Leonora Carrington: not the English way
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who is only 80, was busily (and angrily) denying rumors this week that his creative life was at an end. Another of Mexico City’s intellectual and artistic elders was also in the news this week, with no questions asked about possible retirement.
Leonora Carrington turned ninety-two last Sunday. One’s ninety-second birthday normally would not be considered a memorable event outside of one’s own family, but Ruth McLean and Rachel Rickert Straus (Happy Birthday, Leonora Carrington!) took notice and for a good reason: not many people had the foresight to write a novel ahead of time about a ninety-two year old. Carrington’s 1976 novel, The Hearing Trumpet is the story of the aging Miriam Leathersby, who, thanks to her new hearing aid discovers what her relatives really think… mostly that she’s around the bend. Where Alice fell into a looking glass, Miriam falls into her trumpet… or more prosaicly, ends up in an old-folks home, and a liberation of her mind.
A sort of “magic realism” for the aging? Not at all, but a projection of Carrington’s own continuing liberation into what was then the future.
Born into a proper, upper-class British family, Leonara spent her early years getting herself thrown out of a string of English and Irish convent schools. Her Irish mother, with some exasperation, finally packed her off to Mrs. Penrose’s Academy of Art in Florence, Italy… a proper English school for improper Englishwomen. Still, the family tried their best to reform their daughter. She was presented at court in 1936, but not in the least impressed, found herself a quiet corner and read Aldous Huxley’s new novel, Eyeless in Gaza.
A proper upper-middle class Englishwoman might dabble in art, and might even dabble seriously, but Carrington, against her family’s wishes, continued her studies, and — rebelling also against the British art establishment — developed her style as a surrealist. By 1936 though, surrealism was well enough accepted in Britain that a thousand people a day came to see the London Surrealist Exhibition in June of that year. The highlight wasn’t Salvador Dali nearly killing himself when he decided to lecture in a deep-sea diving suit and got stuck, but Carrington’s introduction to the work of Max Ernst.
The attraction must have been mutual. Ernst abandoned his wife and ran off with Carrington the next year, fleeing to the south of France. The artistic couple were a team until the German invasion. Ernst was briefy detained as an undesirable alien, but released only to be arrested by the Gestapo. He managed to escape and eventually made his way to the United States, where a timely marriage to arts patron Peggy Guggenheim allowed him to remain. A devasted Carrington was unable to leave France until 1943, when she managed to make her way to neutral Spain.
Proper Englishwomen, of course, did not become artists, did not run off to France with married men, were not abandoned in France by said married men, and did not end up as distraught refugees in Spain. She must have been nuts. Or, so her proper English family decided, having her committed to a Spanish mental hospital.
Gilberto Bosques, the Mexican diplomat who saved so many from the Nazis was imprisoned by this time, but the Mexican diplomatic service — with an assist from Pablo Picasso — still did what it could to rescue those threatened by Fascism, and — as on other occasions — showed unusual creativity in finding a loophole.
Diplomatic service in Mexico, as in other Latin nations, has always attracted the artistic and eccentric. Attending to Secretaria de Hacienda y Credito Publico business in Paris, was not particularly time consuming or onerous overseas duty for Renato Leduc. He had plenty of time to devote to his “deliberately romantic” poems, and to indulge in his very undiplomatic habit of — as a fellow poet once said in admiration — dropping in two obscenities for every conventional word in conversation. Those conversations were often as not with his fellow Spanish speaker (and afficianado of grocerías) Pablo Picasso. Before the Mexican diplomatic corps was clapped in detention after breaking relations with occupied France, Leduc had managed to escape to Portugal, where he was given some vague consular duties that let him keep his diplomatic immuity.
Though their mutual acquaintance, Picasso… who was still in France, Leduc learned that Carrington was locked up in Madrid. When Carrington managed to escape the asylum through a bathroom window, and seek out the Mexican Embassy, Leduc was prepared to stave off the Nazis, the very proper Carringtons and the Spanish nuns who managed the mental hospital. Mexican diplomats in Madrid arranged for Carrington to travel to Lisbon where Leduc cut through bureaucratic red tape very neatly. He married the artist and escorted her to Mexico City.
Andres Breton may have found Mexico City too surreal for him, but Carrington at last found a place where she was appreciated for her own abilities, and where she could make a life on her own terms.
The marriage of convenience (or desperation) wasn’t expected to last, but it was an amicable parting, as the two continued to remain fixtures in the Mexico City intellegencia, mutual friends of composer Augstin Lara, poet and diplomat Octavio Paz, journalist and novelist Elena Poniatowska and actress Maria Felix (to whom Leduc would later propose marriage). Carrington would eventually marry Emerico (Imre) Weiz, a photographer and fellow European refugee.
In Mexico, Carrington finally found artistic recognition as an important surrealist. Since 1947, when she was mis-represented as “England‘s only female professional artist”, she has been consistently listed as a major English painter, though her work was never recognized there until after she became a Mexican citizen. In addition, she has published a number of her “adult fantasy” novels and illustrated books.
As a Mexican, not English, intellectual, she has taken an active part in national issues. Although physically unable to participate, Carrington — in common with other Mexican public figures — protested the U.S. occupation of Iraq. In 2006, she contributed art work to Andres Manual Lopez Obrador’s Presidential campaign, and continues to support the “legitimate presidency”.
Having touched the lives of so many men — poets, painters and politicos — from Max Ernst, to Picasso to AMLO, you’d expect to hear more paeons of praise from the men. But, as Carrington said in 1983:
I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse…I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.
And she is still learning.