Leonora Carrington was born into great wealth in 1917. She attended a series of convent schools from which she was expelled for a long list of rebellious acts, including writing backward and attempting to levitate. She rejected her coming-out as a debutante by conceiving and later publishing a short story in which she dressed a hyena in trailing robes and sent the animal to the party in her place. Carrington studied art in London until, at age nineteen, after seeing a Max Ernst painting in a surrealist exhibition catalog, she ran away with Ernst to Paris.
Once among the French surrealists, Carrington refused the role of muse. In 1938, she completed her painting Self-Portrait (Inn of the Dawn Horse), which hung from a tree branch alongside Ernst’s work as part of an art auction; it is now included in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She was one of only two women whose writing was included in Breton’s 1939 Anthology of Black Humor. (She typically wrote in French.) A year after the outbreak of World War II, Carrington suffered a breakdown after Ernst was sent to an internment camp, which she later wrote about in her memoir, Down Below (1944).
Carrington escaped the asylum and sailed for New York, settling in Mexico City, where she worked for the next seven decades, painting and writing short stories and novels, including the new Penguin classic The Hearing Trumpet (1976). Her work from this time was populated by women and half-human beasts floating in dreamscape images, which were drawn from myth, folklore, religious ritual, and the occult. In the 1970s, she painted posters for Mexican women’s liberation, pairing the saints and their miraculous actions with a feminist consciousness. Her work did not gain widespread international attention until she was in her nineties, and exhibitions were mounted in Mexico City, San Francisco, and London shortly before her death, in 2011.
In August 2009, I traveled with artist and writer Alisha Piercy and photographer Natalie Matutschovsky to Mexico City, where we were collaborating on a project for which we staged picnics throughout the city, inspired in part by Carrington’s iconography. We set out to find her, and by some small miracle—armed only with the telephone number of a hair salon—we did. (I ignored journalistic protocol and did not contact her in advance, as we’d heard she no longer gave interviews.)
We spent two afternoons speaking in her dark, chilly home—sparely furnished, though a tree grew through it. Striking, with an oval face and black eyes, she spoke slowly in her well-bred English, without sentimentality. When our conversation was through, I walked out her door, into the bright Mexican sunlight—the same door over which her friend the collector Edward James had once written, “This is the house of the Sphinx.”
THE BELIEVER: What are you thinking about right now?
LEONORA CARRINGTON: I don’t discuss that.
BLVR: If you are not working on anything, what occupies you?
LC: Surviving. I’m not well. I think about death a lot.
BLVR: What do you think about?
LC: Well, you become closer to death, so that really tends to dominate everything else.
BLVR: Have you reached an acceptance?
LC: No, I have not. How can one accept the totally unknown? [Agitated] We know nothing whatever about it, even if it happens to everyone, to everybody! Animals, vegetables, minerals—everything dies. How can you reconcile with something you know nothing about? Is there anything else? What do you want to know?
BLVR: I have this longing for myths, for ritual, which you yourself have explored. There is no model for the passing-down of what has been collected in the interior life, that isn’t simply the collection of biographical facts. It’s difficult, as there are no words for what I’m looking for.
LC: There are things that are not sayable. That’s why we have art.
LC: I’ll do it. [She lights her own cigarette.] God, I don’t know who he is. [A man walks by and appears to be landscaping in her courtyard.]
BLVR: I am working on an art project in Mexico City that’s inspired by your work. Part of our project was to try and come and meet you. You’re now the same age [ninety-two] that the heroine Marian Leatherby was in your novel The Hearing Trumpet. I am currently writing a novel with a heroine who is also ninety-two. It felt like the right time to come and meet you.
LC: I never know if I’m ninety-two or ninety-three. I was born in 1917.
BLVR: The year of the Russian Revolution.
LC: Ah, yes, the Russians. I’ve never been to Russia.
BLVR: I think you would love it.
LC: I doubt it.
LC: I don’t believe in communism.
BLVR: They’ve thrown away communism and wholeheartedly embraced capitalism. But Moscow—the architecture is so unexpected. It’s so large and ornate, it makes you feel small. As though you were in a fairy tale. The scale is huge.
BLVR: You have a lot of books. Do you read a lot?
