Sunday, September 26

Is it a surreal masterpiece next to the wringer? Inside Leonora Carrington’s Sculpture-Filled House | Art

In October 2010, a few months before her death, I said my last goodbye to my cousin Leonora Carrington. When I left her home in Mexico City, she stood waving at the door. Today, I am back for the first time, to see Leonora’s house recreated as a visitor attraction. It feels surreal, but surrealism has become an everyday thing since I went looking for Leonora in 2006, almost 70 years after she left our family and Britain. She first traveled to Paris to be with her lover, the German artist Max Ernst, before moving to Mexico with a diplomat she met after she and Ernst were separated by World War II.

This house, Calle Chihuahua 194, is where it was anchored for more than 60 years. Here he painted some of his best known works, including The juggler, which was sold at auction in 2005 for £ 436,000; And then we saw the minotaur’s daughter, now at MoMA in New York; and his mural The Magic World of the Mayans, now in the National Anthropological Museum of Mexico City.

Besides being a fundamental figure in the surrealist movement, Leonora was a sculptor, textile artist and writer; It was also in this house that he wrote The Hearing Trumpet, considered by The Guardian as one of the 1,000 novels to read. before you die. And it was here that she raised her children, two boys, with the man she married in Mexico, a Hungarian photographer named Chiki Weisz.

'Their worlds were beautiful, terrifying, deep'
‘Their worlds were beautiful, terrifying, deep’… the house is full of Carrington’s sculpture. Photograph: Claudio Cruz / AFP / Getty Images

The house is still filled with his sculpture – strange and wacky pieces, including a model of How Doth the Little Crocodile, named after Lewis Carroll’s poem. In this direction, Leonora was the most exotic of the artist-émigrés of the 1940s whom Frida Kahlo, the acting queen of Mexican art, described as “those European bitches”.

The £ 3 million restoration, carried out by the Metropolitan Autonomous University of Mexico (UAM), is nearing completion and I have been invited here to work on several connected projects ahead of their opening later this year. (Virtual visits are already possible). It feels very strange to be here without Leonora. In the kitchen, the engine room of his world, where we spend so many hours sitting chatting, his cup of tea, glasses and some letters are on the table in front of his empty chair. There is a cigarette in the ashtray. I’m half expecting her to come in, sit down, relight her cigarette and say, “So what’s the news today?”

The most exotic of the artist-émigrés of the 1940s… The Carrington courtyard, with its sculpture Woman with a dove.
The most exotic of the artist-émigrés of the 1940s… The Carrington courtyard, with its sculpture Woman with a dove. Photograph: Claudio Cruz / AFP / Getty Images

Leonora was 94 when she died, but her curiosity never wavered. She was much more interested in talking about politics, or world events, or the street newsboy, or the latest escapades of her dog Yeti, than about Ernst, Picasso, Dalí or Duchamp, everyone she had ever met. in Paris. Every day with her was an adventure: she lived absolutely in the moment, always looking for hints of ridiculousness, weirdness, or fun.

On the kitchen shelves, her spice jars, with their handwritten labels, still stand. Taped to the closet doors, as always, is a selection of postcards that include some of the royal family, one of them manipulated so that Prince Charles, who gave Leonora her OBE on a visit to Mexico in 2000, looks a balaclava. People used to ask if they were ironic. Maybe so, but part of Leonora missed her homeland. In fact, in The Hearing Trumpet, her alter ego-protagonist, Marian Leatherby, 92, dreams of escaping to Europe from the Spanish-speaking country to which she was transported many years before.

You will get an idea of ​​how 194 Chihuahua feels if you have seen Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning film in 2018. It is set in a house a few streets away: both have the same Bauhaus-style architecture, the same windows, the The same interior patio, the same staircase open to the world on the roof where clothes are washed, and hung in the sun to dry. In Leonora’s time, the rooftop terrace was the kingdom of Yolanda, her housekeeper. Today, it is a spacious paved area where Leonora’s sculptures stand guard.

