I haven’t been out of these four walls for about 2 years & have become so intimidated by the outside world that I might have grown a hare-lip, a long grey beard & three cauliflower ears, bow legs, a hump, gallstones & cross eyes.
So declared Leonora Carrington—her inside world full of life, animals, food, humor, and grotesque eroticism—in a 1947 letter to her friend, the art dealer Pierre Matisse, that could have been written in these pandemic times. With her literary and artistic imagination, Carrington makes the familiar unfamiliar and the new ordinary. To Carrington, even people are “plants, animals, birds; otherwise things wouldn’t have been the same.” She refuses the notion that anything is what it seems to be.
Since childhood, Carrington refused. She was born in 1917 to a wealthy family and grew up in Crookhey Hall, a gothic mansion in Lancashire, England. As a young girl, she was expelled from two Catholic boarding schools, officially, for refusing to behave—but really for refusing the ordinary. She had a predilection for the spectacular: mirror-writing with both hands backwards as well as forwards. She refused her parents’ wishes that she become a debutante, enrolling instead in art school in London. There, through the art community, she met the Surrealist painter Max Ernst, who was married and in his mid-forties, and with whom she began an affair. When she was nineteen, they ran away to France together, though she refused that narrative, too: “Not with Max. Alone. I always did my running away alone.” In France, their romance bloomed, and Carrington was introduced to a community of Surrealists. The seemingly perfect Surrealist femme-enfant, Carrington was young, beautiful, and full of uninhibited imagination. She didn’t refuse musehood at first, but she refused its constraints, becoming successful in her own right as a Surrealist artist.
In France, Carrington began to write. She wrote not in English, her mother tongue, but exophonically—in French (and later in Spanish, too)—an act of metamorphosis that she mimicked in the themes of her stories, in which creatures transformed into plants, animals, birds, and men. In “Jemima and the Wolf,” a defiant daughter becomes infatuated with a shapeshifter and, wishing to be as beautiful as he, undergoes her own metamorphosis: “Fine, soft fur had grown between her toes, a fur that stopped on the instep where she found little hairs barely visible to the naked eye.”
The outbreak of World War II interrupted Carrington and Ernst’s life together. After he was arrested and interned in a prison camp as a “degenerate artist,” she became “jammed,” a term she employs in Down Below, her agonizing memoir in which she describes, with deadpan delivery, her descent into madness, her confinement in a mental institution, and her cruel mistreatment. Mentally jammed and unstable, she was also jammed between two places: France, where she was, and Spain, where she would go in search of a visa for Ernst. Once in Spain, she was detained in an asylum and treated with Cardiazol, a drug that induces convulsions. Eventually, after escaping institutionalization, and leaving Ernst, Carrington settled in Mexico City, a hub for many of her Surrealist friends. There, she met the Spanish painter Remedios Varo and the Hungarian photographer Kati Horna, who became two of her closest friends and collaborators. In Mexico City, Carrington married Chiki Weisz, another Hungarian photographer, had two sons, and lived the rest of her long and prolific life.
Her life itself was reflective of her literary and artistic imagination: miraculous, uncanny, defiant. Her tales exhibit her unusual tone, simultaneously distressing, comical, naïve, matter of fact, and thick with complexity. In “As They Rode Along the Edge,” Virginia Fur, not quite human, is fascinated by the beauty of Igname the Boar. Not merely cloth and fabric, Igname’s attire includes a young nightjar attached to his curly head and a “wig of squirrels’ tails and fruit” embellishing his body and making him desirable. In addition to his substantial decorations, Igname wears a mysterious purple cape that “hid his russet buttocks, as he did not want to show all his beauty at one go,” leaving readers drawn to, but unable to envisage, the beauty the cape conceals. Igname asks Virginia: “Do you recognize my garments of love?…Do you know, Virginia, that I am wearing them for you? Do you realize that the nightjar’s claws are thrust deep into my skull? It’s for you, I love you.” Awed and afraid of Igname’s beauty, Virginia “jumped around Igname, tearing her hair out by the roots; Igname stood up, and together they danced a dance of ecstasy. The cats caterwauled and stuck their claws into one another’s necks, and then threw themselves into a mass onto Igname and Virgina, who disappeared under a mountain of cats. Where they made love.” Carrington describes a scene of disconcerting and beastly eroticism that poses questions about the relation between pain, beauty, desire, and love. She defies conventional conceptions of beauty and sexuality in ways that seem so natural in her world of porous boundaries and polymorphous interspecies perversity and sensuality. Her defiance prompts readers to inhabit their own disquietude.
Carrington’s art, like her prose, is layered, and often ambiguous, highlighting traversable borders between humans and animals, men and women. Clothing contributes to her layering and ambiguity, whether it takes the discernible form of purple capes, black and white cloaks, blue and red striped stockings, or includes fantastical animate, inanimate, and animalistic decorations: a nightjar, a wig of squirrel tails, a gown of white feathers, angel wings, foxes as scarves. Even when it is more mundane, the garb Carrington describes is not utilitarian, but extravagant, anachronistic, spectacular.
