Long before Sephora started selling “Starter Witch Kits” and books with titles like Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive became mainstream, the Mexican-British surrealist painter, Leonora Carrington, was conjuring her own magical realms with the help of paint and the written word.
Her wild life was marked by adventure, rebellion, and an irrepressible desire to create. She was a surrealist painter, a magic practitioner, a runaway, and a debutante. She had all the makings of an icon, and yet she did not find acclaim or notoriety until after her death in 2011.
Leonora Carrington was born in 1917 in Lancashire, England to a strict Catholic family. Her parents were nouveau riche, and she and her three brothers were raised in a looming gothic mansion called Crookhey Hall, located not far from where the Pendle witch trials took place. Tales of enchantment and the divine entered into Carrington’s life at a young age: her Irish mother and grandmother would captivate the young Leonora with Celtic myths and told her that she was directly descended from a race of Irish fairy people called the Sidhe. She went to a series of boarding schools and convents, but her strangeness eclipsed her chances of staying at any of them for long (she once described herself as having an “allergy” to education). She was expelled from each one for her “anti-social tendencies and certain supernatural proclivities,” which included mirror writing and wearing shoes on the wrong feet.
Still hoping they could transform her into someone more respectable, who might marry old money and add some pedigree to their name, they sent her to two finishing schools in Europe. They also had her ‘come out’ as a debutante in the court of Charles V, no doubt envisioning an evening of parading her in front of a lineup of wealthy potential suitors. Instead, she spent the evening reading Aldous Huxley, and this experience later inspired her to write the grotesquely delightful short story, “The Debutante,” about a hyena who takes her place at the ball.
She terrified nuns and exhausted her parents, believed in ghosts and wanted to be an artist, and even finishing school failed to inspire any change. With their hopes of taming her dwindling, they finally agreed to send her to an art school in London when she was 17.
A few years later, she met the German surrealist artist Max Ernst at a dinner party. He was 26 years her senior and already married, but Carrington’s gravitational pull on Ernst transcended such barriers. According to Carrington’s biographer, Joanna Moorhead, the story goes that as they were both opening up bottles of champagne, Ernst stuck his finger into the bottle to keep the champagne from bubbling over. Carrington noticed this maneuver and copied him, their eyes met, and he was utterly besotted. He swiftly divorced his wife and they began living together in London.
When her father found out about their cohabitation, he tried to get Ernst arrested and deported to Germany. When Ernst caught wind that there was a warrant out for his arrest, he ran away to France and Carrington went to Lancashire to confront her father. He told her that if she continued to live with Ernst she would never be welcome back into the family and would die penniless, and she accepted those terms, left for France, and never saw her father again.
She joined Ernst in a small village in the south of France and they bought a falling apart farmhouse which they filled with paintings and sculptures. Carrington was accepted into surrealist circles, but her gender prevented her from being taken seriously as an artist. Women were expected to embody the idea of the femme-enfant—a youthful, innocent woman whose purpose in life was to be a muse to male artists. This role never appealed to Carrington, who stated, “I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse… I was too busy rebelling and striving to be an artist.” Once World War Two began, Carrington’s life changed yet again. Ernst was arrested twice: first for being an enemy alien, and again for creating “degenerate art.”
When it became increasingly clear that Ernst would not be returning to the farmhouse, Carrington gave up the house and all of its contents and left for Madrid with a friend. In Madrid, she began to have delusions, which culminated into a full-on psychotic break. She was committed to an asylum, where she was given seizure-inducing drug treatments, and her only escape was going to the roof in order to be closer to the stars.
On an extremely cold New Year’s Day, she was released from the asylum. She was told that her parents had decided to send her to a sanatorium in South Africa, with a stop in Portugal along the way. In Portugal, she was sent to live with a woman living in Estoril for a bit. Carrington told her that she needed new mittens, and they went to Lisbon together to go shopping. Once in Lisbon, Carrington feigned a stomach ache and asked to stop at a café, supposedly to use the restroom. Instead, she slipped away through another exit and got into a taxi, and instructed the driver to take her to the Mexican Embassy. There she managed to track down the Mexican poet and diplomat, Renato Leduc, who she had previously met through Picasso. She confided her story to him, and he offered to marry her and take her to Mexico City so that she could live there with immunity. With nothing tethering her to Madrid or anywhere else, she agreed.
