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In the Cauldron at Midnight

Down Below

by Leonora Carrington, with an introduction by Marina Warner
New York Review Books, 69 pp., $14.00 (paper)
Münchner Stadtmuseum/bpk/Art Resource; Art © Robert and Gail Rentzer for Estate of Morris Hirshfield/Licensed by VAGA, New York; Art (Ernst): © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
Leonora Carrington with André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst, New York City, 1942; photograph by Hermann Landshoff. At center is Morris Hirshfield’s painting Nude at the Window (1941).

One morning in Mexico City in 1991, the English Surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington and the art historian Whitney Chadwick set off for the Mercado de Sonora, a traditional market in a rough part of town that is also known as a mercado de brujería, or witches’ market. “It is here that the shamans and the curanderas [folk healers] find their supplies,” Carrington explained. After showing Chadwick various healing herbs and miracle cures, Carrington found what she’d been seeking: “one of the best-known curanderas.” They negotiated the price with an attendant, and Chadwick was led alone through a torn curtain to a woman on a low stool with long braids and penetrating dark eyes. “I stood paralyzed,” Chadwick recalled, “remembering stories my uncles had once told of foxes that hypnotized cats by swaying in front of them. I grew more nervous as the seconds passed.” Then she heard a commotion behind her, the curtain parted, and Carrington gripped her arm: “‘Don’t do it,’ she whispered, ‘Don’t do it. This woman works with black magic. She will kill frogs on your body and use the blood. Run!’” Chadwick stood transfixed until Carrington pulled her away, and they fled the market.

This incredible story is not from Chadwick’s latest book, Farewell to the Muse, but from a talk—a “memory piece,” as she described it—that she delivered in Mexico City in April 2017 at the centenary celebrations for Carrington, who died in 2011 at the age of ninety-four. She and Carrington had been friends since the early 1980s, when Chadwick was among the earliest scholars to seek out the more-or-less forgotten women of the Surrealist movement. In fact, one of the rich pleasures of reading this first generation of Carrington scholars—among them Marina Warner, Gloria Orenstein, and Susan Aberth, who wrote the first biography of Carrington—is that they knew her (and often related artists, such as Leonor Fini) for years. We need memoirs from these pioneers.

Chadwick does allow herself one significant anecdote in the introduction to Farewell to the Muse. In 1982, the painter Roland Penrose showed her his remarkable art collection at Farley Farm House, East Sussex. When he learned she was planning to write about the female Surrealists, he shook his head: “‘You shouldn’t write a book about the women,’ he said…. ‘They weren’t artists.’” Chadwick probably glanced around the room at this point, having just seen the work he owned by his two wives, the French poet and collagist Valentine Penrose and the American photographer Lee Miller. “‘Of course the women were important,’ he continued, ‘but it was because they were our muses.’”

The vexed issue of muses undermines the revolutionary program of international Surrealism: the rejection of the rational and of all the oppressive institutions and bourgeois norms that, André Breton and others argued, had led to the ravages of World War I. In place of the military, the family, and the church, Surrealists would celebrate the imagination, sexual liberty, and the promptings of the unconscious. In his first Surrealist Manifesto, Breton called for an art of “psychic automatism” that would record “thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, apart from any moral or aesthetic concerns.” Women were exalted as conduits to these chthonic realms. In the process, Breton and his followers created a mythology out of the way pretty women made them feel.

“Man defines woman not as herself but as relative to him,” observed Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1949). Among the writers she skewered, she could have included the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard, whose 1924 poem “L’Amoureuse” throws his image over his wife Gala’s like a coat: “She has the shape of my hands, she has the color of my eyes, she is engulfed in my shadow.” But Beauvoir went straight for Breton. The ideal woman of Breton’s poetry, she wrote, “casts the same spell as the equivocal objects loved by the surrealists: she is like the spoon-shoe, the table-magnifying glass, the sugar cube of marble that the poet discovers at the flea market or invents in a dream.” Equating Beauty with Woman relegates women to a land of toys. The Second Sex sold 22,000 copies in its first week alone, and Beauvoir’s analysis of Breton fueled decades of feminist revisions of Surrealism. When Beauvoir criticizes you, you stay criticized.

