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Leonora Carrington, Anglo-Mayan Zen Alchemist

9 June 2012

El Mundo Magico de los Mayas (1963)

Accept my friend Leonora Carrington as your teacher. She doesn’t know any koans, but she has resolved them all.

(Zen master, Ejo Takata quoted in The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky)


Thanks to a small link, I discovered U.S. poet Christian Gholson’s website, noise and silence.  In three parts (here, here and here) Gholson presents a well-worth reading short (and complete) biography of the British born Mexican artist Leonora Carrington.

In Gholson’s biographical sketch, Carrington is presented as a “counter-culture” figure, which I suppose she appeared to be to the outside world… although it seems more just that she abandoned Europe and the west to embrace the contradictory culture of Mexico.  Or cultures, Mexico being a place where European and indigenous modes of thinking and seeing have co-existed and co-opted each other since the 16th century, and where what was  shocking to the North in the 1960s (drug-induced vision quests, for example) or were simply old ideas passed off as post-modern (Zen, Kabbalah, alchemy) were something already known, or a slightly variant coloration of things that already were part of the cultural whole and seen  simply as one more pigment on the cultural palette to be blended into the ongoing work that is Mexico.

[In the 1960s] Carrington received a government commission to paint a mural for the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, located in Chapultepec Park in Mexico City. Her mural was for the section in the museum dedicated to the state of Chiapas and so she travelled there in 1963 to study the region and the culture.

“In San Cristobal de las Casas she stayed with the Swiss anthropologist Gertrude Blom, whose fieldwork focused on the Lacandon Indians who lived in the area. Through Blom she was introduced to two Chiapas curanderos (healers) from the village of Zinacantan (called ‘House of the Bats’) and, although wary of foreigners, they were so impressed by her knowledge of and respect for traditional healing that they allowed her to attend some of their ceremonies.” ([Susan L.]Aberth, [Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art] p 97)

For the next six months Carrington worked on preliminary drawings of the villagers and local animals. When she returned to Mexico City she began to study the Popul Vuh, the sacred book of the ancient Quiche Maya, in order to better understand the pre-conquest belief systems of the Chiapas Indians, descendents of those who wrote the Popul Vuh.

The result was the mural El mundo magico de los mayas.

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