Friday, 18 August 2017

Leonora Carrington Rewrote the Surrealist Narrative for Women – The New Yorker


“Pigeon, Fly!” is one of the more unsettling stories by the frequently unsettling writer and painter Leonora Carrington, who was born a century ago and died in 2011. In it, a woman receives a summons, delivered by an androgynous figure with “long, straight hair” and lips “painted reddish purple,” who speaks in a man’s voice. “Entrust your honourable person, as well as your canvases, your brushes and everything you need in your profession of artist to my emissary,” comes the message, from the court of Célestin des Airline-Drues. And so the woman, who remains unnamed, is ridden west through “wild country” to a clearing in a forest, where Célestin, who has the face of a sheep, requests that she paint a portrait of his young wife, who is recently deceased. The body is lifted from its coffin for the purpose. The dead wife “was beautiful and had a mass of silky black hair,” the narrator tells us.

Carrington is describing herself. Born in Lancashire to an Irish mother and an English father, she grew into a beauty whose dark eyes and black hair told of her Irish ancestry; later in life, she would sometimes claim, fancifully, that her forebears had been gypsies. Her father owned a textile mill, and Carrington and her three brothers were raised at Crookhey Hall, a turreted mansion with its own croquet lawn and ornamental lake. In 1935, she was presented at Buckingham Palace, among the season’s wealthy débutantes. But she would soon turn her back, permanently, on the life laid out for her—by 1937, she had run away to France with her married lover, the Surrealist artist Max Ernst, who was twenty-six years her senior. After a spell in Paris, she and Ernst settled in the tiny village of Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche, where they turned their house into a lived-in art work, with paintings on the cupboards and a mosaic of a bat laid into the basement floor.

“Pigeon, Fly!” was written—in French, as many of Carrington’s stories were—sometime between 1937 and 1940, and it is far from an idyll. The corpse of Célestin’s dead wife glows in the dark, giving out the only light in the forest. After the narrator finishes her portrait, she steps back to check her work and is horrified to discover that the face she has painted is her own. “Art is a magic which makes the hours melt away and even days dissolve into seconds, isn’t that so, dear lady?” Célestin remarks. He has occupied her, in every sense: her art is no longer under her command, nor is her body. At the end of the story the painting lies empty, and the face of the artist has been replaced with that of the dead woman.

This eerie tale can be found in “The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington,” published in April by Dorothy, a small feminist press. It is the first time that all of Carrington’s stories, translated into English, have been brought together. Carrington’s short memoir of a mental breakdown, “Down Below,” has just been reissued by NYRB Classics, along with a children’s book, “The Milk of Dreams,” that she wrote and illustrated. A new biography, “The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington,” by Joanna Moorhead, has been published in England. In her centenary year, Carrington is undergoing a revival.

It isn’t a stretch for contemporary readers to claim her as a feminist heroine. Not only was her youth a spectacular example of personal rebellion but later in life she became involved in the Women’s Liberation movement in Mexico, where she lived for several decades. Her stories convey a hostility, even a revulsion, toward figures of masculine authority. In “The Oval Lady,” also written around 1937, a teen-age girl named Lucretia begs her father not to destroy a beloved horse called Tartar, who is something between a wooden toy and a living animal. “Have pity, Papa, have pity,” Lucretia pleads. “Don’t burn Tartar.” But Papa does.

As is often the case in Carrington’s work, the horse stands in for the imaginative potential of a woman or a girl, and it’s this potential that the antagonists of her stories seek to control. Moorhead interprets “Pigeon, Fly!” as an expression of Carrington’s desire to break with Ernst—her mentor as well as her lover—lest she end up captive to his authority and fame. “Leonora had worked out an important truth about being a woman who was also an artist: if she stayed with Max she would be dwarfed by him.” The tendency for women artists to be overshadowed by their male partners is, sadly, a recurring one, and for women involved in the Surrealist circle, the situation was even more fraught. The Surrealists were fascinated by women: beautiful women, mad women, young women, or preferably all three conjoined in the ideal figure of the femme-enfant, the child-woman, whose untamed nature might be the conduit to a realm of fantasy and indulgence. Maybe this is why Carrington identified so closely with horses: because she could imagine herself, like them, being used as a vehicle.

