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Leonora Carrington: The Moments Before a Legacy

Leonora Carrington with her painting The Temptation of Saint Anthony
Leonora Carrington with her painting The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Image courtesy of MoMA, which acquired two of Carrington’s paintings in 2020.

Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) was an acclaimed writer and artist who made her mark on the surrealist movement of the 1930s. AWT columnist Micaela Brinsley’s new essay shares an imaginative look at her work and her legacy.

The world spins on its axis as a suitcase stands in the corner of a room. An artifact. Its surface, a deep shade of navy blue, imprints fragments. Every patch, of a wolf of a star of a composite animal, stains from ketchup from coffee from drool, each memory woven into its surface marks the mundane as fantastical, the fantastical as mundane.

Not too long ago now, I dreamed about the Three of Cups. An emblem of friendship, I didn’t mention it by name. But its card, I’m sure she knows about it. This person hidden behind a wall of words. The essence of why’s found in her eventual references to Tartarus as the name for the underworld, to hallucinogens, to transfiguration, gothic abbeys. A room where she writes in now’s bathed in a soft, ethereal light. Pulsing, from a lifetime of lightning strikes mirroring into shatters. 

A pair of loose pipes lie haphazardly on a floor. A metal spine depicts the passage of time. Some message, the purpose of this object’s unknown. Its presence on this floor says nothing new. Another object of industry in a baroque room, of a world haunted by decay, impermanence. Nothing’s new, now or ever. There’s a bath mat underneath it. Once green, now mustard yellow. Muted by footprints into a brighter color by the weight of imaginary footsteps from slanted creatures. 

Leonora Carrington. And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur.
Leonora Carrington. And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur. 1953. Image courtesy of MoMA.

Leonora Carrington & Objects of Imagination

We’re sprawled across a tile floor, but not her. 

In this dim light, the contours of a small dresser come into a view. We’re engraving a point of view into a room. The drawers are open and closed. Sweaters, underwear, pants, socks, a sweatshirt or two. Clustered into uneven piles, I’m breathing in the space between moth-ridden holes. Drip, drip, the sinkwater’s falling slower. 

Amidst all that, a realization dawns upon her, a pattern familiar. There’s something confined in how banal all of this is, but elusive shapes can trace the contours of spaces we all recognize. We just forget to think it. Masked hyenas and mysterious lion-women, prancing cats and dogs. It’s as if a figment of some artist’s soul found its way into a shutter long ago and we’re all trying to crawl through the narrow opening in this wall, from that time a husband slammed the bed against it. 

Some conversation in a painting of sheet music. Its frayed edges a declaration of something past in the recesses of the mind, haunting. The dresser, on top of it’s two trophies she doesn’t want, rewards she never asked for. One stands upright, its polished surface gleaming. The other lays askew, a tribute to a life that could’ve been she abandoned. 

It’s as if a figment of some artist’s soul found its way into a shutter long ago and we’re all trying to crawl through the narrow opening in this wall.

Someone in a white dress hides behind a ghost as a contact lens case, nestled behind the overturned trophy, mirrors her. Distorted and translucent, lucid and murky from what she saw in Spain, in London, in France, not yet in Mexico City. A mug of coffee, still with half a cup of liquid left in it stands, perched, without yearning. The smoke that rises from liquid’s first contact with clay’s already gone, but its leftover touch echoes. 

The Power of Artistic Energy

The essence of friendship’s a balance between the tangible of a person and what’s intangible, a continuous drawing of a bridge in that gap between what’s known and unknown, seen and unseen. The room, bathed in the glow of the lamp, the front corner of the triangle made by it and the trophies, connects bonds that transcend physical proximity and temporal constraints. The essence of madness—a balance between the tangible of what’s seen and what’s intangible, a continuous drawing of a bridge in that gap between what’s known and unknown, a person and how they experience their day to day. 

Don’t try and turn it into an intellectual game, it’s a visual world.

—Leonora Carrington

Air’s heavy but paintings take up more space, especially hers. As if she’s carving a knife between the world she sees outside her window and the one that feels closer to what she knows herself to be, inside—a walk down a 20th century street a reconnaissance with a hyena before the flight from a ballroom a sprint to hide money under a bed. 

She turned down a queen to make yellow, green.

Fade an edge. Make a testament to some passage of time. Beckon someone closer, to an undercurrent original. There’s psyche in cryptic symbolism that resonates, when we forget to confine ourselves to the just here. Spells are made from mixing colors with intention but don’t lose it, don’t let hair down without remembering to feel it on the shoulder blades. 

Carrington’s Surrealist Works and Legacy

It’s a surreal landscape. This room with two loose pipes, shoved under a termite-rotten frame. A soaked bathmat. A towel, overused. A small dresser. Some of its surface, taken up by a lamp. On it, two trophies, one standing up, the other tilted to its side. A contact lens case. Bag of toiletries, a water bottle. None of the drawers are closed. On the ground, a duffel bag. She uses it as a backpack when she goes into town, the repository for dirty clothes when she’s home. A suitcase leans against the wall, navy blue. She’s sitting on a bed. No desk. The walls are white. There’s also a closet, where a few jackets are stored, her books, her passport, her paints, her money. Under the bed there are boxes of goods in storage, goods of the family whose house she’s staying in, before she crosses an ocean. A toilet. She drinks a sip of coffee. Her life, she carries it around. It doesn’t quite fit into the small spaces where she’s fled, so she stays moving. She doesn’t know, aside from the aquamarine bedspread she’s sitting cross-legged on now, yet where to set up anchor. To have a place to stop, without the possibility of someone stopping her from the stopping. Soon, she’s almost there. Now, almost out of soap. She drinks another sip of coffee. The opening to the bathroom has no door, only a frame, with the bottom edges frayed by termites too. Shades of blue, they’re in this room. Not orange. Red, but no yellow. Brown, but no purple. Something close to the color of sand. Not all openings are closed. 

Lines of ceilings are straight, but tilted. 

There’s psyche in cryptic symbolism that resonates, when we forget to confine ourselves to the just here. Spells are made from mixing colors with intention but don’t lose it. 

Let hair down.

She mourns what was, by remembering how it should’ve been.

Secrets spill out to the open, if words aren’t careful.

‘You’re trying to intellectualize something, desperately, and you’re wasting your time … To make a kind of mini logic … never [try to] understand by that road,’ Leonora will say to her cousin in a documentary about her work as an artist, decades later. 

‘What do you think you do understand by, then?’ her cousin will ask, ‘what can we understand?’ 

‘By our own feelings about things,’ she states without hesitation. ‘Don’t try and turn it into an intellectual game, it’s a visual world.’