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Monday 31 March 2014

Excellent Women: Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst

We all know the work of Frida Kahlo, but have you ever heard of Leonora Carrington? Her work was long overlooked here in her place of birth, but in Mexico where she lived for over 70 years, she was considered a national treasure.

Rebellious from a young age, Leonora was expelled from two convent schools before she managed to convince her parents to let her study art in Florence. But whilst she was planning her future as a professional artist, her self-made millionaire parents were setting their sites on her improving their social status, namely through being presented to King George V at Buckingham Palace. Leonora later wrote a fantastic tale that came to her while she was at the ball, about disguising a hyena as herself, dressed in a ballgown, and sending it to the party in her place!

She had no time for society and its restrictions - protesting at Ascot about women not being allowed to place their own bets.

Crookery Hall where Leonora grew up.

An international surrealist exhibition in London in 1936 introduced her to the work of Dali, Man Ray and Max Ernst who she met at a dinner party and promptly fell in love with. After telling her father that she was moving to Paris with a 46 year old, married surrealist painter, he told her never to darken his doorstep again, and that she would undoubtedly die penniless.

Leonora and Max mingled with a hugely influential circle of friends, including Man Ray, Lee Miller, Henry Moore and Eileen Agar, and in Paris Picasso, Dali, Joan Miro and Leonor Fini (some other really excellent women in that bunch).

Leonora Carrington and Leonor Fini

They enjoyed a brief period of happiness in the south of France, before the rise of the Nazi party when Ernst, as a German national, was imprisoned by the Vichy French.

Leonora fled to Spain and suffered a nervous breakdown. She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Santander where they forced her to take the drug Cardiazol, now banned, which induced seizures and hallucinations. She later wrote about her experiences in her tale, Down Below. Her parents were worried about her being in war-torn Europe alone, so sent her childhood nanny to Europe in a submarine- as you do!

Leonora and her second husband, Chiki Weisz on their wedding day in Mexico

But once out of hospital, she escaped both the war and her family by marrying a Mexican diplomat, Renato Leduc and moving to Mexico. She found a happy home in Mexico, where she was friends with the likes of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. She later divorced Leduc amicably and remarried, having two sons. She remained married to her second husband until his death in 2007.

Like her contemporary Frida Kahlo, Leonora's work featured many animals, both real and legendary. Leonora's artwork, now considered an important influence on the surrealist movement, features complicated narratives and figurative dreamscapes, often inspired by her interest in mythology and fairytales (told to her by her nanny as a child) and also alchemy and the occult. However she objected to the 'over-intellectualisation' of her art, resisting all attempts to 'explain' her work- she believed the meaning of her paintings was in the eye and mind of the beholder.

Rather than dying penniless in a garret, Leonora died aged 94, hugely celebrated in her adopted home of Mexico - in 2008 the main street in Mexico City hosted a seven-month homage to her work. Her canvases now go for millions and her self portrait hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Which just goes to show, your parents don't always know best.


  1. What a brilliant person. I love The Giantess especially and am going to have to put it on my wall. Thanks for this series, it's brilliant!

    1. Pleasure! Glad you like it. You should also check out Leonor Fini's work; if you like The Giantess I think you'll like her stuff too.


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