Leonora Carrington at Tate Liverpool


About 18 months ago I visited an exhibition about the Surrealist artist, Leonora Carrington at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. I’d never heard of her at the time and was surprised that she’d been born in Clayton-le-Woods, just outside the town where I grew up. She didn’t find fame in her own country through. Rebelling against her upper class background she ran off the Paris with the Surrealist Max Ernst and then, during the war, following a series of events which included spending some time in an asylum in Spain, she ended up in Mexico, where she remained for the rest of her life and where se is recognised as an important artist.

The Tate in Liverpool currently have an exhibition of her work and we went to see it on Saturday. Their website tells us:

The exhibition explores Carrington’s diverse creative practice, taking a selection of key paintings made throughout her career as its starting point. A prolific painter, the exhibition explores how Carrington established her distinctive take on surrealism.

The Dublin exhibition was a major retrospective of her work. The Tate’s is more modest but still has a good number of her works, a few of which I’d already seen in Dublin. The majority were from her time in Mexico although there were some earlier paintings and etchings in one of the rooms, including some paintings of the “Sisters of the Moon”, painted when she was a teenager and which illustrate her early interest in fantasy,  magic and the occult.

It was notable that most of he works on display where from private collections rather than from major public galleries. I think this reflects her “status”. In Mexico she is considered to be a significant artist but she is relatively unknown elsewhere and overshadowed by more well known Surrealists who worked in Europe.

One aspect of her work featured in the Liverpool exhibition that hadn’t been covered in Dublin was her work for the theatre – including masks, costume designs and sketches. I particularly liked the three masks on display created for a production of the Tempest. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any pictures of them on-line and, of course, photography wasn’t allowed in the exhibition.

After visiting the Dublin exhibition I commented

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.

For me, the Liverpool was just right and I came away feeling satisfied rather than overwhelmed.

Leonora Carrington: The Lancashire Surrealist


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

Leonora Carrington, Ulu's Pants, 1952, Oil and tempera on panel, 55 x 91 cm, Private Collection, © Estate of Leonora Carrington / ARS

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

Part 1    Part 2   Part 3

Images of her paintings are also available here

Autumn at the IMMA

The main building at Irish Museum of Modern Art at Kilmainhaim re-opened recently. I called in while I was in Dublin last weekend as I wanted to see the new exhibition about Eileen Gray which had transferred from the Beaubourg in Paris and to see the other new exhibitions, including the retrospective on the work of the Surrealist artist, Leonora Carrington which is showing in the Garden Gallery. There were also a couple of other exhibitions in the main building – “One Foot in the Real World“, showing works from the Galley’s permanent collection, and “In the Line of Beauty” that features the works of some younger contemporary Irish artists.

I’ll be writing up my impressions of the exhibitions in the near future. But while I was there, and as it was a fine autumn day, I took some time out to wander round the grounds. The change of the seasons meant it looked different compared to when I was last there at the end of June.

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