enigma. “If somebody wants an easy formula in order to understand Leonora,” her son said, “I don't think they’re going to find it.”