Featuring rare archive footage, this short film follows Leonora Carrington’s cousin and journalist, Joanna Moorhead, exploring the artist’s story. Leonora Carrington was one of the most prolific members of the Surrealist movement.
After rejecting her upper-class upbringing in northern England, Carrington embarked upon a relationship with Surrealist artist Max Ernst, and became central in the Surrealist circles of France and New York. After hanging out with celebrated names such as Andre Breton and Pablo Picasso, the artist then moved to Mexico where she spend the rest of her life painting, as well as making sculpture, tapestry, writing poetry and designing for theatre and film. This film is republished with kind permission by The Guardian.
V1: Well I had always heard, as a child, of the existence of this mysterious cousin who had disappeared. Interestingly she was never sort of spoken of as somebody who was of any merit in her own right. She was never portrayed to me as an artist but as someone who had, run away to be an artist’s model, I remember my grandmother used to say. And then I was at a dinner party in the summer of 2006 and I was sitting next to a Mexican woman and I knew nothing about Mexico, but I did remember somewhere in my mind that this cousin, who in our family by the way is known as Prim, so I had to remember; what’s her name, what’s Prim’s real name? Oh, yes, Leonora. So I said to this woman, have you ever heard, I wonder, and you probably won’t have done but have you ever heard of my cousin by any chance; she went to Mexico many years ago – Leonora Carrington?
And this woman was astonished and she kind of held onto the edge of the table and said, are you kidding me? Leonora Carrington is the most famous living artist probably in Mexico. If she’s your cousin go and find her because she’s a fascinating woman, and something about the way she said it just ignited this spark in me and I thought, do you know, I will, I’ll go and find her.
Well I think she was a changeling child in a way; she just never fitted in. She went from being a debutant in London to falling in love with Max Ernst, eloping with him to Paris, found herself at the centre of the surrealists in Paris; knew all the surrealists there. She had grown up in this stifled environment in Lancashire in a family she felt she just did not fit into. She yearned for art; she had a real longing to be an artist and she wanted to get away from this environment that she felt just closed her in and art represented an escape and Max Ernst represented a way of learning about art, because she felt she had had a very paltry education, particularly from an artistic point of view.
He taught her a great deal; not everything but he taught her a great deal at an important moment in her career. She was only 20 and Max was 46 when they met. But then of course the war came. The Nazis invaded and Max Ernst of course imprisoned as an enemy national. Leonora was devastated and a friend who came to stay with her said, you can’t stay here in this farmhouse alone, and took her off to Spain, but then she unfortunately had a breakdown, she had another really major breakdown and she ended up in an asylum in Santander for some months; that was a terrible time in her life. She was giving fit inducing drugs that she remembers to this day were the most awful thing I think that has ever happened to her.
She got out of that asylum and went back to Madrid, and she was all alone in Madrid by that stage and it must have been a pretty terrifying time for her as well. She was 20 years old, she had cut herself off from her family, she had left her lover or been forced to leave her lover in France and she was all alone in Madrid. She was in a restaurant and across the restaurant she spotted this guy she had met through Picasso in Paris – he was a Mexican diplomat – and she told him her story; his name was Renato Leduc. She told him her story and he said that he could take her away, get her away from Europe if she married him, so they travelled separately to Lisbon, met up in Lisbon and got married at the British Embassy in Lisbon and then sailed for first New York and then onward from there to Mexico City.
These days obviously Mexico is quite close – I fly there in nine or ten hours – but in nineteen-thirty…well she moved to Mexico in the early forties, so 1942, in the forties and fifties Mexico was an awfully long way away.
I think it’s an extraordinarily brilliant coincidence that Leonora happened to end up in Mexico. She went to Mexico by chance because she happened to meet this diplomat, but there could not have been a better place on earth for her to end up. André Breton, when he went to Mexico earlier on in the nineteen-thirties the first thing he said was this is the most surreal place in the world. I always think it was an environment that was completely alien to her; obviously nothing like grey, rainy Lancashire, and yet because she was inherently a surrealist it was a landscape she knew.
V2: The only claim I have to artistic relations was my mother used to paint biscuit boxes for jumble sales.
V1: Did she?
V2: That’s the only art that went on in my household.
V1: Yes. You used to draw yourself though when you were young. You used to paint and draw when you were very, very young, didn’t you?
V2: Oh, I used to; I used to do it but I was the only one.
V1: Funny that isn’t it; I wonder where it came from.
V2: I have no idea.
V1: No other artists in our family?
V1: None at all other?
V2: Why, are you affixed on the idea of hereditary? It’s not hereditary.
V1: You don’t think so?
V2: It comes from somewhere else.
V1: Yes, does it?
V2: Not from genes.
V1: No. Your nanny was obviously, I imagine, quite an influence wasn’t she?
V1: Your nanny and all her stories of Ireland were quite an influence?
V2: Oh, yes.
V2: You’re trying to intellectualise something…
V1: I know, yes.
V2: …desperately, and you’re wasting your time.
V1: Okay. I should know by now shouldn’t I?
V2: That’s not a way of understanding.
V2: To make kind of into a little sort of mini-logic; you’ll never understand by that road.
V1: What do you think you do understand by them? What can we understand by…?
V2: By your own feelings about things.
V2: By your feeling about, if you see a painting for instance, that you like. Canvas is an empty space.
V1: If I got one of your pictures down now from upstairs and said to you, what were you thinking when you painted this, you wouldn’t tell me?
V2: No, it’s a visual world. You want to turn things into a kind of intellectual game; it’s not.
V1: So do you think in other words…
V2: A visual world; it’s totally different.
V1: So should I, if I go…
V2: Well remember what I just said now.
V1: Yes, I am remembering.
V2: Don’t try and turn it into a game, into a kind of intellectual game; it’s not. It’s a visual world, which is different.
V1: But everybody who looks at art says…
V2: The visual world is to do with what we see as space, which changes all the time. How do I know to walk - that’s one concept – to this bed and around it without running into it. I’m moving in space.
V2: Or I can have a concept of it and then I can see it also as an object in space.
V1: People do want to intellectualise art all the time don’t they?
V2: I know they do.
V1: All the time.
V2: But it’s not like that.
V1: Well I got very excited when a painting by Leonora was sold at auction last year for 1.5 million US Dollars and I phoned her up and said, this is amazing, this painting has gone, you know, it’s brilliant that your paintings are worth so much money; that puts you into a tiny handful of women artists whose works can sell at that price.
And she said, tell me that again, because she can’t hear always very well, and then when I said it again she said, oh, women artists, so she was immediately disappointed at being bracketed like that.