Leonora Carrington’s best known story features a bored debutante who persuades a hyena to replace her at a ball. Disguised in the flayed skin of a maid, the hyena is caught out for its terrible smell:
‘My mother entered, pale with rage.
‘We’d just sat down at the table,’ she said, ‘when that thing sitting in your place got up and shouted, ‘So I smell a bit strong, what? Well, I don’t eat cakes!’ Whereupon it tore off its face and ate it.’’¹
The story features in Teresa Griffiths’s new documentary about Carrington, accompanied by archive shots of white-frocked debutantes curtseying and eating cake in unnerving union. Even without the presence of hyenas, the moment is visually surreal – the movements of the girls dreamlike and alien. It is a prime image for the Carrington of Griffiths’s film: the runaway debutante turned Mexican surrealist whose work collapses bizarreness into banality before reversing it – all the while threading her work with darkness and cutting humour.
But it is also a fitting emblem for Griffiths’s film itself. Beneath the talking-head trappings of a BBC Arts documentary, Griffiths’s film does something different. As interview footage cuts away to animations of Carrington’s drawings, projected onto real-life spaces and given a translucent, disconcerting reality, we are introduced to horned beasts in robes, rocking horses, spectral women whose heads turn into flowerpots. This is more than just another arts doc debutante curtseying at the feet of Alan Yentob.
Spanning continents, cultural movements and tumultuous historical events, Carrington’s stranger-than-fiction life makes for gripping viewing. Raised by an upstanding, upper class Lancashire family, she assiduously rejected the mould her parents imposed. Expelled from two convent schools for what is described as her ‘allergy to collaboration’, her childhood world was filled with dream creatures so well imagined as to become real – Griffiths quotes from Carrington’s writing at the time ‘Notes: Birds etc. Seen while asleep, seen live on a plate, like salad. Coloured green and blue, wet, like a frog.’ Having failed as a debutante (no thanks, presumably, to any hyenas), Carrington took up a place at Chelsea School of Art and it was there that she turned her attentions to surrealism, drawn to the radical dream logic of the works that had just begun to be exhibited in the UK.
Surrealism, as her son describes it, “Surprised her because it was so familiar”. Here was a world which could capture the strange dislocations of her reality, in which the ordinary could meld seamlessly into the imagined. After eloping to France with Max Ernst, 22 years her senior, she was initiated into the echelons of Europe’s radical art scene and, characteristically, refused to bow to any of them. Griffiths, too, slyly critiques the ridiculousness of the male surrealists, whose currency was ludicrous gesture and visual pun and who took themselves too seriously. Carrington’s account of her impression of the “pompous” Andre Breton – of whom she would “take the mickey, every now and again” – is accompanied by shots of his self-portrait with his head stuck through a piece of paper, swimming goggles squarely atop his nose.
One photograph from the period to which Griffiths returns repeatedly is of Leonora and Ernst on the doorstep of the home they shared in the south of France, eyes shut, Leonora facing the sun, topless; Ernst with his hands over her breasts, leaning into her hair. Against Leonora’s glowing skin, Ernst’s hands reveal his age, leathery and veined – but it is Leonora who, even with her eyes closed, has the smile of arch self-possession. At the centre of a movement known for female bodies butchered, appropriated, fetishised or mocked, turned to stone by Chirico or to sofa by Dali, Carrington didn’t fall easily into the category of muse. Instead, Griffiths emphasises her focus on her own work, the way she developed an ambiguous iconography of hybrid creatures and situations, the ordinary rubbing up against the extraordinary with what Marina Warner once termed Carrington’s trademark “deadpan perversity”.²
These images introduce a satisfying flavour of weirdness to Griffiths’s documentary. Rather than simply reproducing stills of Carrington’s work, her drawings become a crucial part of the film’s storytelling. Often animated, they are tricked into life as the layers of her perspective move against each other: birds fly off the roof of Gothic buildings, women-animal mashups strain against their backdrop. Every one of Griffiths’s interviewees testifies to the way Carrington’s imagined spaces bled into her sense of what was real. “I was never really sure which side of the canvas she was on”, says Arthur Penrose, son of fellow surrealist Roland Penrose. “The pictures she drew were just extensions of her life”. On seeing the dark vitality of her paintings animated, we too become immersed in this.
