The Surreal Life of Artist Leonora Carrington

I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse… I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist. ~ Leonora Carrington

She did not want to be a debutante. She did not want to be a quiet, well-behaved student. She did not want to be just a pretty face. Leonora Carrington was too real, too raw for a life of ball gowns, curtsies, and fake smiles. She had her own mind and imagination and wanted to express it through color and shapes. The fiery artist had no patience for the stiff schools her parents sent her to. She was an individual, unwilling to conform to authoritative, unreasonable rules. Her free-spirit and candid quips resulted in explosions from at least 2 schools. This was all to Leonora’s benefit as she preferred a much different kind of education.


Leonora Carrington was living quite the charmed life in 1930s England. Her father was a wealthy businessman working in the booming textile industry. She lived in Crookhey Hall, a sprawling green estate with beautiful brick walls. She was to be a demure debutante, coming out to high society, being presented to George V. She was educated at prestigious convents and was set to marry a wealthy aristocrat. She was young, pretty, and wealthy. In the 1930s it didn’t get much better than this. Leonora Carrington lived a life envied by many. But she wanted no part it in.

One night, while at a dinner party, she met the surrealist pioneer Max Ernst. He had saved her cold beer from rolling off a table to its fatal demise – a true testament to his invaluable character. While 26 years apart in age, they found comfort in each other’s company. They mocked society’s ridiculous norms and shared the inner workings of their dreamlike imaginations. Leonora found herself enraptured in this world Ernst had introduced her too.

Leonora Carrington's set design
Leonora Carrington’s set design

Leonora Carrington had a deep interest in mysticism, animal symbolism, myth and occult imagery. She was a life long student of alchemy and was something of a modern-day witch, incorporating elements of the ethereal into her work.

She soon left her old, stale life in London and traveled to Paris with Max, joining the merry band of surrealist misfits. There Leonora lived out the dreams of many young artists. She painted, she wrote, she tended to gardens. She chatted up Salvador Dali. She spent afternoons in cafes with Marcel Duchamp. She spent nights dancing, wine bottle in hand, with Picasso. It was a time of freedom, of creativity, of living in a self-made universe separated from the harsh judgement of the real world.

And then World War II happened. The highs had to come down at some point. Max, being German, was imprisoned by the French government. Leonora, now 23, was devastated. She had lost her guide to the surrealist realm of magic and wonder. She managed to escape to Spain, but lost and alone, her mind revolted. She was committed to an Asylum and “treated” with Cardiazol, a twisted drug that gave the same effect of shock therapy, plaguing Leonora with convulsions. This was the darkest Leonora’s life had ever been. Every time she convulsed it was like being torn from reality and dragged down into the underworld: a place of pain and fear.

Self portrait
Leonora’s self-portrait

The amazing thing about Carrington’s work is that it touches on themes of sexuality and femininity without stereotyping women as objects of male desire. Instead, she depicted the bonds between women of all ages, gender ambiguous female figures within male-dominated environments as in her self portrait above.

Her parents decided it was time to intervene and made arrangements for her to leave Spain and take up residency in South Africa…in another Asylum. Leonora rejected this as her fate. She refused to move backwards. Back to a life she did not want; one she found to be shallow, trivial, and boring. She would be forever tormented by convulsions if she went. She planned her escape. It was now or never.

She was walking through the cobbled roads of Spain. The chaperone her father sent was at her side, keeping a close watch on the now worn out and fragile Leonora. She glanced at the rows of shops and cafes. She excused herself to use the restroom and was free of her guard for a brief moment. It was now or never. She didn’t even look back to check if the guard was watching her. She sprinted to the back exit of the cafe, jumped into a cab and set forth on her new future.

Leonora Carrington on the right with her bff and fellow surrealist artist Leonor Fini

Carrington’s life was peppered with dramatic Hollywood worthy twists and turns, from a drug-induced psychotic episode that required hospitalization (an experience that inspired her novel “Down Below”), to her daring escape from Hitler. She lunched with photographer Man Ray, and drank Picasso under the table in Paris.

She arrived at the Mexican Embassy, where her good friend and diplomat, Renato Leduc, waited for her. They married and flew to South America. Leonora settled into Mexico City and into her new life. She would not be returning to Europe anytime soon.

Despite it’s turbulent start, the rest of Leonora’s life remained blissfully quiet and stable. Having only married for convenience, Leonora and Leduc split. She met Hungarian photographer, Chiki Weisz and had two boys, Gabriel and Pablo. She planted a tree in her front yard, taped pictures of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana on her kitchen cabinets, drank PG tea in the afternoons and tequila at night. She continued to paint and write, building a sizeable repertoire of fantastical surrealist works depicting mythical, made-up creatures representing themes of identity and transformation. She had once again constructed her own lovely little universe where she was bound by no one, free to be and create as she wished.

1 Comment
  1. Mike Stillwell says:

    Thank you. Leonora is my hands-down favourite artists. I wish I had known of her and met her in her lifetime.

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