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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Goodbye Leonora

I was very sad to hear at the end of the Book Review Show on TV last night that the artist and writer Leonora Carrington had died. It wasn't exactly a surprise - she was 94 after all - but to me she was one of the great lights of the last century, a thrilling person to have in co-existence.

I first discovered her when Virago published a volume of her work entitled The House of Fear in 1989. The cover features one of Leonora's most famous paintings, The Inn of the Dawn Horse. In a bare blue room, Leonora herself, seated in a flouncy chair and wearing riding gear, reaches out towards a hyena with human eyes (the strange, shadowed mist behind it might be the dimension it has just stepped out of). Suspended on the wall behind her is a white rocking horse, while outside the window, a real white horse races off into parkland. Leonora, the beautiful girl in the house, made a similar escape from wealth and privilege in Lancashire to the wild world of the imagination.

This compelling image was created when the painter was around 20 years old; round about the same time she wrote a story that anticipates Angela Carter, 'The Debutante', in which a hyena befriends a young heiress and goes in her stead to a ball. The fact that the hyena tears off the face of the girl's maid in order to achieve the imposture hints, perhaps, at the cruel-seeming single-mindedness necessary to be an artist. 'Only if you promise to kill her before tearing off her face,' the narrator tells the hyena. 'It'll hurt her too much otherwise.'

The book also contains a series of fascinating photographs, including a press clipping of an unsmiling Leonora as an actual debutante, off to court with lace fan and headdress; a photo of creepy Crookhey Court where she grew up, surely the source of her persistent Gothic fantasies; and snaps with her much older lover, the artist Max Ernst. She underwent a terrifying experience of madness in 1940 after being raped by a gang of soldiers in Spain while Ernst was in a concentration camp. The result was a remarkable memoir, Down There, which impresses with its pitiless revelation of a mind unravelling. 'Exactly three years ago,' it begins, 'I was interned in Dr Morales's sanatorium in Santander, Spain, Dr Pardo, of Madrid, and the British Consul having pronounced me incurably insane.'

After surviving this horrific experience, and unable to resume the relationship with Ernst, who took up with Peggy Guggenheim, she eventually found happiness in Mexico City. There she married a Hungarian photographer, met Frida Kahlo (no love lost, I gather) and became friends with that other powerful magus, the film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky.

It's very rare for a human being to achieve such heights in two disciplines. Leonora seems to have left writing behind, but never gave up painting. I was lucky enough to see her retrospective in the Serpentine Gallery some years ago, which became a temple of the occult for the duration of the show. The space was filled with images and statues of elongated women with bird or animal heads, elaborate clothes of fur or feathers; they performed rites of alchemical transformation, enacted magical rituals or ominous scenes from Celtic folklore. They ran through mazes, made strange gestures or tended Ceridwen's cauldron: glittering figures netted and dragged up direct from the subconscious. 

At the cash till, buying the exhibition catalogue, I was amused to see a scribbled notice to the staff: 'Before locking up, wrap Catwoman in bubblewrap and turn on the demystifier [sic]'. Perfect! For mere mortals, a demystifier is essential when roaming this underworld of bizarre forms and occult threats. For Leonora Carrington, it was home.

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