Through Griffiths’s clever use of projection, Carrington’s figures rarely stick within the borders of her paintings. They flicker across architectural space, projected onto walls, columns, brushes and wineglasses. Her “paintings you can walk around inside”, as her son terms them, are recreated; we could now, literally, walk around inside them. The effect is eerie and insinuating. Her chimeras are integrated into the real, a flickering extension of the ordinary world. In return, real spaces take on an aspect of the imaginary. We rarely see footage of her but we return frequently to her voice, audio interview projected across these slow, strange spans of rooms filled with projections of her inventions. We not only ‘walk around’ Carrington’s paintings but occasionally her mind, a dreamlike space of painted creatures and obscurely remembered places.
Carrington’s story is retold in a straight forward, chronological manner and, in the hands of a less suggestive director, this would run the risk of inviting us to read her art in an over-biographical manner. Her story takes a traumatic turn after the Nazi invasion of France, during which the Jewish Ernst was detained and Carrington, driven to a breakdown from grief, was forced into what she would refer to as ‘The Asylum’. Her description of the time is set alongside projections from ‘Down Below’ (1941): her image of a bird-faced woman is projected against the shadow of a hill; her helmet-headed woman in a bustier grows and fades across a peeling colonnade; a stone white horse moves across the bars of a bannister. The figures become unsettling emblems of Carrington’s time in the hospital, during which she was sexually assaulted, physically abused and given cocktails of drugs, including one that induced epileptic fits.
We not only ‘walk around’ Carrington’s paintings but occasionally her mind, a dreamlike space of painted creatures and obscurely remembered places.
But we have seen these figures before – at the beginning of the film, illustrating her refusal to fit in from childhood and the saturation of her mind into her art. During Carrington’s description of leaving The Asylum and realising, for the first time, “That I was both mortal and touchable and that I could be destroyed”, the white running girl from ‘Crookey Hall’ (1947) flits across a stone wall, already a familiar image from earlier descriptions of Leonora’s longing for escape and set to appear repeatedly throughout. The significance of her strange figures is never singular. They are not an effect of which certain biographical details are the cause. Their enigmatic familiarity, remembered from earlier sightings as if from a dream, defies this obvious logic. They refuse to be pinned to one memory or mood, symbolism slipping away like the running white girl herself.
After gaining her freedom from The Asylum, Carrington escaped both her family, threatening to return her to Lancashire, and the war in Europe by green-card marrying a Mexican diplomat and returning to his country with him. She would spend the rest of her life there, having children with an exiled Hungarian, Chiki Weisz, and continuing to paint prolifically. Though largely unknown in Europe and North America, she became one of Mexico’s most celebrated artists; as curator Teresa Arcq describes, “Even though she was born in England, for us she is our artist. She belongs to Mexico.” The artist who revelled in metamorphosis and hybridity began to incorporate the symbolism of Mexican myths and stories into her paintings, combining them with the Celtic symbols that had fascinated her since childhood.
It is a shame this is not something Griffiths explores in more depth. Her film opens with footage of an extravagantly reconstructed Day of the Dead parade, returned to repeatedly during the description of Carrington’s life in Mexico. It is an easy shorthand for the culture in which she was embedded for most of her life, but strikingly reductive. Where Carrington’s life with the European Surrealists is illustrated not only by her and Ernst’s work but with photographs of and paintings by many of its major figures, no real attempt is made to represent the folkloric Mexican images that influenced her, and no Mexican artist’s work is displayed alongside her pieces. Her youth in Europe is obviously the thrills-and-spills story. But for an artist whose work is all about hybridity and dislocation, failing to explore Carrington’s exchange with Mexico in more visual detail smacks of a rushed final chapter.
This lack is felt all the more because the interview footage describing the latter half of Carrington’s life is some of the film’s most subtle, tender and interesting. In Griffiths’s final scenes, Carrington’s friend Betty Aridjis describes her last moments: when asked why she kept looking from her bed across to the bare wall, “she claimed the wall was full of wonderful blackbirds”. The camera pans through Carrington’s former bedroom, an ordinary old-lady room complete with chintzy bedspread. There are no blackbirds on the walls but distantly we hear birdsong. Documentaries purport to study reality, but Leonora Carrington never dealt in anything as simple or singular as this. Hers was a life lived out in surreality, where the imagined was as concrete as the real. Griffiths’s documentary reconstructs a reality into which the extraordinary continually steals – like a hyena sitting down to dinner at a debutante’s ball.
¹ Carrington, L., 2014. ‘The Debutante’ [online]. Available here: https://biblioklept.org/2014/01/05/the-debutante-a-short-story-by-leonora-carrington/
² Warner, M. In: Laity, Paul., 2017. The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/05/the-surreal-life-of-leonora-carrington-joanna-moorhead-review.
If you are in the UK, you can watch the documentary on BBC iPlayer here.