Carrington’s tales can have an air of whimsy, in the manner of Lewis Carroll, a favorite of hers, but just as often they are creepily claustrophobic, starring women who are trapped in disintegrating houses, or held down by monsters and priests (sometimes monster-priests). And yet there is a stubbornness threaded deep within these stories. The woman artist of “Pigeon, Fly!” has been partially erased, but she isn’t dead yet. And the narrator of “The Oval Lady” is not Lucretia but her playmate, who sticks her fingers in her ears in order to block out the “frightful neighing” of Tartar’s incineration. In their art, the Surrealists used women as symbols of volatility, but the minority of women Surrealists—including Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, and Leonor Fini—suggested that changeableness itself could be a source of power. These women tapped into a long line of mythic female figures—the nymph, the witch, the fairy, the crone—who have used metamorphosis in order to outwit, and outpace, their more solid, and literal, male kin.

Carrington and Ernst were still living in Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche in 1939, when war was declared between France and Germany. Ernst, by then, was a marked man: in 1937, his work had been included in the Nazis’ “Degenerate Art” exhibition. And, in spite of his aversion to Hitler, he was interned by the French when the war began, as an enemy citizen. His cellmate, Moorhead notes, was a fellow-German Surrealist, Hans Bellmer. After a few months, Ernst was released, then quickly rearrested. This second imprisonment precipitated Carrington’s mental breakdown.

As Carrington and two of her friends fled from the advancing German Army, crossing from France into Spain by car, she began to feel “jammed.” The car brakes jammed, too. “This was the first stage of my identification with the external world,” Carrington writes in “Down Below.” “I was the car. The car had jammed on account of me. . . . I was horrified by my own power.” Upon entering Madrid, Carrington’s confusion increased. She was convinced that the city “was the world’s stomach, and that I had been chosen for the task of restoring this digestive organ to health. I believed that all anguish had accumulated in me and would dissolve in the end.” These images—the jammed brakes, the blocked digestive tract—are striking and visceral, and for Carrington, at the time, they were not metaphors. This was her reality, and there was no immediate way out of it. “Down Below,” in a scant seventy pages, describes her experience of psychosis, which led to an involuntary confinement of several months in a Spanish mental asylum, where she was treated with cardiazol, a drug that induced terrible seizures. The treatment was a forerunner to electroconvulsive therapy.

First written in English, but lost, then dictated in French, then translated back into English, “Down Below” is both a recollection of madness and a kind of transcription. Though Carrington completed it after the fact, her memoir hews closely to her thoughts and feelings as they were then. She felt like an animal—a bat, an ox, a horse—and she felt like the universe. This is one definition of madness: a confusion of categories, of order. A coherent “I” must define itself in distinction to others—I am I because I am not you. Carrington writes, “I felt that through the agency of the Sun, I was an androgyne, the Moon, the Holy Ghost, a gypsy, an acrobat, Leonora Carrington, and a woman.”

Such an expansive sense of being could hardly be sustained for long but, rather than stumble beneath the weight of it, Carrington held on. Eventually, she writes, her delusions were “demystified,” in part with the help of a sympathetic doctor. Having taken charge of her destiny before, when she had escaped life as a socialite among the British upper classes, she took control again. This time her family wanted her shipped off to semi-permanent seclusion in South Africa but, having recovered enough from her illness to travel, she gave her chaperones the slip and went to Mexico instead. She would not be a madwoman, nor anyone’s beautiful corpse.

Carrington lived fully and productively in Mexico. (Ernst, meanwhile, ended up in the United States, then eventually returned to France, where he died, in 1976.) She married another émigré from the Second World War, a Hungarian named Emerico Weisz, who was a friend and colleague of Robert Capa. Carrington and Weisz had two sons. She continued her artistic work: painting, sculpture, murals, writing. Her novel, “The Hearing Trumpet,” first published in 1976, is still in print. The heroine of that story, Marian Leatherby, is ninety-two years old; her family wants her confined to an institution. She finds a way around their proposals.

In one of Carrington’s earliest stories, “The Debutante,” a young woman who does not want to go to a ball switches places with a hyena. The débutante allows her maid to be killed and eaten by the hyena, save for her face, “which was nibbled very neatly all around,” in order to provide a human disguise. But the hyena cannot suppress her true nature for long. At the ball dinner, the hyena removes and then eats the maid’s face, which was the animal’s mask, and which was also meant to substitute for the débutante herself, who is tucked up in her bedroom, reading “Gulliver’s Travels.” “Well, I don’t eat cakes!” the hyena cries, before leaping out the window “with one great bound.” One cannot help but feel that the young woman’s spirit springs over the ledge as well.



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