Leonora Carrington’s captivating canvases are full of fantastical creatures. Many of these mix figures from mythology with details from her own surreal life — but which is which, and how can you tell? This article will lead you through some of Carrington’s most important paintings and show you how she coded secrets about herself and her loved ones into her canvases.
1. The Hidden Animal Familiars of Leonora Carrington: The Hyena
Leonora Carrington had a very dynamic life, which included running away from her oppressive English high-society lifestyle to join the Surrealists. The Inn of the Dawn Horse was her first major self-portrait, which she completed after visiting an exhibition in London that included Surrealist artwork. At this exhibition, she was particularly inspired by Max Ernst’s work and shortly after moved to France to start a relationship with him and join the Surrealist movement.
Much of Carrington’s work is, at least loosely, autobiographical. Carrington depicts herself in Inn of the Dawn Horse at this moment of metamorphosis in her life, when she was caught between the ordinary and the fantastic as she moved to France with Ernst.
Her attire is commonplace; the most notable item she wears are white jodhpurs, trousers that are typically worn when horse-riding. However, her hair is unnaturally voluminous, suggesting that she is invested with a magic magnetic aura. Additionally, her high-heeled boots are very similar to the feet of the chair she is sat on. This detail gives the chair anthropomorphic qualities and reinforces the idea that Carrington is caught between different stages of transformation: from being a stationary item to being a dynamic, magic woman.
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Inn of the Dawn Horse is Carrington’s first visual work that sets up her relationship with her animal familiars. Carrington herself is depicted seated, her pose mirrored by the hyena on the floor next to her. This detail references her most famous short story The Debutante, written shortly before the painting was made.
In this story, a teenage girl befriends a hyena at the zoo. The girl dreads attending a ball that evening that her mother was giving in her honor. The hyena, however, loves the idea of attending a high society ball. Thus, the girl and the hyena decide to swap places for the evening. This amusing, surreal tale takes a dark turn as the hyena eats the girl’s maid so that she can wear her face as a mask at the dinner.
Ultimately, when one of the other guests remarks that the hyena smells foul, the hyena is unable to keep up the ruse. In a fit of anger, she eats the face she is wearing and escapes out the window, and the story ends. Carrington uses the trope of an alter-ego contained within an animal familiar to explore her own repressed desires, as well as freedom and violence, during this caesura in her life.
2. Esoteric Characters: The Hermit
Carrington’s relationship with the German Surrealist Max Ernst is a much remarked upon part of her biography. They began a relationship almost immediately upon meeting, despite the fact that Ernst was already married and 26 years Carrington’s senior. Carrington painted this portrait early in their relationship and in her career, in the house they shared in Saint-Martin d’Ardèche, near Avignon.
At the outbreak of World War Two, Ernst was imprisoned by French authorities as an enemy alien and Carrington fled to Spain after lobbying unsuccessfully for his release. In Spain, Carrington was hospitalized following a nervous breakdown due to the stress she experienced in the wake of Ernst’s arrest.
The nuances of the couple’s relationship are evident in the hidden figure that characterizes Carrington’s Portrait of Max Ernst – the Hermit. Compositionally, this painting is based on the most famous depiction of the hermit tarot card, by Pamela Colman Smith for the Rider-Waite-Smith deck in 1909. The Hermit card depicts a lone, cloaked, elderly man holding a lamp and a staff in a desolate white wasteland. Carrington reproduces much of this in her portrait: she develops the white wasteland as an icy snowscape, and clothes Ernst in a magnificent fish-tailed red robe and yellow socks.
Wilfred Houdouin, interpreter of the Tarot de Marseille, writes that the Hermit represents reflection and latent potential for one on the precipice of change, while Arthur Edward Waite adds that The Hermit is in search of truth and that he is sure to attain that which he seeks. Both interpretations neatly map onto Carrington’s relationship with Ernst at this stage of her life; his presence in her life hailed extraordinary change, while she pursued truthful self-expression through her artwork.
It is important to note that Portrait of Max Ernst is not a portrait that panders to Ernst’s style or influences — rather, Carrington envelops Ernst in her visual lexicon. By casting him as the Hermit he becomes an esoteric archetype of change and potential in her life, rather than a representation of a lover that might reveal features of their relationship to the viewer.
Portrait of Max Ernst is undeniably an important early work in Carrington’s career, made in the middle of a scandalous relationship with an older, artistically established, and therefore more powerful man. However, the hidden symbol of the Hermit demonstrates that Carrington was thinking critically about Ernst’s relationship to her life at this time, and also that she was developing her own visual lexicon and personal symbolism right from this early stage.