LC: Not now. I have a bad eye.
BLVR: You must miss reading.
LC: Yes, I think I do.
BLVR: Why did you stop writing?
LC: I didn’t really stop. I just don’t deal with publishers anymore.
BLVR: Do you have unpublished writing?
LC: Probably, yes.
LC: What do you want to know?
BLVR: Are you working on anything right now, or thinking about anything right now?
LC: No. I’m not well. [Pauses] Too many years.
BLVR: You said you’re not working on anything, but if you were feeling better, might you start on something? Do you have any plans?
LC: No. I don’t talk about my plans. Especially as I don’t know what they are.
BLVR: Do you feel like you know less as you grow older, or more?
LC: I feel I know absolutely nothing. We know nothing about death. I think humanity knows very little. We have no idea. There are lots of theories.
BLVR: You’ve studied Zen Buddhism in the past. Does it help? Have they figured something out?
LC: I’m not enlightened, so I wouldn’t know. Do you have a light?
BLVR: Here you are. [Hands Carrington a lighter] Do you remember when you were in your mid-thirties? Did you feel that you knew more then?
LC: I don’t think I ever had the pretension of knowing. Nobody ever knows what death is.
BLVR: We think about it less when we’re younger.
LC: Do you need an ashtray?
BLVR: I can reach, thank you.
BLVR: I’m starting to think about death. A little bit more.
LC: Well, all of the thinking you’ll do, I doubt if you’re going to find out much.
BLVR: Your work continues to influence, and it is unique in how it approaches the accumulation of diverse myth and makes it transmutable to the present tense. The layering of your iconography. No matter who you are, there are lots of ways into your work.
LC: Well, a lot of the things they are doing now are a kind of simplification.
BLVR: Whose work do you admire?
LC: The surrealists. Duchamp, Max Ernst, Picasso. But I don’t see any point in discussing visual art for me. Other people can make their ideas.
BLVR: There is an interest in your work in part because we are currently in somewhat of a mythless culture. That’s part of my attraction to your work.
LC: Contemporary art has gotten so abstract that it’s practically nothing.
BLVR: I’ve been searching for myth, for ritual.
LC: I think ritual has to come on its own. I don’t think you can search for it. Where would you be searching?
BLVR: Within, I suppose.
LC: You’re not interested in Buddhism? I think they are very good.
BLVR: What was it that attracted you to Buddhism, given that you’re not a joiner, that you’re not interested in religion or politics?
LC: A saying, which is not mine: “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.”
BLVR: How did that affect your work?
LC: I went on waiting for it to appear.
BLVR: Now it is easier for female artists to show their work, have it exhibited, have it accepted. It doesn’t seem as much of a struggle as it was for you.
LC: There was a time when female artists were totally invisible. There have always been female artists, but since females were considered to be an inferior animal, we don’t know too much about them.
BLVR: Were male artists supportive? If they had a great eye, they must have had recognition for female artists.
LC: Few of them, not all of them. One of them once said, “There are no women artists.” So I told him, “All you have to do is open the door, walk down the passage, and you’ll find the street!”
BLVR: Who was that?
LC: I won’t say. I haven’t seen him since.
BLVR: How did the Second World War affect your work?
LC: I was afraid to be trapped by the Nazis. It was a frightening time. We didn’t know that the Nazis weren’t going to take over the world. I lived in the south of France and then was in Spain for a while, but I was in a clinic.
BLVR: I’ve read about that [in Carrington’s Down Below, which academic Marina Warner has called one of the most lucid accounts of going insane]. You never went back to Spain?
BLVR: How do you think you survived that time in the clinic?
LC: I don’t know. I was young. In good health.
BLVR: We know from Down Below that you drew maps. What were the maps about?
LC: There were levels in the clinic. At the top, there were the people they considered to be hopelessly mad, and I was one. Then they moved me to a private cell. I was alone there, with a keeper.
BLVR: They gave you drugs.
LC: There were these terrible injections, from which, out of terror, you stopped being mad—more or less the theory.
BLVR: Your keeper was a man or a woman?
LC: She was a woman, a German with a love for the Nazis.
BLVR: Did she talk to you about that?
LC: No, because I didn’t let her.
BLVR: You said that you are not interested in politics.
