Women artists are often ignored and neglected by the art establishment, so it was pleasing to find that two of the exhibitions launching the reopening of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) are devoted to women. I’ve already written about the Eileen Gray exhibition in the main building, but the Garden Gallery was hosting a retrospective of the work of a neglected Surrealist – Leonora Carrington.
The Giantess (The Guardian of the Egg) (c. 1947)
I have to admit that I didn’t really know much about her. I knew her name but not much about her work. Which is perhaps criminal as I discovered during the exhibition that she was born in Clayton-le-Woods, just outside the town where I grew up! Her father was a wealthy textile manufacturer and her mother was Irish and she was influenced by the tales of Irish Folk lore told to her by her mother and Irish nanny – hence the IMMA were claiming her as one of their own – so the exhibition is subtitled “the Celtic Surrealist”. But I think I’m more than justified in claiming her for the Red Rose County where she was born and raised, and have taken the liberty of reflecting that in the title of the post.
She was a rebel all her life, being expelled from several schools, and led an exciting and adventurous, and, particularly during the war, difficult life, summed up nicely on the IMMA website
when she was 19, she moved to London and Paris, where she became a central figure in the Surrealist movement exhibiting with André Breton, Max Ernst and others. In 1940, following the internment of her lover Max Ernst, she suffered a mental breakdown after which she escaped from Lisbon to Mexico where she lived until her death in 2011 at the age of 94.
The following video, featuring interviews with Leonora, is an excerpt from the film Gifted Beauty (Ragg Film, 2000).
Now I’m not a great fan of surrealism. I can admire some of it and how it is painted but the subject matter often leaves me cold and sometimes induces a feeling of nausea. I guess that also sums up my feelings about Leonora’s work. I think her paintings, tapestries, sketches and sculptures that were on display showed that she was a very talented artist. Her technique and use of colour were extremely good. But her themes were very surreal, very much based on legends, fairy tales, dreams and nightmares – full of weird and frightening creatures, witches, semi-humans and women metamorphosing into animals. So although I found myself liking some of her paintings, I found it a little too much.
The Magdalens, 1986
Some notebooks from when she was a child displayed in the first room showed how she developed her interests in myths and legends from an early age.
The works were not arranged chronologically, but thematically. And to me this suggested that her work did not change over the years. Looking at the paintings in the various rooms it wasn’t easy to decide when they were painted – for that it was necessary to consult the labels beside them.
Green Tea (La Dame Ovale), 1942
Ulu’s Pants, 1952
Are you Really Syrious, 1953
Although most of the works were paintings, there were some sculptures and tapestries. I generally liked these, finding them easier to understand and less disturbing than the paintings.
I particularly liked this bronze displayed in the basement.
How doth the little Crocodile, c. 1988
It’s based on the Lewis Carroll poem which appears in his novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which describes how the creature lures fish into its mouth with a welcoming smile.
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!
There’s a large-scale version on display in Mexico City, popularly known as the Boat of Crocodiles.
I’m glad I saw the exhibition. I think I’d like seeing a small number of her paintings and other works but there were too many for me here to take in. To use a metaphor, her paintings were a little like rich food – good but too much at one go can make you feel sick and nauseous.
Following up on the visit, I came across an excellent series of posts with a detailed discussion of Leonora’s work which also includes pictures of her paintings and sculpture on this blog
Images of her paintings are also available here