A re­bel­lious life among the beasts of dreams

Pub­li­ca­tion of sur­re­al­ist Leonora Car­ring­ton’s vivid writ­ings will bring her fan­tas­ti­cal hor­ror and so­cial anx­i­eties into 21st-cen­tury fo­cus. Joanna Walsh re­ports

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For many years the writ­ing of the sur­re­al­ist artist Leonora Car­ring­ton was out of print and even tatty pa­per­backs of her work fetched up to £80 (Dh368) on Ama­zon or eBay. This year, her me­moir Down Be­low will be re­pub­lished; along with a chil­dren’s book; a bi­og­ra­phy by her cousin – The Sur­real Life of Leonora Car­ring­ton; and a col­lec­tion of her won­der­fully rich short sto­ries. These span Car­ring­ton’s adult life, spent mostly in France and Mex­ico, from her twen­ties un­til her death in 2011 at the age of 94.

Born in Eng­land into a wealthy in­dus­trial fam­ily, her early sto­ries de­pict protest in the nurs­ery (Car­ring­ton was ex­pelled from two schools and her choice to study art was not greeted with en­thu­si­asm by her parents). “You’re too old to play with Tar­tar,” com­mands the pa­tri­arch to The Oval Lady who still wants to ride her rock­ing horse, a scene that is fol­lowed by re­mote sounds “as if an an­i­mal were suf­fer­ing ex­treme tor­ture”. Are these the cries of the wooden an­i­mal or the daugh­ter who is both the “lady” and a child?

It seems likely that the girl is in some sense Car­ring­ton, who adopted the horse as her avatar, and whose best-known self-por­trait fea­tures a rock­ing horse. But, if this is so, then who is The Oval Lady’s nar­ra­tor, who guesses at the horse/lady’s de­struc­tion with the mixed in­volve­ment and in­dif­fer­ence of an ob­server in a dream?

The am­bi­gu­ity of this dou­bly-nar­rated tale is typ­i­cal of the sto­ries which chan­nel the nar­ra­tive struc­tures of dreams, de­spite Car­ring­ton’s re­fusal to de­fine her­self as a sur­re­al­ist (“I wasn’t a sur­re­al­ist, I was just with Max,” she said of [Max] Ernst, the cel­e­brated artist with whom she lived in France dur­ing the years ap­proach­ing the Sec­ond World War).

Self-ap­pointed Sur­re­al­ist guru, An­dré Bre­ton, whom Car­ring­ton nick­named “the head­mas­ter”, de­fined the move­ment’s aim in his Sec­ond Sur­re­al­ist Man­i­festo: “I be­lieve in the future res­o­lu­tion of these two states, dream and re­al­ity, which are seem­ingly so con­tra­dic­tory, into a kind of ab­so­lute re­al­ity, a sur­re­al­ity.” This is some­thing Car­ring­ton achieves as bril­liantly in words as in her paint­ings.

Car­ring­ton’s dream­like anx­i­eties are so­cial: when a hyena re­moves and eats the face it has ripped from a maid to pass it­self as hu­man, The Debu­tante’s mother is up­set, but only for rea­sons of deco­rum. There is much hor­ror and glee around ta­ble man­ners: many sto­ries fea­ture star­va­tion, or bizarre and dis­turb­ing feasts. “Never men­tion any­thing as vul­gar as food,” whis­pers a horse in Un­cle Sam Car­ring­ton, while in Mon­sieur Cyril de Guin­dre, deca­dent din­ners ooze op­pres­sive male power.

“There’s a bad smell in your room,” says the mother in The Debu­tante. It’s the hyena, of course. But per­haps it’s The Debu­tante too, how­ever un­ac­cept­able it is for a wo­man to de­clare her­self a crea­ture. Vir­ginia Fur, the hero­ine of As They Rode Along the Edge, is the apoth­e­o­sis of Car­ring­ton’s glo­ri­ously beastly wild women: she eats her own half-boar lit­ter, after bat­tling “Saint Alexan­der” who, re­splen­dent in “con­crete un­der­wear full of scor­pi­ons and adders”, hints at the stric­tures of Car­ring­ton’s Catholic child­hood.

“You’re my only friend,” says the debu­tante to the smelly hyena, re­ject­ing the in­hu­man­i­ties of hu­mans.

At times Car­ring­ton seems to be spin­ning sto­ries to amuse her­self. The ear­li­est were writ­ten at a double re­move when she lived in France with Ernst: shunned by the lo­cals, as she notes in her me­moir, Down Be­low, she wrote in French.

But these sto­ries rep­re­sent the work of all the pe­ri­ods of Car­ring­ton’s life. In Mex­ico she be­came a mother, was in­volved in the in­cip­i­ent Women’s Lib­er­a­tion Move­ment and had a va­ri­ety of close friend­ships, in­clud­ing with the artist Reme­dios Varo.

The sub­tleties of double-edged and in­tri­cate fe­male friend­ships and fa­mil­ial re­la­tion­ships de­velop mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives, as in the vam­piric The Sis­ters and the sin­is­ter and am­bigu­ous mother and son of Cast Down by Sad­ness.

Never turn­ing away from dark­ness or vi­o­lence, Car­ring­ton’s play­ful hu­mour nev­er­the­less steers her work clear of the vis­ceral hor­ror found in the Sur­re­al­ist writ­ing of, say, Unica Zürn. The worst the mis­tress of The House of Fear can do is de­mand that her guests en­gage in a night­mar­ish par­lour game. Where there are rules, it is al­ways pos­si­ble to over­turn them. This story, cheat­ing nar­ra­tive it­self, ends with a glee­ful “but…”

Joanna Walsh is the au­thor of Ver­tigo and runs the women’s lit­er­a­ture fo­rum @read­_­women. Wal­ter Lucius Michael Joseph, April 1

An Afghan boy is in­jured in a hit and run near Am­s­ter­dam. At the hos­pi­tal, staff can’t un­der­stand what he’s say­ing, but jour­nal­ist Farah Hafez does. She left Afghanistan as a child, recog­nises her na­tive tongue and her in­ves­ti­ga­tion takes her deep into a dark past she has tried to forget.

Butterfly on the Storm

The Debu­tante and Other Sto­ries Leonora Car­ring­ton Sil­ver Press, Dh46

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