Feminine, Feminist and Sinister: 

Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Occult Imagery

As Subversive Narrative Strategies


V.2

Among the many female Surrealists who have worked in this vein, Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo consistently incorporated the theme of hybridity into their work throughout the course of their careers. As close friends who lived only blocks apart in exile in Mexico, they worked together to develop a mythological language that used animals as stand-ins for internal associations. Additionally, by implying metamorphosis or representing it literally, they invoked the familiars of witchcraft and the recovery of its anti-patriarchal power. Leonora Carrington’s most memorable works invariably depict women and animals together, with the animals in the role of metaphorical amanuensis, communicating difficult and profound experiences. Although hard to parse in Carrington’s surrealistic lingo, she wrote of the link between her animal depictions and inexpressible emotions that cannot be reduced by reason, in a catalogue for a 1979 exhibition: "It painted organic Subterreanean Entities, it painted Chthonic faunae in jubilant contrast to the class calculus in exhaustive despeculation on the so-called reductive recapitulation of summarized sentential reason [sic]."[1]

In the early part of her career, the hyena and the horse were the avatars that embodied opposing aspects of her psychological life.[2] For Carrington, the white horse alluded to her Celtic background, and the “mythical Queen of the Horses … [who traveled] through the space of night as an image of death and rebirth.”[3] (This figure is none other than the Graves’ namesake White Goddess and, according to Carrington, reading the book was the “greatest revelation of [her] life.”[4]) The white horse, which appeared frequently in Carrington’s art, represented freedom from the strictures of familial and societal expectations and a powerful, positive autonomy. In her many published Surrealist writings, Carrington often referenced hyenas as well as horses. In the short story “The Debutante,” a rebellious and amoral young girl befriends a “nasty”-smelling hyena, and induces the animal to take her place at a ball by dressing up in the debutante’s clothes, and masking itself with the torn-off face of a servant.[5] The hyena, in Carrington’s visual vocabulary, referenced a more primal quality associated with sexuality and subconscious impulses.[6] According to Natalya Lusty, "Once thought to be hermaphroditic, because of the male and female genitals are almost identical – the female having both testicles and an enlarged clitoris – the hyena has endured a reputation for profanity and sexual deviancy, including homosexuality. The hyena has also been maligned within Christianity and folklore. In medieval mythology, it was believed that sorcerers hunted with packs of hyenas and that witches rode upon their backs."[7] In Carrington’s early paintings, the hyena typically occurred in tandem with depictions of the white horse, as if to invoke the duality represented by the these light and dark forces. As she matured and left behind the turmoil of her life in Europe for the relative calm of exile in Mexico, the goose replaced the hyena and white horse. [8] The goose, in Carrington’s personal mythology, represented flight and escape through exile, as well as the equanimity achieved through aging. For Carrington, these animal familiars – explicitly linked to the occult in the case of the horse and hyena – were a visual language she developed to explain the forces at work in her life and the changes wrought by experience.

  
  
   
  
  

  
  
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 Fig. 6: Leonora Carrington,  Inn of the Dawn Horse (Self-Portrait), 
1937 

   

Fig. 6: Leonora Carrington, Inn of the Dawn Horse (Self-Portrait), 1937

 

Carrington painted her most famous work, The Inn of the Dawn Horse (Fig. 6), at the beginning of her career. She began the work in London, while still under the nominal control of her parents, and completed the painting in Paris, after moving in with the married Max Ernst and embarking on a life of unconventionality and sexual freedom.[9] The painting perfectly conveys this passage between two worlds. The white rocking horse of her childhood hangs upon the wall, no longer useful. This horse mirrors the white horse seen out the window, which is running into open countryside and freedom. Inside the confines of the room, a hyena with engorged teats and knowing eyes stretches out a delicate paw to make contact with the figure of Carrington. For her part, Carrington reaches back – with her hand in the traditional gesture of malediction – accepting the hyena’s overture. Meanwhile, Carrington’s wild, bushy hair echoes the shapes of the horses’ manes, as if in sympathy or incipient transformation. The painting explores a clear narrative of the transition from innocence and youth to sexual awakening and mature independence.