Can a woman be a muse and an artist? In theory, yes. In practice, the roles seldom overlap comfortably. “All that means is you’re someone else’s object,” as Carrington put it. Although her early self-portrait, The Inn of the Dawn Horse (1937–1938), conveys an exhilarating self-confidence through both the central figure and the animal surrogates around her, especially the galloping white horse, her Portrait of Max Ernst (1939), which depicts the German Surrealist as his alter ego, Loplop, the Bird Superior, bears a mixed message: he carries a tiny horse trapped in a lantern, and the white horse behind him is frozen stiff.

Lee Miller left Man Ray in part due to a dispute over the attribution of their collaborative art. After Breton’s wife Jacqueline Lamba gave birth to their daughter, she struggled with her husband for time to paint. “The women surrealists were considered secondary to the male,” Carrington told an interviewer. Women artists regularly exhibited with the Surrealists, and their art was taken seriously within the Paris group. Breton actively promoted Frida Kahlo’s work. But one can sense the male Surrealists’ ambivalence in watching young and beautiful women develop into mature artists, for example in Max Ernst’s condescending praise of his ex-lover Méret Oppenheim’s legendary Object (1936): “Who covers a soup spoon with luxurious fur? Little Méret. Who has outgrown us? Little Méret.”1

Women were not included in Breton’s promotional group photos of the Surrealist artists, and they are barely mentioned—except as models and muses—in the early histories of the movement. The female Surrealists in all their variety were reduced to one story: the beautiful femme-enfant who nurtures male creativity. “We know more about Kiki of Montparnasse and Nadja than we do of Lee Miller and Valentine Hugo [Penrose],” Chadwick remarked in her Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (1985). After thirty years of feminist reappraisals, and as a result of Antony Penrose’s discovery and release of his mother’s photographic archive, we now know more about Lee Miller than about Breton’s Nadja.

While Chadwick included a chapter on women as muses in Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, only later did she become “fully aware of the fundamental incompatibility of the roles of beguiling muse and committed professional artist.” As Lee Miller said, “I’d rather take a picture than be one.” Carrington threw cold water on the whole romantic notion. “I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse,” she told Chadwick. “I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.”

Hence Farewell to the Muse, which follows five pairs of women artists from the late 1930s through World War II—no longer the muses or femmes-enfants of Surrealist legend, but creators in their own right. Chadwick’s fascinating account of Claude Cahun and Suzanne Malherbe’s wartime resistance on the German-occupied island of Jersey quickens the pulse even seventy years later. Although other Surrealists, like Paul and Nusch Éluard, engaged in subversive activities in France during the Occupation, these two middle-aged French lesbians in poor health elevated resistance to an art form, risking their lives in a small, isolated community in which even the natives had not quite accepted them. The women created collaged texts, leaflets, and banners in German to “sow doubt in the minds of German soldiers.” Some of their messages (left in cigarette boxes for soldiers to find) were so oblique as to seem surreal: “Ohne Ende” (Without End) read one, alluding to a Nazi pre-war slogan, “Terror without end or an end to terror.” They evaded discovery until near the end of the war, when they were arrested, held in solitary confinement, and condemned to death. In February 1945, the German High Command granted them a reprieve from execution. They were reunited in prison, where they organized a clandestine postal system among prisoners and made nuisances of themselves until the Occupation ended.

Unlike the creative partnerships Chadwick explored in Significant Others (1993), those in Farewell are enlightening but not always inevitable pairings. Frida Kahlo and Jacqueline Lamba Breton, for example, were drawn to each other when they met in Mexico in 1938—during the four-month trip in which André Breton famously remarked that Mexico was “the Surrealist place par excellence”—but their relationship was characterized more by absence than presence. Kahlo’s passionate farewell letter after one parting is undercut by her failure to send it.

Similarly, Lee Miller and Valentine Penrose were linked chiefly through Roland Penrose, the painter-turned-champion of Surrealist art, who divorced Valentine to be with Lee. The three of them lived together at times, and Roland continued to support Valentine financially, but Lee’s artistic career essentially ended with the war. She and Valentine did not share imagery or inspire each other or study together.