In Mexico she found a whole new surrealist community to immerse herself in. She became friends with a group of expats and artists, including Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Octavio Paz, and Kati Horna. She found a kindred spirit in the Spanish-Mexican surrealist Remedios Varo, who had also left Europe to escape the war. Together, they delved into the mystical and the occult, and constantly found ways to blend the realms of art and magic. They would create magical concoctions that they believed would influence their dreams, wrote spells, and loved to prank guests. They spent almost every day together, and Carrington once said, “Remedios’s presence in Mexico changed my life.”
After divorcing Leduc, she met a Hungarian photographer and had two sons. She died in 2011 at the age of 94, having lived the majority of her life in Mexico. And although she did get to see herself rise in popularity as she got older, her art did not truly take off until relatively recently.
Along with her art finding acclaim, her writing has also garnered a devoted following. Her strange, dreamlike tales are intoxicating, and display true humanity even as they plunge you into the supernatural. Carrington once said to Moorhead that everything she writes is autobiographical. So
in many ways, it’s no wonder that Carrington, with her fascinating, whirlwind of a life brimming with magic and wonder, would produce writing that could be described so similarly.
Among Carrington’s books, The Hearing Trumpet is arguably one of her crowning achievements. This deliciously strange and darkly humorous tale introduces you to Marian Leatherby, a 92 year old nearly deaf woman living with her son and his family. One day she receives a hearing trumpet
from her friend, Carmella. When she uses it to listen in on her family, she finds out that they are planning to send her to a retirement home, and a few days later she moves into Lightsome Hall.
Lightsome Hall is not your average retirement home. The houses take strange shapes, including an igloo, a birthday cake, and a cuckoo clock, and the furniture within are painted on walls. The couple who run the home adhere to strange religious beliefs, and a portrait of a winking nun haunts her during meals. And the residents themselves include two amateur mystics who dabble in seances and murder, a blind artist who paints on rolls of toilet paper, and a French aristocrat who loves to tell wartime stories.
Once there, a series of mystical moments occur: Goddesses appear out of nowhere (sometimes in the form of a swarm of bees), a quest for a Holy Grail takes place, and witches and winged creatures reveal themselves. Threaded throughout the story is a message of female empowerment and overcoming oppressive institutions. Even the most sinister scenes are sprinkled with humor, and although some of the creatures they meet can seem treacherous, nothing is quite as fearsome as the humans who wish to extinguish creativity and autonomy. With this novel, Carrington concocts a glorious brew of vivid imagery and moments of absurdity to create a truly thrilling read.
It is also worth considering the rest of her oeuvre of work as you peruse the pages of The Hearing Trumpet. Reading this book is like watching her paintings transformed into words, as just about everything you see in her paintings appear in print, and vice versa. Carrington’s bewitching paintings frequently depict deities, mythological creatures, the underworld, and rituals—all of which are present in the novel. Her art shines through every sentence, and you can see the vibrancy she pours into her paintings working that same magic in her words.
Echoes of Carrington’s life story are threaded throughout the book, such as the fact that both Carrington and Marian were put in institutions, both went to London to study painting, and both broke free from the religions forced upon them and carved out their own unconventional paths to spirituality. But perhaps one of the most compelling parallels has nothing to do with the traumas and challenges of Carrington’s life, but the friendship she forged with Varo. She did this purposefully: this was how she imagined her and Varo in their old age. Carrington is Marian, Varo is the endearing, eccentric Carmella.
Carmella is Marian’s constant friend, full of life and unwavering love for Marian. She is unapologetically bizarre: she smokes cigars, writes letters to strangers, and comes up with elaborate plans to help Marian escape. She sneaks Marian port, inspires her to incite a rebellion, and digs an underground passageway to get to the home. She also takes care of Marian’s beloved cats when she leaves.
This friendship is one of the most touching components in the novel. It feels genuine because it is. Carrington and Varo supported each other throughout their artistic careers, offering each other protection, inspiration, and a partner in all sorts of mystical deeds. They are powerful, witchy women to be reckoned with—a story that is as magical as it is enduring.
The latest edition of this spellbinding story will be made available by New York Review of Books on January 5, 2021.
AYA KUSCH is an editor, artist, and freelancer based in San Francisco. She grew up playing with mud, which eventually led to a love of clay and a subsequent BFA in sculpture. She is fourth generation Japanese and a third generation potter, a Bay Area native, and a former bookseller who still obsesses over the best way to organize a bookshelf. She loves good design, contemporary art that will worry your mom and confuse your dad, and sculptures that make you look up. She is currently working on a book about art from Edo Japan.