Leonora Carrington, artist and surrealist muse, dies at 94

May 26, 2011

Leonora Carrington, who gained a cultural foothold as the muse and lover of painter Max Ernst and later emerged as a significant artist in works that fused surrealism with the occult and mystical explorations of femininity, died May 25 in Mexico City. She was 94 and had pneumonia.

Surrealism — by turns macabre, sexually overripe, whimsical, subversive and fantastical — suited Ms. Carrington’s creative journey.

She was widely, if belatedly, regarded as one of the most imaginative artists of her generation and one of the last links to the surrealist movement that included Salvador Dali, Joan Miro and Marcel Duchamp. Her paintings fetched hundreds of thousands of dollars at leading auction houses.

Ms. Carrington was born in England to an upper-crust family that stifled her artistic impulses. She went through the motions of being a debutante before managing, at 19, to broker her independence and study painting.

Smitten with surrealism — and its use of art to explore the psyche — she became in 1937 the lover of one of its masters, the German-born Ernst, who was 46 and married.

They retreated to a farmhouse in southern France, where they put on plays and tended vineyards. Guests were welcome, to a point. When surrealist visitors overstayed their welcome, the interlopers were treated to an omelet — of their own hair, which Ernst and Ms. Carrington had secretly cut the night before.

Their idyll in the French countryside was interrupted by the German occupation during World War II. Ernst eventually found sanctuary in the United States — and, once there, married arts patron Peggy Guggenheim.

In Ernst’s absence, Ms. Carrington fled the Nazis and suffered a mental breakdown in Spain. When her parents sent an emissary to find her, she escaped to Mexico, a haven for European emigres during the war, through a marriage of convenience with a diplomat.

In the 1940s, her work was shown in important New York galleries. Her paintings were “heavy with sex and horror,” an art critic at Time magazine wrote, noting a body of images freighted with melancholy: “Feathery, hairy, horny, half-luminous creatures merged imperceptibly into birds, animals and plants. Painted with cobweb delicacy, they conspired and paraded before misty landscapes and night skies thick with floating islands.”

Her artistic reputation was initially handicapped by her relationship with Ernst, said Susan Fisher Sterling, director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington. She was seen more as a muse than an artist in her own right.

But Ms. Carrington remained a vital figure in the art world long after the surrealist movement dimmed in the late 1940s. She bridged the psychological aspects of surrealism with her growing interest in the roles of women as muses, mothers, goddesses and foes of patriarchal oppression.

Her paintings, murals and sculptures, which featured dreamlike images of animals, sibyls, animals and deities, reflected her study of alchemy, Mayan magical traditions, Buddhism and the Jewish mystical writings known as the Kabbalah.

“The strange, enigmatic and subtly humorous anecdotes that appear in her work were the expression of a profound inner world, a mythology of her own making, which although terrifying protected her from the aggressive banality of the external world,” arts scholar Jorge Alberto Manrique wrote in the “Grove Dictionary of Art.”

Ms. Carrington was rediscovered by feminist art historians in the 1970s and ’80s, Sterling said, prompting renewed interest in her work as well as her compelling life.

Elusive about the meaning of her work, Ms. Carrington tired of interviewers who tried to make her an object of fascination.

“Everyone’s had an interesting life,” she told a reporter. “Unless they’re interested in business or something.”

Leonora Carrington was born April 6, 1917, in Lancashire, England, and grew up in a shadow-filled Edwardian mansion called Crookhey Hall. She described her father, a textile magnate, as a philistine who thought that “you didn’t do art — if you did, you were either poor or homosexual, which were more or less the same sort of crime.”

Rebelling at London’s social whirl, she studied art and found a new world when her mother sent her a book about surrealism that featured cover art by Ernst. At a dinner party soon after, they fell instantly in lust and spirited away to Paris and then to Provence.

In her paintings of the era, notably the self-portrait “The Inn of the Dawn Horse,” Ms. Carrington was drawn to images of horses, mostly to depict states of arousal and fertility. Many of her equine-inspired images showed up in a Paris exhibit of surrealist painters in 1938.

The Germans marched into Paris in 1940, and Ernst, whose art had been labeled “degenerate” by the Nazis, was rounded up as an enemy alien and taken to an internment camp.

Alone for months, Ms. Carrington grew despondent and tried to starve herself. She sold her home for a few francs, liberated her pet eagle and drove to Madrid.

“In the political confusion and the torrid heat,” she wrote in her diary, “I convinced myself that Madrid was the world’s stomach and that I had been chosen for the task of restoring this digestive organ to health.”

She became hostile with police at the British Embassy and was committed to an asylum, a period she wrote about in her acclaimed memoir “Down Below.” She was given drugs that caused her to hallucinate and go into spasms.

Her parents sent a guardian to get her, but Ms. Carrington was determined not to return to England. In Lisbon, she escaped by hailing a taxi and asking to be driven to the Mexican Embassy. She married a Mexican cultural attache, Renato Leduc. “It was the only way of getting out,” she later said.

They settled in Mexico City, and the marriage crumbled. Ms. Carrington took up with Emerico Weisz, a Hungarian emigre photographer who had covered the Spanish Civil War. She and Weisz marred in 1946 and had two sons, Gabriel and Pablo. Weisz died in 2007, and the sons survive.

Ms. Carrington counted many European exiles among her friends in Mexico, including surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel.

A former Bunuel assistant told the Sydney Morning Herald in 1997 that when the filmmaker visited Ms. Carrington’s home one day, the artist greeted him.

“You look very much like my guardian at the insane asylum,” she said. She proceeded to step into the bathroom and take a shower, fully dressed.

Bunuel was vexed, but he stared at her, thinking, “After all, I am a surrealist, but at what point does it stop?”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”