Chadwick’s chapter on Carrington and the Argentine-born painter and designer Leonor Fini springs from her access to a fantastic trove of newly discovered letters between the friends. Found in Fini’s Paris studio by the executor of her estate, they offer an account of the dark prelude to Carrington’s mental breakdown—as described in her memoir, Down Below (first published in 1944)—beginning in 1939 when her lover, Max Ernst, was jailed by the French as an enemy alien. Later, after the Germans invaded, he was jailed again as a degenerate artist. Carrington was left alone among suspicious villagers in Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche, writing everyone she knew, frantically trying to free him. “I thought I knew the story behind these letters,” Chadwick writes, but the letters themselves had a

rare and raw immediacy. Written almost day by day with the urgency of one fighting to remain sane, they had the feel of a diary or a personal journal. Addressed to a dear friend by a narrator who is isolated, terrified and enraged, they are both descriptive and intimate…. The world they describe is neither that of the surrealists in Paris, nor one in which women propel the male imagination. Instead they delineate a harrowing mental universe that parallels and intersects with a real world.

Born in Lancashire in 1917 to a wealthy industrialist and his Irish wife, Carrington was fed ghost stories and Irish folklore from the cradle, and raised in a gothic mansion called Crookhey Hall. Considered a wild child, she was expelled from two convent schools for failing to “collaborate with either work or play,” and also for trying to learn to levitate. At her father’s insistence, she was presented at the court of King George V and made to endure a ball in her honor, later unleashing her resentment about the experience in what is probably her best-known story, “The Debutante.” When her father at last consented to art school, she studied in Florence and then at the Cubist Amédée Ozenfant’s new school in London. A fellow student brought her to a dinner party where Max Ernst corked her overflowing beer bottle with his finger—in this case, the perfect gesture.

Even before she met him, Carrington had been swept away by Ernst’s assemblage Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale, featured in Herbert Read’s influential early study Surrealism (1936), and also the work Ernst showed at London’s 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition. She recalled “a burning inside” when she first saw his art: “You know how when something really touches you, it feels like burning.”

Ernst was married and forty-six. Carrington was nineteen. When he left for Paris, she followed, “and stayed and stayed.” Carrington would not return to England for fifteen years. Although her chapter is called “The Two Leonors,” one can’t blame Chadwick for lingering on the three-year Ernst/Carrington love affair: the books and art they produced at their farmhouse in the Ardèche, the photographs Lee Miller took of the lovers—Leonora concocting something in her kitchen (like her notorious prank omelet with hair clippings), Max shielding her bare breasts with his hands as she sunbathed, her ever-present cigarette in the foreground.

Leonora Carrington/Private Collection/Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images/© 2018 Estate of Leonora Carrington/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Leonora Carrington: A Warning to Mother, 1973

The horse-human hybrids Carrington painted on the interior walls of their house made their way into the collage Ernst produced to illustrate her first published story, “The House of Fear,” written in French in 1937 and published the following year. Many of the later elements of her fiction appear in this story. Her nameless heroine is invited to a secret party of horses, presided over by “the mistress of the house—Fear. She looked slightly like a horse, but was much uglier. Her dressing gown was made of live bats sewn together by their wings: the way they fluttered, one would have thought they didn’t much like it.”

Like the Bloomsbury Group and the Beats, the Surrealists could be incestuous, choosing lovers from inside the circle and often remaining close to their exes. When Ernst and Carrington reached Paris, he introduced her to Leonor Fini, his friend and former lover. Tall, dazzling, and bejeweled, Fini cultivated a baroque theatricality; every day with her was a masked ball. Recognizing Carrington as “a revolutionary,” she claimed her as an astrological twin—a feat possible only because Fini lied about her age. “This chronological charade, combined with later cosmetic surgeries, sustained the image of youth and beauty that remained vital to Leonor’s self-image, the sexuality and her sense of her place in the world,” writes Chadwick:

Imperious and mercurial, she was also generous, loving and happy to share her rich intellectual life with the younger woman she considered her double. Like Leonora, she believed that cats possessed highly developed psychic powers, that horses had mythological powers that identified them with the feminine, and that painting was an alchemical process.

