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Bride of the Wind


Leonora Carrington, with André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst, NYC, 1942. Phot. Hermann Landschaft. At center - Morris Hirshfield's painting Nude at the Window, 1941


Perhaps trying to make sense of (or tame?) the extravagance of his lover’s wild imagination, surrealist painter Max Ernst called Leonora Carrington The Bride of the Wind. Carrington’s own magnificent paintings help us think about women as unmatched forces, beings who operate silently, effectively, and mysteriously in the world, without the oversight, permission or understanding of the winds or gods or men.


Carrington’s long life (1917-2011) spanned nearly a century, and her travels took her from England to France, Portugal and Mexico, where she landed after fleeing her family’s attempt to confine her to a sanitarium in South Africa. She made her home and her art in Mexico but was well-known throughout Europe and the US as well, and was honored in 1986 in NYC by the Women’s Caucus for Art for her contributions as a feminist thinker and activist.


Carrington’s work seems to be enjoying renewed attention now, in the midst of #MeToo, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and multiple wars ripping apart homes and homelands across the globe. When the seams of everyday life are coming apart, a guided tour of a nourishing, busy unconscious life is a radical challenge to ongoing confusion. It is also a happy reminder that what’s foreign or strange can replenish our humanity rather than threaten it. Women are the stewards of what’s unfamiliar and magical in Carrington’s work, and these figures are endowed with protective powers, unencumbered by their bodies, age, or responsibilities for others. 


Earlier this May, Carrington’s” Les Distractions de Dagobert” (1945) fetched the huge sum of $ 28.5 million dollars, surpassing Sotheby’s initial estimate. The image below presents this painting with sets of kid gloves, but Carrington’s ideas about inner and outer worlds are rather sturdy confections with roots in Celtic mythology, the magic of the Mayas, Renaissance theories of perspective, the Kabbalah, and medieval mysticism. Indeed, it’s easy to connect Carrington’s gloriously detailed visions with those of the 12th century Hildegard of Bingen, a German abbess who saw the universe as something as delicate and as perfect as an egg or a nut.


Les Temptations de Dagobert, 1945


Carrington’s rich designs and their gorgeous, intricate details invite other parallels. Emily Dickinson similarly transforms households into Gothic spaces where terror and reassurance takes up equal room. Carrington, however, rarely emphasizes pain or suffering the way Dickinson does; and blood doesn’t thread Carrington’s dreams like it does in the work of her contemporary and compatriot, the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Margaret Atwood, Sylvia Plath, and Shirley Jackson also share Carrington’s delight in toppling the patriarchal order of things, but Carrington doesn’t bully us the way these artists sometimes can.

   

What I find most captivating in Carrington’s paintings is the curious, witty coupling of resolve and openness, rigor and randomness, with Dr. Freud and Dr. Doolittle crossing wires and lushness unfolding logically. There is poetry and quiet tumult and the careful arrangement of other suns and other moons. Carrington’s pictures of disorder map chaos without limning violence.


Even more surprising – and inspiring – is the freedom afforded to women in so many of Carrington’s works. Female subjects are confident (if slightly unhinged), and obviously ready to leave us behind if we lack the nerve or the energy to follow them. What a relief to think about the other lives women might lead, not only in “rooms of their own” but also unfolding beyond, across majestic estates, gardens, forests, and cities!


An early painting from 1938, when Carrington was only twenty-one, already endows her form with this kind of authority and purpose. She is seated in riding clothes next to a hyena (her biographer Susan Aberth says it’s “lactating”), posed underneath a white rocking horse, staring directly at us, her hair an outburst, her face the start of a riot. But there’s also a window to this female figure’s left with a fleeing white horse galloping away, sailing somewhere else. The painting captures Carrington’s rebellion and interest in sharing it with us, even as it points us to places where she hasn’t yet travelled. It’s ironic that we seem to more fully prize the work of Carrington’s Surrealist contemporaries like Salvatore Dali and Ernst, given the ways their magical visions seem like secret and specific riddles which sometimes explain very little. How different is Carrington’s vision of the past, present, and future as interlocking and expansive: she almost always tells us about the world when she tells us about herself.


Self Portrait (Inn of the Dawn Horse), 1937-38


The other women Carrington describes in her paintings are often just as connected to the larger world rather than holed up in smaller settings. (Think about the ways Sargent’s women are defined by their dresses or Whistler’s women transformed into part of the architecture of household space. Mary Cassatt’s female subjects are usually mothers with children, rarely people with time on their hands or dreams to ensnare them.) Sometimes Carrington’s women are monstrous or witchlike, supernatural hybrid forms like daughters of Minotaurs or slightly more mundane mermaids. But look at Carrington’s “Portrait of the Late Mrs. Partridge” (1947) where the subject, elongated and given a head as big as a crown, is carefully bundled for travel outdoors.


Portrait of the Late Mrs. Patridge, 1947


Where she’s going or why she’s moving is less important than the facts of Mrs. Patridge’s freedom, her lack of company and unhurried pace, and the safety she finds in the world she traverses.


My favorite of Carrington’s paintings, “The Giantess (the Guardian of the Egg)” supplies a similar sense of female will, peace, and authority:


The Giantess (the Guardian of the Egg), 1947


This Giant with its small head and tiny hands towers over the landscape but does not dominate it. She is one of many things in this outdoor setting also filled with miniature people and birds and trees. Once again, this woman’s might is associated with movement and her freedom is something which happens outside. Note the heavy cloak which doesn’t conceal but merely warms her, and the egg she is holding, which is something outside rather than inside her. This Guardian is not a woman with a womb who serves as a vessel, or even a goddess-like figure of rebirth, but someone instead with the ability to protect life and show it to us. Perhaps Carrington’s suggestion is that fertility is a shared gift, its magic a revelation and collaboration. New life isn’t attached to a woman’s body but independent of it, and it is a treasure women know about but don’t keep to (or within) themselves.


This female power isn’t loving or maternal, but it isn’t frightening or snarling, either. Often represented alone or imagined in concert with a small group of other busy women, Carrington’s depictions of female authority regularly free women from men, from the seductions of marriage and children, and from the liabilities or traps of their bodies. These women have ideas to trade and plans to hatch and places to go, and an accommodating and exotic world makes room for their talents and skills. No doubt Ernst intended his phrase as a compliment to the woman he didn’t marry, but her paintings provide no evidence that Carrington could ever settle down or make herself unequal to any kind of power.  



 

Elizabeth Mazzola, the chair of the English Department at The City College of New York, has taught literature there for nearly 30 years. She has authored numerous publications, including Learning and Literacy in Female Hands (2013) and Women and Mobility on Shakespeare’s Stage (2017), and has received several prestigious awards, such as a Folger Shakespeare Library Fellowship. While her research primarily focuses on medieval and early modern literature, her current project examines how later women writers depict gestation, labor, delivery, and abortion. Recently, she moved to the Upper West Side with her dog, Chloe, excited to return to NYC after years in the suburbs.




Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) was a British-born Mexican surrealist artist and writer. She became a significant figure in the Surrealist movement after moving to Paris and forming a partnership with Max Ernst. Her work, characterized by fantastical imagery and themes of transformation, continued to evolve after she relocated to Mexico during World War II. Carrington is known for her dreamlike paintings and writings, including her novel "The Hearing Trumpet." She spent most of her life in Mexico, where she became a central figure in the artistic community. Her legacy as a key surrealist and feminist artist endures through her captivating, imaginative works.


How Doth The Little Crocodile, bronze sculpture, Paseo de la Reforma Avenue, Mexico City, 2000

     

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