‘Convulsed, pitiably hideous’: Leonora Carrington

leonora-carrington-7Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington was born in Lancashire in 1917, and died in Mexico City in 2011. She had lived in Mexico City since the 1940s, becoming one of the country’s most important artists; how she ended up there is a fascinating story, absolutely worthy of Surrealism, complete with art, lust and (obviously, for the purposes of this blog) madness.

Carrington went to art school in Florence and London to indulge in what her parents thought was just a hobby. However, when she was 19 she met and fell in love with famous Surrealist painter Max Ernst (in his mid-forties and on his second marriage), and ran away with him to Paris, the heartland of Surrealism. There Carrington hung out with Man Ray, Andre Bréton, Picasso and Joan Miró, creating her own paintings and sculptures and enjoying the singular honour of being called ‘important’ by Dali. She and Ernst moved to Provence, where they both continued to work. In 1939 Carrington painted ‘A Portrait of Max Ernst’ as a tribute to their relationship, but after WWII broke out that same year Ernst was arrested: first by the French authorities for simply being German, then by the invading Nazis because his work was considered unacceptably decadent.

Portrait of Max Ernst

Portrait of Max Ernst

Ernst was locked away in an internment camp. Carrington, understandably, was distraught. She stopped eating, and was in dangerously poor health when she was rescued by some friends, fleeing the Nazis, who drove her to Madrid. She wrote later: “I’d suffered so much when Max was taken away to the camp, I entered a catatonic state, and I was no longer suffering in an ordinary human dimension.”

On the journey to Spain she saw bodies hanging from trucks and corpses on the roads – at least she thought she did, though her traumatised mind wondered if they might actually be delusions. The Spanish authorities certainly thought so when she reported them, and threw her into an asylum in Santander. According to her 1944 memoir, Down Below, she suffered there, subjected to barbiturate and Cardiazol treatment, until her family in England got sufficiently worried about her to send a nanny (or a business contact?) to rescue her and take her instead to a hospital in South Africa. In the finest traditions of Surrealist weirdness, Carrington escaped from her minders while they were waiting to board the boat, jumped into a cab and headed straight for the Mexican embassy, immediately entering into a marriage of convenience with a diplomat friend she’d known in Paris. Then they went back to wait for a boat to the USA, joined by a liberated Ernst, his new partner, his ex-wife, and his new partner’s ex-husband. Carrington and Ernst didn’t get back together – he married again, and after a few months Carrington dissolved her own marriage and moved, permanently this time, to Mexico City.

Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst

Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst

It’s an extraordinary tale, and one made more extraordinary by scholarly suggestions over the years that Carrington’s asylum memoir was more fiction than fact. (Interestingly, Amazon classes the book as fiction.) She was a surrealist, after all.

Ann Hoff at the University of Alabama wrote a paper on Down Below in 2009, concluding that Carrington’s barbaric experience could well have been entirely factual. Clinical descriptions of other people’s treatment with Cardiazol, a powerful convulsive drug that was a forerunner of ECT, suggest her recollections of seizures, hyper-sexualised thoughts post-treatment and being left to lie in her own faeces (incontinence was a common side-effect) are depressingly accurate. She was also given Luminol, a powerful anti-convulsive and sedative, side-effects of which include depression, confusion, joint pain, vomiting and nightmares.

The most galling thing about all of this is that, if you look at Carrington’s symptoms, her incarceration seems even more unjustified that most. As Hoff points out, she presented to the Spanish authorities with symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, but her ‘delusions’ indicate an acute rather than persistent mental illness – a perfectly regular mind’s natural reaction to being 23, alone in a foreign country, scared half to death because you’re in the middle of a war and your partner has been shipped off to an internment camp for god knows how long? Her response seems pretty reasonable, looked at that way. Her ‘treatment’ probably exacerbated her symptoms – and no wonder that she described herself as completely obedient and ‘pitiably hideous’.

Self-portrait, c.1937-8

Self-portrait, c.1937-8

(And the bodies she saw on the roads were very real – that drive took in a military cemetery. Her belief that they were delusions shows how worried she was about her own mental state.)

It wasn’t unusual for trauma victims to be treated as harshly as Carrington was. Carrington wrote Down Below, she said, because she thought these awful practices in mental hospitals needed exposure, but the analysis of her account as fiction suggests her reputation got in the way of what she was trying to do. Scholar Marina Warner, in her introduction to the 1988 revision of Down Below, warns against dismissing Carrington’s facts but also recognises that Carrington’s ‘madness’ confirmed her as a Surrealist icon.

You can download Carrington’s short story The Debutante here: based on her hated experience of being presented to King George V, the story is about a reluctant debutante who swaps places with a hyena. It’s fairly disturbing.


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