100 Years of Leonora Carrington: Reflecting on the Innovative Artist’s Life

Surrealism is undoubtedly one of the most well-known artistic, intellectual, and literary movements of the 20th Century. The movement heavily rejected the rationalism associated with the turn of the century and embraced the human subconscious. Artists attempted to depict human psychology with both erotic and violent images presented with hyper-real, fantastical detail. Although the movement is primarily known for its rejection of rational society and societal norms, female surrealists were not regarded as highly as their male counterparts. Because of this perpetuation of holding women in a lower intellectual capacity, when thinking of Surrealism today, most think of Andre Breton, Salvador Dali, Joan Miró, and Max Ernst, rather than Dorothea Tanning, Toyen, and Leonora Carrington.

The Bird Men of Burnely by Leonora Carrington. 1970. Oil on Canvas.

However, in the past few years, a new emphasis has been placed upon these “forgotten” female surrealists. Articles pop up every few months with titles like “10 Female Surrealists You Must Know” and in 2015, Sotheby’s organized a selling exhibition, Cherchez la Femme, Women and Surrealism. The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington is another milestone in the road to paving a more durable history for these female surrealists, and is perhaps one of the most important happenings to date. It has reignited interest in Leonora Carrington’s fantastical artwork and illuminated her relatively unknown short stories.


Leonora Carrington was born in 1917 to a wealthy English family. Her parents attempted to raise her as an educated, well to do, British woman, but a young Carrington rejected these expectations. She was expelled from multiple schools for rebellious behavior. After her failure to integrate into the traditional British educational system, Carrington began attending art schools including Mrs. Penrose’s Academy of Art, the Chelsea School of Art, and Ozefant Academy. Her parents were not particularly supportive of Carrington’s artistic ambitions, but with a bit of luck, Edward James, a surrealist poet recognized her work and became one of Carrington’s greatest advocates. With her increasing notoriety, Carrington now ran in European Surrealist social circles, where she met Max Ernst. Carrington was immediately drawn physically and intellectually to Ernst and his works. After their initial meeting, Ernst quickly left his wife and moved with Carrington to Southern France where they lived happily together, supporting each other’s intellectual and artistic projects, until the coming of World War II. Ernst, who was German, was arrested by the French authorities as a hostile alien in 1939. The arrest crushed Carrington who quickly fled the country and was in and out of asylums until her eventual move to Mexico City where she spent the rest of her life apart from a brief stint in New York City.

Portrait of Max Ernst by Leonora Carrington. 1939. Oil on Canvas.

Carrington grew to love Mexico City and her environment dramatically influenced her work. Mexico provided her with space, time, and fantastical ancient mythology. She had always been interested in animals, myth, and symbolism. Mexican culture as well as ancient Mayan and Aztec mysticism further cultivated her curiosity. Carrington wrote many of her short stories in Spanish (along with English and French), and participated in Mexico’s women’s liberation movement along with other notable political campaigns. Although Mexican culture had a major influence on her work Carrington drew from her youth for major themes that appear in both her visual art and fiction.

El Mundo Magico de los Mayas by Leonora Carrington. 1963. Oil on Canvas.

Carrington’s stories and paintings share almost identical themes. Most of her work interweaves talking animals and transfiguration into a staunch critique of the bourgeoisie life that she ardently rejected. The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington presents many of these themes and add narratives to some of Carrington’s most illustrious paintings. For example, Self Portrait depicts Carrington perched on the edge of a seat in a dream-like state. She extends her hand towards what seems to be a female hyena. Behind her, a rocking horse is hovering above the floor, and through the window, the viewer can see a horse bounding through a bucolic landscape. A few of the Carrington’s short stories can be used to add narrative to this rather bizarre image. For instance, Carrington’s The Debutante, tells the story of what we assume to be young Carrington, befriending a hyena who offers to take Carrington’s place at the debutante ball. The plot unsurprisingly fails, but Carrington is also victorious. She does not have to attend her coming out ceremony and participate in the bourgeoisie activity that she so vehemently denies. The rocking horse is a key character in The Oval Lady, and Carrington regularly personifies and befriends horses in her fiction.


The publishing of The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington celebrates the centennial of the artist’s birth and sheds a much-deserved spotlight on Carrington and her bizarre yet alluring work. After 100 years, we are finally able to sift through the Surrealist movement and recognize some of the most avant-garde work it produced. Carrington and her female counterparts ventured into the realm of unforgiving feminist art years before the second wave feminist movement. This short story collection is not only a guide to Carrington’s artwork, but a platform for us to remember her prolific roles as a feminist, artist, and writer.


top image // Self Portrait by Leonora Carrington. 1938. Oil on Canvas.

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