LC: Well, I think when there are a great number of humans doing something, I begin to doubt it.
BLVR: You’re a nonconformist.
LC: Exactly. I’ve never been closely connected with politics. Though I more or less liked the anarchists. But I’ve never participated.
BLVR: Or in organized religion.
LC: Well, I’m a Roman Catholic. My mother was Irish, from the South, so, yes, I was put in a convent. After a few months I was expelled. They wrote my father and said, “This child does not collaborate with either work or play.”
BLVR: What were your memories of that time?
LC: I was miserable.
BLVR: Is that when you started to draw?
LC: No, I’ve always drawn.
BLVR: How old were you when you were expelled?
LC: About ten.
BLVR: And did you have any friends?
LC: None! I was very unpopular.
LC: Because I’m not good at anything. I couldn’t play hockey. I was not good at religion.
BLVR: I think children are conformists. When they see a child that doesn’t fit in…
LC: Yes, you’re unpopular.
BLVR: Was there a moment that you felt you did belong? And whom with?
LC: The surrealists.
BLVR: Did you seek them out?
LC: I first heard of the surrealists from my mother, who gave me a book by Herbert Read. I thought, Ah! This I understand.
BLVR: That must have felt so incredible after many years of feeling isolated. And then you met the surrealists and became one?
LC: I already was one.
BLVR: Was there any point at which you felt you weren’t rebelling?
LC: When I met the surrealists.
BLVR: And now?
LC: Now I’m over ninety, and so I think a lot about my old age and what I cannot do and so on and so forth.
BLVR: Are there any gifts that come with loss, with old age?
LC: Not that I know of. [Laughs] What I’m doing right now is surviving. [Lights a cigarette] I’m addicted.
BLVR: You’ve smoked since you were at the convent?
LC: Yes, but hidden. There was a big garden and we hid under the bushes.
BLVR: How did you get cigarettes in a convent?
LC: That’s a good question. We seemed to get them all right. I probably brought them, and hid them.
BLVR: When you’re in a convent, you sleep there—there are no parents?
LC: You see them once every three months for a short time. It was terrible.
BLVR: And your brothers?
LC: They went to a Jesuit school.
BLVR: And your sons, did they go to school? They lived here with you, right?
LC: Yes. My husband [Emerico “Chiki” Weisz] was a photojournalist in Mexico. He had a theory that if he left Mexico they would put him in a concentration camp. He was Jewish and a Hungarian. He more or less despised his work, which is not very good. He just thought it was just a job.
BLVR: Was that difficult? You are so realized with your work, and he—
LC: What marriage is not difficult? You tell me.
BLVR: There is always some kind of conflict. But yours lasted a very long time [over fifty years].
BLVR: Your husband died quite recently. What was his condition near the end? Was he talkative?
LC: He just sat. He didn’t talk.
BLVR: In your younger years, did you talk? Were you a talkative couple?
LC: I don’t remember! I don’t think so. He never talked much. And I don’t speak Hungarian. We talked mostly in French.
LC: My studio is upstairs, and it’s difficult for me to go up there now [gestures around the room]. These are all my paintings, as well as the horror comics.
BLVR: Horror comics?
LC: [Laughs] That’s what I call detective stories. But I’m interested in who the recent writers are.
BLVR: Should we stay for one more cigarette?
LC: Stay for one more. [Lights cigarette] I don’t like reading invented worlds. I like real.
BLVR: You have Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.
LC: That’s quite intelligent.
BLVR: He says some of the most important decisions we make in our life happen without us thinking at all.
LC: Well, I don’t know if that’s true.
BLVR: He has another book about luck—how do happy and successful people get that way? How much is luck and how much is them working at it?
LC: I think there’s more luck than we think.
BLVR: Do you think things are predetermined?
LC: I’ve no idea. I think there are some things that happen because a person’s a certain way.
BLVR: You mean because you’re open to things?
LC: I think the only good idea Hitler ever had was to commit suicide—if he did.
BLVR: I think you can never escape the landscape of your childhood. Are there some things you miss?
LC: I like the seasons.
BLVR: You went to Paris last year for a retrospective of your work, at ninety-one. Do you think you will ever get back to England?
LC: I’m not a prophet.