The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington
By Joanna Moorhead
Out now from Virago Press, £20 hardcover
By Leonora Carrington
Out 18 May from New York Review Books Classics
The Hearing Trumpet
By Leonora Carrington
Exact Change Books
(my edition is American, obviously you can source other options in the UK)
The Milk of Dreams
By Leonora Carrington
Out 15th June from New York Review Children’s Collection
I play a game, sometimes, where I let the book I’m currently reading select the book I’ll read next. I’m also a completist and an obsessive. For example, if I love an actor (writer, musician), I’ll not only try to see all of their films (etc), but will also read as many biographies or tangential reference works, in order to know even more about them. This explains the “New Yorker Ghetto” of my bookshelves (devoted to works about the magazine and the writers who worked there), my collection of biographies, and the time I simultaneously read two Angie Bowie memoirs published twelve years apart, vetting her versions of identical events against one another.
The past week or so of my reading life has been devoted to Leonora Carrington, which is only fitting, since this is her centenary. She was born 6 April 1917. She was an artist, an author, a rebel, and altogether amazing. As this is not a book review post, I’ll not rehash chapter and verse of her life — you can find that in proper reviews elsewhere online. I do urge you not to stop there, but to go on and read The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington, and then, of course, to read Carrington herself. All the books pictured above are terrific and worthy of your time.
Moorhead’s father was Leonora’s cousin. She’d run away from the family in 1937, aged twenty, and for all intents and purposes never returned. To most of the family she was a write off and an enigma. So in 2006, when a stranger told Moorhead that her distant relation was “probably the most famous artist alive in Mexico today”, her curiosity was piqued. She dug deeper. Her father told her Leonora — Prim, as she was known then — “disappeared off to Europe, got into all sorts of trouble there, and was a huge worry to everyone.” Soon Moorhead was on a plane to Mexico, notebook in hand. Her friendship with Leonora lasted until the artist’s death in 2011.
While not a hagiography, this is a loving biography, mainly focussed the first part of Carrington’s life. It chronicles her love affair with Max Ernst (much older and already a star of the Surrealist movement), their one idyllic summer in the south of France where they played host to a Who’s Who of art world celebrities, and their separation at the start of World War II, when Ernst was interred and Carrington forced to flee.
The most difficult section of the book describes Carrington’s own internment, in a sanitarium for the insane, during a prolonged psychotic episode. Carrington told the story herself in Down Below, and while the two accounts cover the same ground with a lot of overlap, they are not identical. If anything, Moorhead’s version is more emotional and shocking (but that might be because I read it first). Carrington’s version has a sense of remove about it, perhaps the only way she could commit such painful memories to the historical record. For she was brutalised at the clinic, left naked, strapped to her bed, covered in her own excrement. Her treatment included injections of a drug called Cardiazol, a precursor to electroconvulsive therapy, which induced an epileptic fit thought to “reset” the brain.
Leonora regained her sanity and made another escape, to Madrid this time, where she reconnected with a Mexican diplomat she’d met in France. They married so that she could escape Spain, and she followed him first to New York and then to Mexico. After a few years there they divorced, and she went onto marry Imre Emerico Weisz Schwartz — Chiki. He was a Hungarian who’d endured a hard childhood but in his teens, forged a close friendship with a boy who went on to become the renowned photographer Robert Capa. While Capa photographed the Civil War in Spain, Chiki remained in Paris, selling the images to magazines.
In 1969, during a period of political unrest marked by student riots, Leonora heard that she had been denounced to the authorities, and she fled alone to the USA. She spent the next 25 years there, returning to Mexico when Chiki’s health began to fail him in old age. There she remained, dying in 2011.
Moorhead’s well-written account is absorbing and I applaud her for telling this story. If I have a complaint, it’s that it tails off dramatically after Leonora is settled in Mexico with Chiki and their sons. To be sure, her entanglement with the Surrealists, her mental illness, and her flight from a Europe engulfed by war is an incredible tale, but Leonora remained vibrant and fascinating right to the end — and kept working, as well. We’re told she had affairs, but none of their details, that she visited a Buddhist retreat in Scotland several times, and her British relations rarely and unhappily, though she remained on good terms with her mother throughout. Whereas before, Moorhead offers many perspicacious insights about Leonora’s art, once she pitches up in the US it’s mentioned less and less. A quick internet search reveals that she created sculptures as well as paintings, but they’re barely mentioned and remain unexplored. I’d love it if Moorhead produced a second volume, amplifying details about the latter half of Leonora’s life.
The Milk of Dreams, out in June, consists of sketches and snippets of stories and poems Leonora told her sons. It’s a pretty little thing, but it won’t be to everyone’s taste. According to the publishers it’s recommended “for the child age 5-9 with an odd sense of humour who finds Dick and Jane passé.”
Finally (though actually first in my reading queue), there is Leonora’s novel The Hearing Trumpet, the story of deaf as a post 92-year-old Marian Leatherby who is shipped off to an old folks’ home by her ungrateful son and his wife. Marian is a marvellous creature — stooped and ugly and heroic. Her irrepressible friend, Carmella Velasquez, who gives her the titular hearing trumpet, is based on Carrington’s real life friend Remedios Varos, a painter whose work I stumbled upon in a Mexico City museum and loved immediately. Together with Kati Horna, writes Moorhead, they “took Surrealism to a new place, a place where it was women-centred and instinctive.” The friendship with Varos was “one of the most precious of her life”. They pushed one another artistically, threw surreal dinner parties, and pulled pranks. Leonora was blindsided when Varos died unexpectedly, aged 55, in 1963.
In this novel, the inmates take over the asylum, wrestling control away from Dr Gambit, himself a parody version of the spiritualist Gurdjieff. I can’t begin to precis the story, which is hilarious and bonkers and wide-ranging, encompassing mythology and religion and murder. It celebrates old age with exuberance and without apologies. Though the oldies get up to all sorts, there’s nothing here of the modern tendency to portray them as cutesy or particularly heroic. Carrington’s old women are unrepentant, lively crones who have few regrets.
They are excellent role models. As was Carrington, who always, always maintained her autonomy and independence of spirit.
Get tucked in!