 Fig.
7: Leonora Carrington,  Green Tea (La dame
ovale),  1942 






  
  
   
  
  

  
  
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Fig. 7: Leonora Carrington, Green Tea (La dame ovale), 1942

Green Tea (Fig. 7) was painted in the aftermath of Carrington’s harrowing wartime experience. After living with Ernst for several years, she was left alone in their house in the country while Ernst was imprisoned in French concentration camps due to his German nationality.[10] Beset by loneliness and paranoia, she suffered a nervous breakdown and, following the intervention of her parents, ended up in “a Spanish madhouse.”[11] As part of her treatment, she was given the seizure-inducing shock therapy drug Cardiazol.[12] She documented these experiences in her autobiographical essay, Down Below, as part of a healing exercise she was induced to undertake by her friend and fellow Surrealist, Dr. Pierre Mabille.[13] In this work, she provided a description of a dream she had the night before the Cardiazol treatment, which is remarkably similar to the iconography in Green Tea"The place looked like the Bois de Boulogne; I was on top of a small ridge bordered with trees; at a distance below me, on the road, stood an obstacle like those I have often seen at the Horse Show; next to me, two big horses were tied together; I was impatiently waiting for them to jump over that fence. After long hesitations, the horses jumped and galloped down the slope. Suddenly a small white horse detached itself from them; the two big horses disappeared, and nothing was left on the road but the colt who rolled all the way down and remained on his back, dying. I myself was the white colt."[14] In Carrington’s painting, she stands on a small ridge, wrapped tightly in what appears to be a straight jacket. In the background is a manicured, park-like landscape. In the foreground, opposite the figure of Carrington, two animals are tied up: her personal avatars, the white horse and hyena. The hyena now has a vicious, rabid air as if desperate to escape, while the horse stands submissively, its free will denied. Carrington clearly identified deeply with the metaphors embodied by these animals, and used them as a way of wordlessly depicting the horror of her powerlessness.

 Fig. 8: Leonora Carrington,  The Giantess (The Guardian of the Egg) , 1947 






  
  
   
  
  

  
  
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Fig. 8: Leonora Carrington, The Giantess (The Guardian of the Egg), 1947

The Giantess (Fig. 8) offers a more redemptive view of her life as she moved past these struggles and settled into a relatively harmonious life in Mexico. The female figure’s power is evident in her size, her protective cloak and the rune-like pictographs running down the front of her gown. She is now on the other side of a threatening sea, and towers over the hunters who chase down the female spirit at the bottom right of the painting. In a reference both to this historical violation of women, and to the ultimate vindication of their power, Carrington has stated, "Most of us, I hope, are now aware that a woman should not have to demand Rights. The Rights were there from the beginning; they must be Taken Back Again, including the Mysteries which were ours and which were violated, stolen or destroyed, leaving us with the thankless hope of pleasing a male animal, probably of one’s own species [sic]."[15] In the painting, she harnesses both occult and maternal powers, gently protecting the egg at her chest – an alchemical symbol,[16] as well as a symbol of fertility. (This work was painted just after the birth of her first son.)[17] Significantly, manifested from within the protection of her cloak, a flock of geese takes flight. Carrington spoke of her identification with geese in a 1991 interview, saying that she “’should like to be a wild goose’: living on the wing.”[18] That she chose to depict herself as master of her world, of the powers of alchemy and fertility, with the freedom of a wild bird, shows how far Carrington had come from the tempests of her youth.

 

[1] Leonora Carrington, “Jezzamathatics or Introduction to the Wonderful Process of Painting” Leonora Carrington, ed. Juan García Ponce (Monterrey: Patronato de Promocíon de las Artes, 1979), unnumbered.

[2] Whitney Chadwick, “Leonora Carrington: Evolution of a Feminist Consciousness,” Woman’s Art Journal 7, no. 1 (1986): 37; and Lusty, Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, 40

[3] Ibid., 38.

[4] Aberth, Leonora Carrington, 79.

[5] Leonora Carrington, “The Debutante,” in What Did Mrs. Darrington See?: An Anthology of Feminist Supernatural Fiction, ed. Jessica Amanda Salmonson (New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1989), 201-204.

[6] Aberth, Leonora Carrington, 35; also Lusty, Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, 40.

[7] Lusty, Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, 40

[8] Shandler Levitt, The Genres and Genders of Surrealism, 83.

[9] Aberth, Leonora Carrington, 28-30.

[10] Leonora Carrington, Down Below (Chicago: Black Swan Press, 1983), 1-3

[11] Fernando Orgambides, “Leonora Carrington: No me arrepiento de mi vida.” El Pais, April 18, 1993, under “Archivos: Cultura,” http://elpais.com/diario/1993/04/18/cultura/735084001_8 50215.html (accessed September 30, 2012): “un manicomio español.” Translation mine.

[12] Aberth, Leonora Carrington, 48.

[13] Ibid., 44-49.

[14] Carrington, Down Below, 38. Italics hers.

[15] Leonora Carrington, “Commentary,” Leonora Carrington: A Retrospective Exhibition, ed. Nita M. Renfrew (New York: Center for Inter-American Relations: 1975), 23.

[16] Kaplan, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys, 181.

[17] Aberth, Leonora Carrington, 64.

[18] Shandler Levitt, The Genres and Genders of Surrealism, 83.