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Leonora Carrington - Controlling The Dark

Words:

Edd Norval
July 12, 2021

Leonora Carrington, the English-born Mexican-settled artist had all of the opportunities in life you’d want starting out. The thing is, she didn’t want them. Expelled from two schools, the rebellious child was eventually sent to Florence to study art, inspired by her first viewing of Surrealism in one of Paris’ many Left Bank galleries, she set out on a life of making art, at odds with her aristocratic background.

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Despite being from a family of business, headed by her father Harold Wylde Carrington, a wealthy textile manufacturer, the young Carrington was subject to wonderful tales of folklore and mythology from her Irish mother and grandmother, formative stories that would influence her way of looking at art, and the world, for the rest of her life. After all, it was art that, at a very young age, she had decided to pursue. 


After years of negotiations with her parents and their ideas for their daughter’s future, they decided that, if she should study art, she should do so with the very best. Studying in London, she met Max Ernst - a leading figure in the Surrealist movement and with whom Carrington eloped to Paris to pursue her own career in art the year after they met - in 1937. 


Collaborating on various animal sculptures, all modelled after ‘guardian’ figures, the two supported each other’s artistic development, which, during that brief period between 37 and 38, led to Carrington’s most famous piece - Self-Portrait. Only 20 at the time, this painting shows her sat on the edge of a seat in an empty room beside a ghostly rocking horse that's floating behind her and a hyena attracted to her outstretched hand. Outside the window a white horse, almost identical in pose to the one behind her, roams free.

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Living in France up until the advent of the Second World War, Ernst found himself to be on both sides of the coin of misfortune. For one, he is German. This led to his initial arrest by the French authorities who recognised him as a possible threat - a ‘hostile alien’ in a time largely unprecedented. Later, when the Nazi forces invaded France, Ernst was captured again by the Gestapo who considered his art to be ‘degenerate’. 


In lieu of his misfortune, Ernst fled to the US, leaving Carrington behind in a state of inner turmoil reflecting that of the external environment and, eventually provoking the young artist to move to pastures new, nearer to her lover, in Mexico. This happened by way of an escape in Portugal as she was on her way to a sanatorium in South Africa after a psychotic break. Communicating with Mexican poet and diplomat Renato Leduc, the two engaged in a marriage of convenience to grant her immunity and safe passage.


With a rich history of literature and art in the magical realism movement, Mexico became a home to Carrington who adopted the creative thrust of her contemporaries there. Deviating slightly from the cerebral elements of Surrealism, based on the writings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Carrington focussed on the folkloric elements, the fantastical and the deeply symbolic - particularly pertaining to the female liberation movements of mid 19th century Central and South America of which she had become attached. 


Intrigued by the way animals figure into many ancient culture’s production of myth, the English-born artist began incorporating many animals in her own work, alongside psychic spectral forms that explore the material and immaterial worlds - the link between the mind and its experiences. Juxtaposing the real and ethereal was characteristic of Carrington’s deeply personal works, craftied with unsettling overtones, ghosts of her past that was punctuated by war, institutionalisation and heartbreak that forever haunted her life and art. 

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