The following was taken from Julie Byrd's paper Les Femmes Surrealistes presented at the Interdisciplinary Cross-Cultural Conference at the University of Illinois on March 3, 1995. Sincere thanks to Ms. Byrd for her work.
Leonora Carrington was a revolutionary before she ever encountered the Surrealists. Born into an upper class family in Lancashire, England, Leonora learned at a very early age the injustice of society. Since her parents were both very strict Catholics, they sent her away from convent to convent and then to boarding school. Finally after many rebellious acts and expulsions from school, she succeeded in convincing her parents to let her study art at the Amédée Ozenfant Academy in London. There she lived on a modest pension from her family and established herself as a painter and a writer.
In 1937, Carrington met Max Ernst in London. He left his wife for Carrington, his "Bride of the Wind". The couple lived together until the outbreak of W.W.II when Ernst was taken prisoner as an enemy alien. Carrington's work during this period moves from themes of childhood filled with magical birds and animals, to a mature art based on Celtic mythology and alchemical transformation. It is an art of sensibility rather than hallucination, one in which animal guides lead the way out of a world of men who don't know magic, fear the night, and have no mental powers except intellect.
One can clearly see this in Leonora Carrington's self-portrait where animals reveal themselves to be forces of nature.
"The source of Carringtion's magical white horse lies not in Freud's use of the horse as a symbol of male power but in the Celtic legends that nourished her childhood...the horse is sacred to the ancient tribe of the Tuatha de Danaan...the hyena belongs to the fertile world of night; the horse becomes an image of rebirth into the light of day and the world beyond the looking glass. As symbolic intermediaries between the unconscious and the natural world, they replace male Surrealists' reliance on the image of woman as the mediating link between man and the "marvelous" and suggest the powerful role played by Nature as a source of creative power for the woman artist (Chadwick, p. 79)."
Thus Carrington suggests a redefines the image of the femme-enfant - the child who plays the role of innocence, seduction and dependence on man, and transforms this woman into a being who, through childhood worlds of fantasy and magic, is capable of creative transformation through intellectual power rather than sexual power.
During the years of World War II, Carrington suffered enormously due to her lover Max Ernst's imprisonment in a concentration camp. In fact she had several mental breakdowns. On one occasion she was institutionalized (by the intervention of her family in England) and given cardiazol, a powerful shock inducing drug. This drug was administered to many female patients from what doctors diagnosed or rather coined the term "hysteria". In an article she wrote in 1944 published in Down Below, Carrington describes her experiences of having a mental breakdown and the rupture of the world around her:
I begin therefore when Max was taken away to a concentration camp...I wept for several hours, down in the village; then I went up again to my house, where for 24 hours, I indulged in voluntary vomiting induced by drinking orange blossom water and interrupted by a short nap. I hoped that my sorrow would be allayed by those violent spasms which tore my stomach apart like so many earthquakes...I had realized that injustice of society...My stomach was the seat of that society, but also the place in which I was united with all the elements of the earth. It was...the mirror of the earth, the reflection of which is just as real as the person reflected. (Chadwick, p. 84).
In 1940, Carrington was reunited with Max Ernst, but he was now in the company of Peggy Guggenheim. Alas the loss of a loved one, and the reverberations of these events, left an indelible mark on Carrington's work between 1940-1944.
Carrington lived in New York after the war, and then moved to Mexico. It was in Mexico that she developed a mature body of work heavily influenced by magic, alchemy, and a lot more of the Celtic tradition. Her female protagonists are like the Sibyls, sorceresses, and priestesses of some ancient religion: their journeys are mythic voyages that unravel like fairy tales. But in life as well as art Carrington grounded her pursuit of the arcane and the hermetic in images of woman's everyday life: cooking, knitting, and tending children.
In 1946, she married Chiqui Weisz, a Hungarian immigrant. Her paintings Night Nursery Everything, Kitchen Garden of the Eyot, and Amor que move il sole e l'altra stella, celebrate the birth of her son and contain references to a female creative spirit.
Leonora Carrington has written a myriad of articles, novels, essays, and poems. She has produced thousands of paintings, sculptures, collages, and a number of tapestries. She has also made many public appearances. On in particular, was the women's movement in the early 1970's, where she spoke about women's legendary powers and the need for women to take back the rights that belonged to them all along. Carrington, just as Kahlo and Fini, is truly a remarkable human being and artist.