Very often, when we read about the lives of creative women, we find that they are described as the muses of some male artist. But the reality was that this was the only way for them to get started in the art world for them: as someone’s muse, a fact that is repeated over and over again when we talk about the artists of Surrealism, a movement characterized by freedom of action and thought.
The same Surrealists who preached this freedom regarded their female companions as appendages of themselves: muses, helpers and lovers. Being recognised in this world was hard for female artists who, seen in perspective, were every bit as good as them. Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) claimed that she did not have time to be anyone’s muse, as busy as she was with freeing herself from her father and with her artistic learning. She paid dearly for her independence, but the difficulties of the journey brought to light an exciting inner world that she knew how to translate into an abundant and mysterious oeuvre.
Leonora Carrington was born in England and was educated in the exclusive world of high society. Her father, a businessman, presented her to the royal court after her debutante ball at the Ritz. He wanted to distance her from the Irish fantasies and myths that had populated her childhood through her mother and grandmother’s tales, in the old family neo-Gothic mansion. It was too late: Leonora’s spirit was flying high, and her supernatural visions was were compounded by her disinterest in the superficial world of the ladies’ academies. Her rebellious nature led her to run away from home after meeting Max Ernst, 46, married, one of the most prominent Surrealist artists. Immune to scandal, Leonora went to live with him in France, where she joined the group of Surrealist artists formed by Paul Éluard, Joan Miró, André Breton, Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso, who called her ‘the bride of the wind.
The war separated the group and also the couple: Max Ernst, a German, was arrested in France and Leonora had to escape to Spain due to the Nazi invasion. In Spain she suffered major mental imbalances that led her to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Santander. In the hands of fascist doctors, she was subjected to treatments that today we would consider inhumane, a fact that would later be decisive for her work and for her life. On the way to another hospital, this in time South Africa, that her father had found to hospitalise her in, she escaped, and in Lisbon she contacted a Mexican poet friend, Renato Leduc, who married her in order to get her out of wartime Europe. Lázaro Cárdenas’ Mexico then became her adopted country, where she would live for seventy years. The work that we will analyse next was a commission from the National Museum of Anthropology of Mexico, where it is still exhibited.
The magical world of the Maya is the product of her six-month stay in Chiapas, at the home of an anthropologist friend. The Mayans in the area, fearful of Leonora’s camera, made her decide to document what she saw only with drawings and sketches. She became interested in flora and fauna, as well as in traditional medicine, medicinal herbs, and reading the Popol Vuh, the great Mayan holy book. The result is a four-meter-long painting that captures a worldview of contemporary Mayan reality, with a tripartite structure of Heaven, Earth and Underworld, where indigenous ancestral traditions are mixed with the Catholic religion. Leonora Carrington captures a symbolic landscape that constitutes a mixture of visible reality and hidden reality, an inseparable dichotomy in the Mayan conception of the world.
The central representation is a colonial-style temple, similar to the church of Santo Domingo de San Cristóbal de las Casas, with the convent on the left. Peasants work in the area and some people carry a Virgin in procession. Nearby is a calvary of twenty-two crosses that look like swords, with others rising towards a large cross/totem created from corn plants. This is the pantheon of Romerillo, in San Juan Chamula, where the crosses mark the funeral space of each family. The cross, for today’s Mayans, is an axis of the world that connects Heaven, Earth and Underworld. In the church, the two stone eagles, reminiscent of the coat of arms of the king of the conquerors, Emperor Charles I, are contrasted by a large quetzal that flies over the building, the sacred Mayan bird syncretised with the dove of the Holy Spirit. Leonora draws a parallel with the Celtic culture of Ireland, where ancient pagan ideas are mixed with the new sacred figures brought by Christianity.
In Heaven, from left to right, we have the Moon, the goddess Ixchel, and, below, three small female figures with bird legs climbing up the rainbow. They are related to Ixchel, the most important female deity in the Mayan pantheon, who presides over childbirth, pregnancy, fertility of the land and women, and healing. The Sun is in charge of giving strength to men, but the painter represents it as obscured by a black cloud. There is also the planet Venus, a large bright star also symbolised by the great green snake, crossed by the rainbow and the quetzal. Kukulcán (or Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent) is the combination of these two animals, which personify Heaven and Earth. This is a creative god, as explained in the Popol Vuh, who also presides over the processes of renewal and transformation, the eternal return of the cosmos. At the far right is a bright being, Totilmeil, a hummingbird, the bird the ancestors chose to manifest themselves. The mountains complete the picture, with a multitude of animals flying over them, perhaps the nahuales. The Mayans believed that each person has a supernatural protector, the nahuatl, who is embodied in an animal, and usually lives near the mountain trails that connect the different villages.
A white ceiba, Yaxché (“first, the tree”), is the Mayan cosmic tree, the vertical axial element that holds this tripartite cosmos together. A flock of owls, funerary animals and a bad omen, flies towards the ceiba. Perhaps related to this, on the other side of the tree, inside a hut, a man lying in bed is mourned by a woman with long black braids, while a shaman performs his healing rituals with candles, and another woman, at the bottom of the hut, grinds the corn into a metate, the manual stone mill. Around the hut are three large bats, animals associated with medicine among the native Mesoamerican peoples. They symbolise the ritual death of shamanic healing, which helps people leave their diseases behind and be reborn in health. The bat is alive, upside down, in the same way we are born through the womb.
Pines, closely associated with candles among the Maya (due to torches), appear surrounding the huts of the painting. Candles and torches are considered the food of the gods. At the foot of the pines, a face—perhaps Jesus Christ—seems to have been projected from the nearby chapel. In front of the chapel, there is a huge white horse, an animal that is often featured in works by Leonora Carrington and that is supposed to be her alter ego (in England she had been an experienced horsewoman). The horse is also the manifestation of the Celtic goddess Epona, protector of nature and life as well as of healing and death. Underground, the head of a jaguar with a spiral-shaped eye recalls one of the gods of Xibalbà, the Mayan Hell, populated by demonic beings specialised in the torment of human souls.
In Mexico, Leonora Carrington was able to develop her oeuvre exercising her freedom by creating paintings, sculptures, furniture, literature and scenery, along with her second husband, Emérico Csiki Weisz, an emigrated Hungarian photographer, assistant to Robert Capa, and the mastermind of the rescue of the famous Mexican suitcase with thousands of negatives from the Spanish Civil War. In the kitchen of her house on Chihuahua Street in the Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City, now a museum, Leonora shared memorable evenings with Catalan painter Remedios Varo and Hungarian photographer Kati Horna, all three united by the anti-fascist struggle of their youth and by Surrealism. No muses among them. In one of the few interviews she gave, when asked who Leonora Carrington was, she said: “someone who has survived so far with a lot of “cabrón” (effing) work, as they say in Mexico. That’s why I don’t like being called a muse either”.
To find out more:
Poniatowska, E., Leonora, Seix Barral, Short Library Award, 2011.
Carrington, L. and A. Reza, El setè cavall: contes de Leonora Carrington [The seventh horse: stories by Leonora Carrington], Extinció edicions, 2020.
Carrington, L., Memorias de abajo [Memories from below] Alpha Decay editions, 2017