Foliage and a four-legged friend ... another patio.
Foliage and four-legged friends … another patio. Photograph: Leonora Carrington UAM Study House

The most intimate view of Leonora’s world comes when you enter her room on the first floor, in a narrow, tiled external hallway. Nowhere is the natural frugality of his approach to life better displayed than in this simple room, with its single bed, some chairs, table and wardrobe. Her husband Chiki, in the end, slept next door; died in 2007. The only thing that abounds in Leonora’s bedroom are books: they cover the shelves along the back wall, just like they cover the walls of her living room and the study where the typewriter is, in which she wrote The Auditory Trumpet, sits at a table.

The books are perhaps the best insight the house offers to his mind: They range from the contemporary novels he loved (Ian McEwan, Doris Lessing, and Margaret Atwood were all favorites) to the books that informed his art: tomes on the occult, Gnosticism. , kabbalah, tarot, herbalism and shamanism; titles on Renaissance art and various movements; as well as the work of his friends, among them the photographers Lee Miller and Kati Horna, the painter Remedios Varo and the Nobel laureate Octavio Paz. Birds with Human Faces and Birds with Human Souls share shelf space with The Book of Owls and Expert Obedience Training for Dogs. (I’m not sure which one was implemented to the best effect in Yeti.)

My surrealist friends… Carrington with André Breton, Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst in 1942.
My surrealist friends… Carrington with André Breton, Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst in 1942. Photographer: Herman Landshoff / bpk / Münchner Stadtmuseum, Samm

“I knew it was surreal,” says Dr. Alejandra Osorio, project director. “And that was it. In fact, he knew more about his writing than he did about his paintings. “The house was bought by the UAM with more than 8,600 objects, ranging from clothes to phone books, from half-finished works of art to diaries that record their dreams. the minutiae of Leonora’s life has given Alejandra an insight into the life of someone she never knew, but now thinks of every day.

“I feel very connected to her,” she says. “He was a very congruent person: what he believed, he lived. Due to the themes of her art, the occult, etc., people sometimes think she was complicated. But I don’t think it was. It was instinctive: I believed in feelings and followed them. “

Excitingly for the growing number of art historians and scholars interested in Leonora’s work, the Leonora Carrington House Study, as 194 is now known, includes a study center on that surprisingly spacious rooftop. Alejandra believes that a particularly fertile area of ​​research could be searching Leonora’s annotated books to find links to her paintings. That makes me laugh, because Leonora refused to talk about what her paintings meant. Death can still reveal her in a way that she refused to reveal during her lifetime. My instinct is that she wouldn’t have cared: she always told me that she wasn’t interested in thinking about what would happen after her departure.

Come into the living room ... Carrington's living room.
Come into the living room … Carrington’s living room. Photograph: Claudio Cruz / AFP / Getty Images

In 1988, the Guerrilla Girls did their landmark piece The Perks of Being a Female Artist. The merits include avoiding the pressure of success, including it in art history reviews, and having a professional career after 80. Leonora scores on all counts. Even though he died 10 years ago this month, and even though he lived to be 90, I think his reputation and status are still in their infancy. But his fame is growing, as the Casa project reveals. Museums around the world are actively seeking his work. There have been five major international exhibitions in recent years, with another postponed until 2023 due to Covid. And two museums of his sculpture have opened in Mexico, one in the town of San Luis Potosí, the other in Xilitla where his friend Edward James created an extraordinary surrealist sculpture garden.

Last year, an independent band from Los Angeles called Conditioner released a single about her, titled Leonora. “We’re just a couple of young guys in our twenties,” band member Riley McCluskey told me. “But when we came across Leonora’s work, we were impressed. It seemed capable of accessing some space that most humans cannot access, or at least not often. Their worlds were beautiful, terrifying, deep. They give us glimpses beyond the everyday. ”Leonora’s themes, especially feminism, ecology, the connection of everything, the hidden and spiritual meaning outside of organized religion, feel very 2021.

Honored… the artist on a National Lottery ticket.
Honored… the artist on a National Lottery ticket. Photography: Joanna Moorhead

As I head to the airport, I stop to buy some tickets for Mexico’s national lottery. To commemorate the 10th anniversary of her death, they present the image of Leonora. In the spirit of surrealism, I buy one hoping to win the jackpot of £ 1 million. But meeting Leonora has been a much bigger prize than that.

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