While Ernst relished Carrington’s youth, Fini included a full-length portrait of her as a breast-plated warrior in her painting The Alcove: An Interior with Three Figures.

Richard Overstreet/Leonor Fini Estate, Paris
Leonor Fini: The Alcove: An Interior with Three Figures, 1939; from Whitney Chadwick’s Farewell to the Muse. The figure standing at left is Leonora Carrington, while Fini herself sits on the bed at far right.

After a riotous visit to Ernst and Carrington in the summer of 1939, Fini left in a huff after slashing all but the face of a portrait of Carrington she’d begun. By the time the contretemps passed and the friends renewed their correspondence, Ernst had been arrested, and the lovers’ idyll was over. Carrington’s mind was unhinged.

For a long time, the factual accuracy of Carrington’s memoir of madness, Down Below, was in question. It has been republished by New York Review Books, with a sparkling new introduction by Marina Warner, and I won’t spoil its revelations here. Suffice it to say that the letters to Fini confirm Carrington’s account up to Ernst’s second imprisonment, and recent research confirms many seemingly outlandish details of her confinement “for incurable insanity” at Sanatorio Morales in Santander, Spain, and her brutal treatment with convulsive drugs. (One of two surviving sketchbooks from 1940—during Carrington’s internment at Santander—recently surfaced and was offered for sale by Mary-Anne Martin Fine Art in New York City.)

The first version of Down Below, written soon after her arrival in New York in 1941, was lost, and Carrington reconstructed her story (in French) at the request of a friend. That manuscript was translated back into English for its 1944 publication in the Surrealist journal VVV. She had been reading her friend Pierre Mabille’s book Mirror of the Marvelous (1940), and drew from it a useful and healing symbolic framework for her suffering, a language for the numinous correspondences she had observed during her breakdown.

Carrington’s deepening interest in esoteric knowledge and traditions, such as alchemy and the tarot—a fascination she’d shared with the Surrealists—would now be encouraged by a new partner, the Mexican diplomat Renato Leduc. An acquaintance she had met through Picasso, Leduc saved her life by marrying her and getting her out of Europe after she escaped from her nurse’s custody. When she ran into Ernst by chance in a Lisbon market in 1941, he was already involved with Peggy Guggenheim. They had each found their separate rescuers. Carrington’s paintings and stories of the early 1940s (such as “Waiting,” included in the new collected stories) show her grieving this loss, and attempting to wrest artistic and emotional autonomy from Ernst while not diminishing their shared past.

After spending most of the war in New York, Carrington and Leduc moved to Mexico, where he took her to meet curanderas and shamans. They joined a teeming refugee community of artists and writers benefiting from Mexico’s remarkable open-door policy for those fleeing European fascism. After her amicable parting from Leduc, she married Emerico (“Chiki”) Weisz, wonderfully described by her friend Chloe Aridjis as a “Hungarian photographer to whom Leonora was married for over fifty years, largely in silence.” They had two sons. Her friendship with the painter Remedios Varo and the Hungarian photographer Kati Horna (dubbed “those European bitches” by Frida Kahlo) was explored in “Surreal Friends,” a 2010 exhibition at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. Kahlo’s epithet would have been a livelier title.

Not long after settling in Mexico City, Carrington met the English collector and eccentric Edward James, who helped secure her first solo exhibition at Pierre Matisse’s Gallery in New York in 1947 and left us the most-quoted comment on Carrington’s art: “The paintings of Leonora Carrington are not merely painted. They are brewed. They sometimes seem to have materialized in a cauldron at the stroke of midnight.” In Mexico, Carrington’s visionary art, with its animal hybrids, kabbalistic symbols, and references to world mythologies, found an avid audience. Although she left the country after the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre of student protesters, she returned and helped found Mexico’s women’s liberation movement in the 1970s. Long before her death, she had become the most famous living artist in Mexico.

