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
Leonora Carrington is considered the last living member of the inner circle of pre-WWII Parisian surrealists. She’s 93 years old. And she’s still alive and creating art in Mexico City.
I’ve often had fantasies of tracking Leonora down, of hopping on a plane to Mexico to find her. It would be the beginning of an epic journey, and I imagine us having a brief but meaningful encounter where she would bless me with a near-century’s worth of wisdom on what it means to be an aging woman artist. I imagine myself emerging from this experience spiritually renewed and ready to tackle this life —to develop a total, life-long commitment to creativity. I wrote on my blog that when the artist Louise Bourgeois died, I had this irrational regret for having not met her while she was alive. In hopes of trying to divert another repeat of my Louise-regret, I began trying to get in contact with Leonora Carrington.
Remedios Varo wearing a mask made by Leonora Carrington and Kati Homi.
I found that there was someone else who had been on a similar mission: The Guardian journalist Joanna Moorhead. Joanna is a cousin of Leonora, but until recent years she had never met Leonora, nor was she aware of her artistic legacy. Joanna did end up tracking Leonora down. She flew to Mexico and wrote several articles on her cousin. I decided to contact Joanna, thinking maybe I could find Leonora through her.
My name is Jackie Wang. I am a writer who is extremely interested in the work of your cousin Leonora Carrington. The Hearing Trumpet is one of my favorite books of all time, and I’ve always loved your cousin’s gleeful rebellion against surrealist representations of women: the view of woman-as-muse, as femme enfant, and so forth. The character Marian Leatherby in Carrington’s Hearing Trumpet was 92 years old, and now Carrington herself is 93, which means she has just surpassed the age of her character. I am really interested in writing a piece on Carrington, focusing on what it means to be an aging woman, how they are ignored/delegitimized. I was wondering if you knew of any way at all that I could get in touch with Carrington. Any help at all would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time. Take care. —Jackie Wang
Leonora’s surrealist occult novel The Hearing Trumpet is about Marian, a 92-year-old woman. Her family, who assumes she is senile and has lost her mind with age, commits Marian to an institution. Leonora herself had been institutionalized around the time her lover—the famed dada/surrealist artist Max Ernst—was arrested during WWII. The institution Marian is sent to in the book turns out to be a strange cult headed by the mysterious couple Mr. and Mrs. Gambit. The elderly women sleep in bungalows that resemble a boot, a cuckoo clock, a mushroom, a birthday cake, an igloo, a circus tent and a lighthouse. Marian forms alliances with other women and unearths elaborate conspiracies revolving around a portrait of a winking nun. This book brought me immeasurable joy, especially during moments when the women would get together, dance and flail their arms around, compelled by an inexplicable urge.
We began by nodding our heads in time to the drumming, then our feet. Soon we were dancing round and around the pond, waving our arms and generally behaving in a very strange manner. (…) Never before had I experienced the joy of rhythmic dance, even in the days of foxtrot in the arms of some eligible young man. We seemed inspired by some marvelous power, which poured energy into our decrepit carcasses.
Old ladies, more alive than ever. Leonora is most famous for her paintings, but her writings are just as brilliant. It’s a shame that more people don’t treat The Hearing Trumpet like the literary treasure it is. Not only does it succeed at creating totally engrossing worlds, characters, and narratives; its structural complexity will knot your brain. Leonora establishes different logics and sequences of events and undoes them as she goes along, like a dream that abandons each preceding moment as it moves forward. There are layers within layers, unforeseeable digressions. Reality is shattered completely.
When Leonora left Europe, she landed in Mexico and was joined by two other surrealist women expatriates: the Spanish painter Remedios Varo and the Hungarian photographer Kati Horna. These three women worked together, inspired each other, and continued to develop as artists as they were virtually ignored by the art establishment. Older women were often the subjects of their work. They painted and photographed each other. After reading the narrative recounted by Joanna Moorhead, I wondered how much of The Hearing Trumpet was inspired by the little artist clan they established in Mexico. I immediately recognized Remedios in the character Carmella:
Varo and Carrington, in particular, found they shared a deep intensity of imagination. They encouraged each other in feats of daring: Varo would write letters to strangers, their names picked at random from the phone book, inviting them to attend dinner parties. There were also endless experiments in cookery, with surreal recipes served up to unsuspecting friends, including an omelette made with human hair, and ink-dyed tapioca passed off as caviar. But while the wild lives of the surrealist men in Paris attracted much attention, those of the surrealist women in Mexico passed largely unnoticed.
When I had the impulse to contact Leonora’s cousin, I was thinking about old ladies, institutions, and conspiracies. My partner had told me of this schizophrenic old woman named Phyllis who she had met in a mental hospital. When we were walking down a side street in Northampton toward the lot we were parked in, Phyllis appeared. It was a moment of cosmic coincidence. She was ambling down the street holding a plastic bag containing her lunch, her gray hair pulled back in a ponytail. We stopped to talk to her and stood there for about 20 or so minutes listening to her fantastic stories. In The Hearing Trumpet, a younger woman named Carmella is Marian’s only real friend. I imagine Carmella and Marian’s bond to be similar to the bond between Phyllis and my partner. Carmella is the only one who really listens to Marian. She gave Marian the trumpet.
Like the character Marian, who was obsessed with uncovering the story of the winking nun, Phyllis too is perpetually on a quest to uncover secret histories. But—like Marian—Phyllis goes largely ignored. To most, Marian and Phyllis are just some crazy hags. But as you read The Hearing Trumpet it is clear that Marian is incredibly lucid and perceptive. When I listened to Phyllis talk, my brain kind of melted because I was fed more information than I had the stamina to process, and everything seemed so painfully true. I realized that her problem was not that she didn’t understand anything. She understood too much. How was it possible to conflate the two? I suppose the secret to understanding the distinction is to open our ears. Even though the character Marian was physically almost deaf, maybe it is actually we who need hearing trumpets.
Today I received an email from Leonora’s cousin saying:
Hi Jackie. Sorry for the delay. That’s great that you’re such a fan of Leonora’s work. She’s an extraordinary woman and it’s a huge privilege to know her and to be able to spend time with her. She’d be very supportive I think of the idea of a piece about women and ageing, but I don’t think she’s up to a chat on the phone or by email—she is elderly now, and life is increasingly tough when you’re her age. Why not expand the piece a bit to take in other fascinating later-life women, and then you won’t need direct input from Leonora? Let me know if I can help further; I want to be supportive to anyone interested in Leonora, but I don’t want to make her life difficult by asking her to speak to people when I know she finds this stressful. –All best, Joanna
Alas, I will never get to meet Leonora. Which is okay. She is very, very old, and I wouldn’t want my girlish fantasies to cause her any strain. I’ve come to accept this sobering response and indirect rejection because in this strange way, her elusiveness reaffirms the stance that I loved her for, her rejection of the role of the muse demanded by the culture surrounding surrealism. Leonora will not be anyone’s muse. Not even mine.