- Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art
Reproduced in this book is a famous group photograph, taken in New York in 1942, of a group of mostly European artists in "exile" in the U.S.A. They are arranged in three rows, in a quietly comical manner: Everyone in the back row faces left, those in the center face right (with one exception) and those in the front row face whatever direction they like. Of the 14 artists in the photograph, 11 are men, but, as if to anticipate recent concerns about gender inequality, each row contains one woman, including Peggy Guggenheim (of Guggenheim Museum fame), Berenice Abbott (the famous photographer) and a largely obscure painter named Leonora Carrington. While everyone else in the photograph has died, this third woman, whose life and work this book concerns, is still living. Born in the north of England in 1917 to a family of wealthy industrialists, she is less known in part because she is so easily confused with another person, of the same time period, named Dora Carrington (unrelated), who was closely linked with the London-based Bloomsbury artists and writers, and also because her fame initially grew from having been romantically tied with the handsome German-born Surrealist Max Ernst (Dada Max), whose artistic celebrity eclipsed nearly everyone's and, as this book suggests, whose conquests of women were many. In addition, after World War II, Carrington finally settled with other Surrealist émigrés in Mexico City, which was then and still is too distant from the molten core of the New York "art world." So while she certainly became prominent and admired in Mexico City (among her friends were Luis Buñuel, Octavio Paz and others), there is no reason to expect that her work will ever be lauded at the level of such superstars as Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keeffe. Biographies and films about those two famous women are premiered almost weekly, while this is the first and only English book about the art and writings of Carrington.
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Reproduced throughout this book are many finely detailed plates of her paintings, prints and sculpture, the first from about 1936, the most recent from only a few years ago. Looking at them, I sense that they could never appeal to audiences as wide as those of Kahlo or O'Keeffe, both of whom, while certainly indebted to Surrealism, use styles and symbol systems that are more believable, less sci-fi, and far more approachable than the nightmarish androids that tend to appear in a Carrington painting. This book's author, an art historian at Bard College, more or less admits to this when she contends that (because of Carrington's interest in alchemy and the occult) "there is no key with which to decipher her work easily, because there cannot be one. It is not that certain embedded symbols have no meaning; it is that these symbols cannot and do not 'illustrate' ideas in the manner we are accustomed to" (p. 9). [End Page 271]
(Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review, Volume 20 Number 4, Summer 2005.)