Leonora Carrington OBE (6 April 1917 – 25 May 2011) was a British artist, painter and writer who spent much of her adult life in Mexico City. She established herself as a key figure in the Surrealist movement of the 1930’s and was a remarkably individual artist in her own right. Rebellious by nature from a young age, Carrington challenged convention and overcame obstacles, the latter often inspiring her creative pursuits.
The daughter of an English, self-made textiles magnate and his Irish-born wife, the traditional upbringing of convent schools, debutante courts and Lancashire country estates did not interest Carrington whose artistic expression and creative fervour called her to a different path. Her parents eventually submitted to this tenacity and permitted Carrington to study art, first in Florence, Italy and upon her return to London, the Chelsea School of Art and later the Ozenfant Academy of Fine Arts.
It was in 1936 that Carrington was first exposed to the work of avant-garde figures when she attended the International Exhibition of Surrealism at London’s New Burlington Galleries. Like Carrington, many of the artists exhibited at the show came from privileged backgrounds, which while offering some advantages were often an impediment on their creativity. Carrington instantly identified with the feeling of being stifled by the rigidity of class and English aristocracy and was attracted by the transformative potency and escapism of Surrealist motifs.
In 1937 the fateful meeting between Carrington and Max Ernst at a London party led to a love affair and artistic partnership. The couple settled in Southern France and during this period Carrington developed her work by immersing herself in Surrealist practices, exploring collaborative processes of painting, collage, and automatic writing with Ernst.
The horror of World War II tore the couple apart with Ernst fleeing to America to escape arrest while Carrington travelled to Madrid. Devastated by their separation and the tension of conflict Carrington suffered a psychotic breakdown in Spain, which resulted in her being institutionalized by her family. Carrington’s traumatic confinement in the institution strongly influenced both her paintings and written work. André Breton encouraged Carrington to write about her experiences with mental illness in her first novel, Down Below (1944), and she created several haunting paintings evoking her psychotic episode.
Carrington eventually settled in Mexico in 1942 and during this time grew close to several other Surrealists including Remedios Varo with whom she found an artistic kinship and friendship. Carrington was invited to participate in an international exhibition of Surrealism with her new associates at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York (1947). In 1960 she was honored with a major retrospective of her work held at the Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno in Mexico City.
In these decades Carrington devoted herself to her artwork and developed an intensely personal sensibility that weaved together autobiographical and occult symbolism. Her early life surrounded by the animals of the family estate, as well as the Irish folklore of her heritage provided the inspirational foundation for the aesthetics that would see her work celebrated as visionary. Anthropomorphic creatures, chthonic kitchens and liminal landscapes are all familiar motifs in Carrington’s paintings and can also be found in her written work including the fantastical novel, The Hearing Trumpet (1976).
Forever the rebel, in addition to her creative pursuits, Carrington was also a founding member of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Mexico during the 1970s.
In the years since her death Carrington’s work has received more focused attention with her work being exhibited at the Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico and a dedicated Leonora Carrington museum being established in San Luis Potosí, Mexico in 2018.
Her visionary approach to painting, intensely personal symbolism and occult influences has set her apart from her Surrealist contemporaries. So much more than Max Ernst’s muse, Carrington’s colourful life and substantial body of work has blazed the trail for her successors and established Carrington as one of Britain’s, and Mexico’s most significant artists, writers and thinkers.