“She hated art historians,” her biographer Susan Aberth recalls. Carrington deplored both the obsessive interest in her years with Max Ernst and the expectation that she would explain her art. Asked what a painting meant, she was likely to reply, “What does it mean to you?” A young cousin from England, the journalist Joanna Moorhead, sought her out in the last years of her life (and has published a new biography of her, The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington2), but Carrington resisted explaining the sources of her art: “You’re trying to intellectualize something, desperately, and you’re wasting your time. That’s not a way of understanding…. It’s a visual world. You want to turn things into a kind of intellectual game.”

Yet the game persists. We can’t see her art only with our feelings, as Carrington had hoped, especially when we are aware of its autobiographical content. (She told Moorhead that “every piece of writing she ever did was autobiographical.”) Most recently, Aberth has been exploring what she calls “invocation paintings,” those works that go beyond depictions of magic circles or otherworldly creatures and that seem part of Carrington’s ritual occult practices: witchcraft, basically. “Carrington’s work is so layered and complicated that I often project it onto the wall and now with the computer I can enlarge it, flip it backwards or upside down, and for you who know her work, that is often necessary,” Aberth explained at the centenary celebration in Mexico. Close examination of Carrington’s painting Sachiel, Angel of Thursday (1967) revealed the angel’s sigil, a special sign to call him forth: “This painting then is not a passive representation but a dynamic invocation.” The director and spiritual teacher Alejandro Jodorowsky and an American friend of Carrington’s, Rita Pomade, have each written about their spiritual apprenticeships to her, which sound like magical journeys inside her paintings: fantastic and dangerous, with blood rites and dream visitations.

In the past few years, Carrington has been included in at least five major exhibitions of female Surrealists—most recently, the White Cube’s powerful show in the summer of 2017, “Dreamers Awake.” Her sculptures can often be seen around Mexico; How Doth the Little Crocodile (based on an earlier painting of the same name) is on permanent display along the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City. Her stories, most written originally in French, have been brought together for the first time in The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington: these, too, bubbled up from the cauldron, full of animal stinks, cruel and grotesque meals, and the looming, punitive father-figure, rendered with what Marina Warner memorably called Carrington’s “deadpan perversity.” (In one story, she names a convent “Jesus’s Little Smile of Anguish.”) The narrator of “The Debutante” convinces a hyena to take her place at her dreaded coming-out ball, but the hyena sensibly points out that they don’t look enough alike: she will have to kill the narrator’s maid and wear her face to the ball. “Only if you promise to kill her before tearing off her face,” the narrator replies. “It’ll hurt too much otherwise.” And, of course, the maid’s body must be disposed of, too:

When Mary came in I turned to the wall so as not to see. I must admit it didn’t take long. A brief cry, and it was over. While the hyena was eating, I looked out the window. A few minutes later she said, “I can’t eat any more. Her two feet are left over still, but if you have a little bag, I’ll eat them later in the day.”

A small notebook of Carrington’s drawings and absurd stories for children, titled The Milk of Dreams, was published in 2013.3 Some tales are in the mischievous vein of Hilaire Belloc, but without even an ironic moral. In “The Gelatin and the Vulture,” a girl’s parents fail to notice that a vulture has fallen into their dessert and been solidified. In “The Nasty Story of the Camomile Tea,” a boy pees out his window on passersby until an elephant and a horse enter his room and return the favor.

Carrington’s long-overdue 2015 retrospective at Tate Liverpool, co-curated by the Mexican novelist Chloe Aridjis and Francesco Manacorda, Tate Liverpool’s artistic director, also inspired a film, a psychological art world thriller called Female Human Animal (due later this year), starring Aridjis. And lastly, Carrington’s novel, The Hearing Trumpet, published in 1976, has just been released as an audiobook superbly read by Siân Phillips. The pleasure of hearing this mild domestic satire rattle completely off the rails can’t be overstated. It is Down Below reimagined as a comedy, with an affectionate portrayal of Remedios Varo as the elderly protagonist’s deranged sidekick: entry-level Leonora Carrington for readers afraid of the dark.

  1. 1

    In fairness to Ernst, this was not purely belittling, so to speak. Oppenheim had been named for the character Meretlein—Little Meret—in a Gottfried Keller story, “Green Henry.” 

  2. 2

    London: Virago, 2017. 

  3. 3

    New York Review Books, 2013.