3. Mysterious Messengers: Chiki Weisz
Carrington fled to Mexico in the late 1940s to escape Europe during the Second World War, alongside many other Surrealists. It was here that Carrington lived out the rest of her life. Carrington painted The House Opposite when she found out she was pregnant for the first time, a period that she recorded as being one of great creativity for her. This creativity is evident in the ambitious composition of the work. The fantastical cross-section of the house has a magical generative quality; the surprising additions of staircases, ladders, and doorways gives the impression that the building might continually expand and multiply.
Carrington’s pregnancy which provoked this period of creativity is coded subtly into this work. The tree-headed figure in the bottom-left corner is her husband Emérico “Chiki” Weisz, a Hungarian photographer and fellow artistic émigré to Mexico. Carrington depicts herself seated at the long table that the coral-headed figure approaches, in the guise of the White Goddess.
The emblematic figure of Weisz is depicted bringing Carrington a bag with a baby face on it, a symbol of her conception. Weisz’s tree head might reference the notion of a family tree that he and Carrington are initiating as they have a child together. Further, Carrington may be aligning the tree-like qualities of rootedness and stability with her incoming domestic life, in contrast to her previously insecure nomadic existence.
4. Oneiric Nomads: Carrington’s Children
And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur is yet another example of Carrington’s dream-like use of architecture. In this work, clouds form impossibly beneath the structure of a classically-inspired colonnade, while delicate, alien creatures cavort with animals, mythic creatures, and children. One might think the hidden character here is the Minotaur: dressed in red, the eponymous figure is innovatively feminized here by Carrington. However, the hidden characters in this work are in fact the cloaked children watching the Minotaur. These are Carrington’s own children, Gabriel and Pablo, participating in this dreamscape.
Throughout their childhood Carrington’s sons were welcome in their mother’s studio, watching her paint or painting and drawing themselves in the same space. Pablo Weisz recalls, “She shut herself in her studio, but we used to open the door and come in. She would say, ‘I need to work, so be very quiet. Here’s a piece of paper. Draw.’” The title And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur elevates Pablo and Gabriel from quiet presences in Carrington’s studio to the protagonists of this work, as it is suggested they are traveling through this oneiric landscape, encountering mythical creatures in succession.
To make a child’s gaze the focal point of an artwork harks back to one of the founding tenets of Surrealism, which is to imitate the imaginative perspective of a child. In the First Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, introduces the notion of “the marvelous”. Anything, including items, events, and locations can have qualities of “the marvelous”, which is a nebulous blend of something dreamlike, spontaneous, and imaginative. Breton notes that children innately recognize and create “the marvelous”, but that they are weaned off this in adulthood. A necessary feature of the Surrealist mindset is to seek “the marvelous”, which one does, in part, by imitating children. Thus, by funneling the perspective of this work through the gaze of her children, Carrington alludes to one of the premises of Surrealism.
5. Leonora Carrington’s Old Friends in New Guises
Almost every painting analyzed thus far holds one common icon: the horse. This hidden figure is the most enduring icon in Carrington’s work; it is her primary animal familiar that accompanied reflections on herself in her artwork throughout her career.
In the dichotomy between the rocking horse and the wild horse in Self-portrait, Carrington further thematizes metamorphosis, as discussed in the first section of this article. The rocking horse above Carrington’s head is inanimate and necessarily restricted; it is a child’s toy that gives them the illusion of movement while remaining in place, therefore the rocking horse is a metaphor for the restricted role of women in Carrington’s bourgeois English upbringing. The wild horse outside the window is, by contrast, genuinely free. Carrington suggests, by making both horses the same color, in the same pose, and facing the same way, that the rocking horse is becoming the wild horse. This is a metaphor for Leonora herself becoming freer at this stage of her life.
The horses in Portrait of Max Ernst are both confined: one is frozen, and the other is within a lamp. Marina Warner has argued that these represent Carrington “owning up to the emotional captivity [her liaison with Ernst] represented for her”. However, the captive horse in the lamp might also be interpreted as being Ernst’s guiding light. Further, in Carrington’s short story The Oval Lady the teenage protagonist transforms herself into a horse using snow in a moment of liberating rebellion. These mixed meanings, coupled with the fact that Carrington’s horse-familiar is depicted twice, muddles any neat interpretation of Ernst and Carrington’s relationship in this work.
The presence of Carrington as a horse is even subtler in The House Opposite. Here, a small rocking horse is visible in the background, while Carrington’s shadow is equine in shape. Through these different depictions, Carrington recalls her youthful turmoil and compares it with her present happiness. The rocking-horse is the companion of a distressed, cowering young girl, whereas the horse-shadow accompanies Carrington-as-goddess.
Leonora Carrington was famously resistant to having her paintings interpreted and developed a complex personal iconography to resist this. Nonetheless, these hidden characters in her work reveal that her artwork was deeply intertwined with her life, and while every implication of these characters is not always clear, identifying each character can go a long way to help a viewer make sense of her surreal landscapes.