(And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur, 1953, oil on canvas, from here)
I must have been living under a stone for the past few months because I’ve only just discovered that Leonora Carrington died on the 25th May at the ripe old age of ninety-four. There are good obituaries of her at the Guardian and in the Independent, and a nice piece in the Telegraph by Joanna Moorhead, a relative (and author of the Guardian obituary).
(The Crow Catcher, 1990, oil on canvas, found here)
Carrington’s early years were eventful, to say the least: expelled from convent school and a rebel debutante, she eloped to Paris with Max Ernst where she met Picasso, Buñuel, Dalí (who praised her as ‘a most important woman artist’), Man Ray, Miró, Breton and many other artists. There are stories of her painting her feet with mustard in a restaurant and cutting guests’ hair while they slept, which she then served to them in an omelette for breakfast. They moved to Provence where Carrington started writing and was the only woman whose work was included in André Breton’s Anthology of Black Humour. At the outbreak of war Ernst was interned and Carrington suffered a breakdown; she was incarcerated in a Spanish asylum after she crossed the border to try and obtain a visa for him. Her father arranged for her to be sent to a sanatorium in South Africa, but she gave her minders the slip in Lisbon, while they awaited the ship, jumped into a taxi and demanded to be taken to the Mexican embassy. A friend of hers was a Mexican diplomat, and he married her to help her out and took her to New York. They soon divorced and Carrington moved to Mexico where she married Csizi Wiesz, with whom she had two sons. Her friends included Frida Kahlo and Remedios Varo; Varo became a particularly good friend and they experimented with alchemy and the Kabbala together. Carrington was also fascinated by Mayan and Aztec culture and the Day of the Dead.
(Kron Flower, 1987, tempera on panel, from here)
Carrington is best known as a Surrealist artist and her paintings are wonderfully playful, dark and magical. They often depict transformations, strange creatures, gifts, nuns and food; they are ethereal, feminine and clearly influenced by Hieronymous Bosch. But Carrington also wrote a memoir of her spell of madness (Down Under) and fiction, including The Hearing Trumpet, which I read a few years ago.
(Syssigy, 1957, oil on board, from here)
The Hearing Trumpet is chattily narrated by ninety-two-year-old Marian Leatherby (‘Indeed I do have a short grey beard which conventional people would find repulsive. Personally I find it rather gallant’). Her horrible son and his family fail to discern her charms (‘Grandmother,’ said Robert, ‘can hardly be classified as a human being. She’s a drooling sack of decomposing flesh’) so they pack her off to an old ladies’ home run by the Well of Light Brotherhood. The Brotherhood do not merely care for the ladies’ physical needs, they strive to Improve them, dissolve their ‘interior impurities’ such as greed and vanity and impart Inner Radiance. There are shady goings-on and an old lady is poisoned:
‘Suffering cobras!’ said Georgina who had gone pale. ‘The fudge must have been meant for me ... They must call in the police. If we were in the United States they would both go the lethal chamber and be frizzled to lard in the electric chair. I wouldn’t mind paying anything up to ten dollars to watch.’
‘There is no capital punishment here,’ I told Georgina. ‘But they might make them work on a chain gang, cracking rocks with pick axes and whipped by colossal Nubians wearing red loin cloths.’
The plot continues, increasingly wayward, with a winking Abbess, a wolf-headed woman, the Grail and a monster bursting out of a tower. Character is less important than exuberant event; it is a Surrealist painting in prose. Odd, slyly funny and bizarre, it’s not a book for everyone, but if you like Carrington’s art and the work of Angela Carter, chances are you will enjoy this and I’d urge you to try it.
Carrington’s paintings sell for large amounts of money, but of her books, only The Hearing Trumpet remains in print in English. Second-hand copies of The Seventh Horse are expensive: come on Virago, couldn’t you republish it – and perhaps some of her other work?
(Photograph of Leonora Carrington from here; the photographer is uncredited)