Leonora Carrington Is Finally Getting Her Due

Almost 20 years ago I travelled 5,000 miles to meet my father’s cousin, who had been estranged from our family for 70 years. Back then, Leonora Carrington – though feted in her adoptive country, Mexico – was barely known in her native Britain. She had been as neglected by the art world in general as by her country, and our family.

Two decades on, the story is very different. In April this year, one of her paintings – Les Distractions de Dagobert (1945) – was sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $28.5m, making her the highest-selling female artist in British history. Over the last few years, shows of her work have been held across the world: in Madrid and Copenhagen, Dublin and Mexico City, and at Tate Liverpool. Next month an exhibition at Newlands House Gallery in Petworth, Sussex, will celebrate her broader work, exploring her output beyond the dream-like canvases of her paintings and the surreal fictional writing for which she is now best known. Because as well as being a painter and writer, Carrington was also a sculptor, a creator of tapestries and jewellery, a maker of lithographs, a playwright and a designer of stage sets and theatre costumes. The Sussex show will include examples of these works, many of which have never been seen before in the UK.

In the 1980s, the feminist art collective The Guerrilla Girls made an ironic list entitled The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist. “Pluses” included: “Knowing your career might pick up after you’re 80”; and “being included in revised editions of art history”. For Carrington, this has been precisely the case. After my first visit to meet her in Mexico City in 2006, I visited her many more times over the next five years, until her death in 2011 aged 94. We would sometimes joke, sitting round her kitchen table, that one day her works, like those of her erstwhile friend Frida Kahlo, would spawn T-shirts and fridge magnets, tote bags and headscarves.

Untitled sculpture, 2008, 24-carat gold plated silver. Photograph: courtesy of the Leonora Carrington Council and rossogranada

It really was a joke, yet today I have all these items and more. Like Kahlo, who was almost unknown at the time of her death in 1954 (her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera, was the “famous” artist of the couple), acknowledgement of her status has been a slow burn. The reasons why some artists become sought-after and fashionable is a multi-layered and complex phenomenon. Carrington, like Kahlo, had an extraordinary life story: she ran away from her family and England to join her lover, Max Ernst, in Paris in 1937, becoming the youngest member of a circle that included Picasso, Dalí, Duchamp and Miró. After an idyllic 18 months living with Ernst in a farmhouse in the south of France, that survives to this day, festooned with their artwork, she fled to Spain and, after a terrifying spell in a psychiatric hospital, she escaped war-torn Europe for the US, and then Mexico.

As with Kahlo, Carrington’s work was always intertwined with her own experiences: she once told me that everything she did, both her visual art and her writing, was laced with her biography. Another reason why she is in vogue today is that her concerns – unusual and even eccentric in her own times – are now ubiquitous. Ecology, feminism, the interconnectedness of all life forms, spirituality outside of organised religion: today we’re all aware of these issues, but they were front and centre for Carrington 80 years ago.

“Great” artists are always experimental; they push boundaries, try out new ideas, shake up the way they do things. They’re not looking for a comfort zone; they’re curious, constantly on the lookout for challenges. All of this was true for Carrington: as her friend and patron Edward James, who was also the main patron of both Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, wrote in an essay in 1975: “She has never relinquished her love of experimentation; the results being that she has been able to diversify and explore a hundred or more techniques for the expression of her creative powers. She continues to try new media which help her to clothe her vital ideas with fresh shapes.”

The new show, which I am curating, will bring together more than 70 pieces of Carrington’s work, many of which have not been seen in the UK before. These include a series of masks made for a theatrical production of The Tempest in the 1950s, as well as a collection of 1974 lithographs of costumes made for a production of S An-sky’s play The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds, in New York. The exhibition shines a spotlight on Carrington’s work as a playwright: she wrote several plays including Penelope and Judith, both with strong female leads. And her play The Story of The Last Egg, written in 1970, is a precursor to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), foreseeing a world in which greedy overlords have stripped the planet of all its resources, including its women. Only one is left – and she has just one egg.

Carrington’s rebel spirit underpins the new exhibition: as a child she was expelled from several convent boarding schools, being admonished by the nuns for failing to co-operate “in either work or play”, she later recalled. Later, when she was launched as a debutante in the London season in 1936, her parents hoped she would find a “suitable” husband: instead, she fell in love with the divorced, remarried, penniless (by Carrington standards) artist Ernst. When she left the family home in Lancashire to join him in Paris, her father Harold warned her that she would no longer be part of the family: she never saw him again.

As the new show explores, her rebelliousness continued throughout her long life: Carrington never fitted in. She railed against the art establishment of Mexico, which was her base for 70 years; she cut her links with the “official” surrealist movement when she left New York in 1942; she courted the attentions of neither art historians nor journalists (if I hadn’t been her cousin, I would never have been welcomed into her life). In her 50s and 60s she spent long periods living alone in New York and Chicago, at times so poor that she later told me she would eat ice-cream because it was the cheapest way to get calories.

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Leonora Carrington in her studio, 1956. Photograph: courtesy of the Leonora Carrington Council and rossogranada

In her late 80s and 90s – the period when I knew her – she was rebelling against old age: and since she had already written the story of her later life, via a fictional character called Marian Leatherby, in her novella The Hearing Trumpet, it was a question of life imitating art. The Hearing Trumpet, published 50 years ago in 1974, was penned when Leonora was in her 50s; it describes a fantastical and stereotype-smashing old people’s home, where the residents overturn all conventions to hunt for the Holy Grail, and plan to escape to Lapland with a knitted tent. The Hearing Trumpet’s anniversary is the starting-point for another exhibition opening later this year in Colchester.

Throughout her life, Carrington never stopped working: her home in Mexico City, recently restored as a museum that is yet to open to the public, contained a studio, but she worked in all areas of the house. For 10 years in the 1950s, a family of weavers lived there with her and her own family – husband Chiki, a Hungarian photographer who she met and married after arriving in Mexico, and their sons, Gabriel and Pablo. The Newlands House Gallery exhibition will include tapestries from that period. In her final years, unable to paint, she turned to sculpture, focusing on individual figures from her paintings. During the time I knew her, she would intersperse our cups of tea in the kitchen with visits to the garage, where she worked with an assistant on sculptures of weird and wonderful creatures, many of which will be on view at Newlands House Gallery.

Leonora Carrington: Rebel Visionary is at Newlands House Gallery, Petworth, Sussex, 12 July–26 October; Leonora Carrington: Avatars and Alliances, is at Firstsite in Colchester, Essex, 26 October–23 February

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