In her color lithograph, Crookhey Hall, named after her childhood home, long cloaks cover bodies and faces, concealing form and masking gender. At the same time, in the right foreground stands a naked figure with the upper body of a woman, whose physique becomes cat-like below the torso. This woman-animal hybrid appears distinct: it is not just that she is the only one who is not clothed; she is also one of the only figures who does not appear to be fleeing. She stands, looking straight ahead, with one hand placed on the backside of her animal-half, positioned beside a red-robed figure whose head is turned sideways to look at her. Nearly everyone else is in a state of suspension. Her static bareness, defiant, makes the rest of the figures’ coverings and movement more apparent, destabilizing viewers, amplifying androgyny, and provoking uncertainties of interpretation.
A counterpart to the woman-animal hybrid in Crookhey Hall appears in Carrington’s painting, La joie de patinage (The Joy of Skating). One focal point of this piece is a bare-breasted, sharp-faced woman with the dark-furred hind legs of a goat. She skates alongside a bald, three-headed woman clad in a large red and blue striped robe and a pelt over her left shoulder. Two foxes, one biting the tail of the other, hang over the tricephalic figure’s neck, creating a scarf or hood, while a black-horned sheep sits peacefully on her right shoulder. The skaters glide in the same direction, elegantly, with one foot or hoof (in the case of the satyress) raised in the air and one arm extended. Mirroring one another, they seem somehow connected.
They exemplify the female double, a recurring theme across Carrington’s literary and visual works. Complicating the double, represented by the two figures in La joie de patinage, is the triple, the two additional heads growing out of the second skater. These doubles and triples, which seem to celebrate the joining of forces, highlight Carrington’s also recurring themes of multiplicity, reflections and complements, themes that are produced and reproduced in her friendships and artistic collaborations with Varo and Horna. Eschewing simple conceptions of gender, Carrington’s art celebrates and imagines a capacious and feminist conception of cross-species power sharing.
This fantastical pair evokes a feeling of balance that’s reflected, too, in the partnership between Marian Leatherby, the ninety-two-year-old heroine of Carrington’s novel, The Hearing Trumpet (reissued by NYRB Classics in January 2021), and her best friend, Carmella. Marian is deaf, toothless, and has “a short grey beard which conventional people would find repulsive.” Marian, however, finds it “rather gallant,” a symbol of maturity, insight, experience, androgyny that Carrington wrote about, too, in her 1947 letter to Matisse. Carmella is bald and wouldn’t dream of leaving her house without a colorful wig. A talented needleworker and letter-writer, she, like Marian (and Carrington, herself), loves cats, deeming them people: “People under seventy and over seven are very unreliable if they are not cats.”
Marian dreams of going to Lapland, where she’d have a “furry dog team,” but her son, Galahad, commits her to a retirement home for women run by the Well of Light Brotherhood. Before Marian departs, Carmella gifts her a hearing trumpet, which allows her to hear again. The two women communicate via letters and visits while Marian is locked away. To Marian, Carmella is “telepathic” and has “second sight.” Carmella, so resourceful, helps the women of the home to actualize their clandestine schemes.
The plot of the novel is absurd. Marian goes on wild adventures, including one down to an underground cavern chamber (or Hell, or the Womb of the World) where she meets a version of herself: “True, she was less bent than I and so her form seemed somewhat teller. She may have been a hundred years older or younger, she had no age. Her features were identical to my own, but her expression was much gayer and more intelligent. Her eyes were neither dim nor bloodshot, and she carried herself with ease.” Here, once again, a female double appears, although this time more literally a duplicate. Unlike Marian and Carmella, who complement one another as uniting partners, this still fantastical double is elastic and vague, a function of reflection. Together, Marian and Carmella, not unlike Carrington, refuse conformism and create their own utopia: “If the old woman can’t go to Lapland, then Lapland must come to the Old Woman.” In it, the planet will be “peopled with cats, werewolves, bees, and goats,” and they “fervently hope that this will be an improvement on humanity,” or at least on the “sickly collection men that call themselves ‘Government!’” They imagine instead a less masculine world without domination, one that welcomes all creatures.
In our jammed-up confinement, Carrington opens worlds of multispecies people and fantastical visuality in which it is possible to appreciate absurdity and nonsense without trying too hard to make it make sense. As I learned from Professor Jhumpa Lahiri and my peers in the seminar “Along the Edge: Leonora Carrington,” Carrington’s complex oeuvre—including her lithographs and paintings (some of which are housed in the Princeton University Art Museum)—teaches that there is beauty in not understanding a work, and being inspired by the spectacle, nonetheless. Carrington fabulates border-crossings, refusals of the expected, predilections to the spectacular that, even, or maybe especially, in the isolations of confinement, seek realms, lives, stories, doubles, and triples wherever they may be ready to emerge.