“All you have to do is open the door, walk down the passage, and you’ll find the street!”
Leonora Carrington was born into great wealth in 1917. She attended a series of convent schools from which she was expelled for a long list of rebellious acts, including writing backward and attempting to levitate. She rejected her coming-out as a debutante by conceiving and later publishing a short story in which she dressed a hyena in trailing robes and sent the animal to the party in her place. Carrington studied art in London until, at age nineteen, after seeing a Max Ernst painting in a surrealist exhibition catalog, she ran away with Ernst to Paris.
Once among the French surrealists, Carrington refused the role of muse. In 1938, she completed her painting Self-Portrait (Inn of the Dawn Horse), which hung from a tree branch alongside Ernst’s work as part of an art auction; it is now included in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She was one of only two women whose writing was included in Breton’s 1939 Anthology of Black Humor. (She typically wrote in French.) A year after the outbreak of World War II, Carrington suffered a breakdown after Ernst was sent to an internment camp, which she later wrote about in her memoir, Down Below (1944).
Carrington escaped the asylum and sailed for New York, settling in Mexico City, where she worked for the next seven decades, painting and writing short stories and novels, including the new Penguin classic The Hearing Trumpet (1976). Her work from this time was populated by women and half-human beasts floating in dreamscape images, which were drawn from myth, folklore, religious ritual, and the occult. In the 1970s, she painted posters for Mexican women’s liberation, pairing the saints and their miraculous actions with a feminist consciousness. Her work did not gain widespread international attention until she was in her nineties, and exhibitions were mounted in Mexico City, San Francisco, and London shortly before her death, in 2011.
In August 2009, I traveled with artist and writer Alisha Piercy and photographer Natalie Matutschovsky to Mexico City, where we were collaborating on a project for which we staged picnics throughout the city, inspired in part by Carrington’s iconography. We set out to find her, and by some small miracle—armed only with the telephone number of a hair salon—we did. (I ignored journalistic protocol and did not contact her in advance, as we’d heard she no longer gave interviews.)
We spent two afternoons speaking in her dark, chilly home—sparely furnished, though a tree grew through it. Striking, with an oval face and black eyes, she spoke slowly in her well-bred English, without sentimentality. When our conversation was through, I walked out her door, into the bright Mexican sunlight—the same door over which her friend the collector Edward James had once written, “This is the house of the Sphinx.”
THE BELIEVER: What are you thinking about right now?
LEONORA CARRINGTON: I don’t discuss that.
BLVR: If you are not working on anything, what occupies you?
LC: Surviving. I’m not well. I think about death a lot.
BLVR: What do you think about?
LC: Well, you become closer to death, so that really tends to dominate everything else.
BLVR: Have you reached an acceptance?
LC: No, I have not. How can one accept the totally unknown? [Agitated] We know nothing whatever about it, even if it happens to everyone, to everybody! Animals, vegetables, minerals—everything dies. How can you reconcile with something you know nothing about? Is there anything else? What do you want to know?
BLVR: I have this longing for myths, for ritual, which you yourself have explored. There is no model for the passing-down of what has been collected in the interior life, that isn’t simply the collection of biographical facts. It’s difficult, as there are no words for what I’m looking for.
LC: There are things that are not sayable. That’s why we have art.