Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) is perhaps more known for her Surrealism paintings than her writings. At a time when just a few women appeared on the modern art scene that was dominated by men, Carrington stood out with her fantastic rendering of mystical creatures in dreamscapes. Done with a whimsical sense of humor, some of her creatures often appear macabre and otherworldly, And according to her art and writing, these creatures really exist in our parallel universe.
If as a painter she belongs to the Surrealists (if we must categorize), as a writer Carrington is in a genre defined by herself. For her stories unleash a stream of consciousness redolent of childhood memories of Celtic myth (once told by her nanny), and of the pre-Colombian myth she had picked up from living in Mexico during most of her adult life.
This self-portrait was painted around late 1930s (now part of the Met‘s permanent collection), it also appears on the cover of The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington published in 2017 by Dorothy, a publishing project in St. Louis. Surrounded by horses and accompanied by a zebra-bodied and wolf-faced animal, for the book this image is like a prelude to the fantastical stories you are about to read.
Each of tales takes the readers into a realm of macabre magic shadowed by death and strange tragedy. However, these stories are not purely pessimistic and morbid. For they portray an underworld where human, beast and ghost live in their past and present simultaneously. Embellished with humor and witty observation, the stories also touches on the absurdities in life.
This compilation of stories begins with “The Debutante” (1937-38), in which Carrington writes in the first person voice alluding to an autobiographical reference.* In it, she confesses to being a misanthrope who rather spend days visiting an animal zoo to avoid people. This is followed by the meeting with a very intelligent hyena, thus gradually unravels a strange fairytale. Her character pleads with the hyena to attend the dancing ball in her place. Meanwhile, with a touch of satirical humor implicitly suggesting the ridiculousness of formal debutante parties. When the hyena chews off the maid’s face using it to mask as a human, the grotesqueness is responded by her character’s childish fear of being found out by her mother. This story ends with the animal escaping the party through a window into the dark wilderness. In many ways, this tale reflects Carrington’s irrepressible desire to be free, and to breakaway from convention.
(*Carrington was born into a semi-aristocratic family in Lancashire, England and had been a debutante in real life.)
If Carrington indulges in the macabre, it is always balanced with something humorously absurd and the sense of fluffiness. Meanwhile, some reads like a recount of her dream, and through a stream of consciousness that flows into the bizarre. In a story with a curiously amusing title called “How To Start a Pharmaceuticals Business” written in the early 1960s, it begins with her searching for a picnic site in honor of a rendezvous with Lord Popocatepetl and Viscount Federal District. Just as arbitrary as her choice of naming, the tale ends with her accidental discovery of a medicinal corpse. Like a dream, “How To Start a Pharmaceuticals Business” doesn’t resolve. This open-ending defies logic, and shows how Carrington’s marvelous imagination is unrestrained and spontaneous.
This collection of short stories ends with three fictions that are published for the first time. One of them, “Jemima and the Wolf” centers on a mysterious night creature that is both human and beast. The likeness of this creature reappears in both Carrington’s work as an artist and a novelist. Like describing her own mischievous self as a young girl, the main character is a wild child who is always sneaking out at night and thus causing constant headaches to her governess. Secretly falling in love with a man wolf, the little girl sets out to follow him while herself is slowly turning into an animal just like him. This metamorphosis delights the little girl as she falls asleep by the grave of the man who only treads the dark forest at night as a wolf.
The leitmotif of metamorphosis from human into animal and animal into human runs throughout these stories. With vivid visual descriptions, Carrington weaves together Celtic folk tales with ancient mythology. Reading the stories feels like traveling into the labyrinth of an underworld where unearthly creatures with wondrously magic and a secret past waiting to be heard.
For Leonora Carrington’s biography, watch the video below produced by the Guardian It includes a wonderful interview with the artist in her painting studio.
For more book recommendations, read about the women who walk the streets and a love story between a Great Dane and a reclusive writer, plus books by and of other eccentric and colorful women who played pivotal roles in the shaping of modern art.