Leonora Carrington at Tate Liverpool

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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.

British Surrealism at Abbot Hall

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There’s No Time Like The Future, (1957) by Desmond Morris

Last Saturday we drove up the M6 to Abbot Hall in Kendal to see the British Surrealist exhibition which has been on for a little while now. In fact it was the last day, so our last chance to see it. I’m not a great fan of Surrealism, but, as has been the case with other Surrealist exhibitions I’ve seen I found I liked some of the works on display, finding some others interesting, even if they didn’t move me, with others I didn’t like.

There were other works included in the exhibition that were not really Surrealist and others that had a connection with the movement and had some Surrealist features or elements, including work by Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, John Piper and the sculptor, F E McWilliam. As the Gallery’s publicity for the exhibition pointed out

unlike other key artistic movements, surrealism has never had a single overriding visual aesthetic, and has constantly reinvented its means of poetic expression.

The main works were by British Surrealists, many I’d not heard of before and there were some interesting discoveries. So I came away feeling quite satisfied as it’s good to make such discoveries. The works in the exhibition were all collected by a Leeds G.P. who was also a Tory Councillor in Leeds andin that capacity was heavily involved in the Leeds City Art Gallery. Ironic that he was a Tory, really, as the majority of the artists he collected were on the left politically.

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Twilight Symphony, (1954) by John Banting

My favourite works were a couple of large sculpture by F E McWilliam – Spanish Head and The Long Arm, both inspired by the Spanish Revolution, the latter representing the clenched fist salute of the Republican side. I was also fascinated by some paintings and small sculptures by Desmond Morris – the author of the “Naked Ape”, who was also one of the presenters on “Zoo Time” which was a children’s TV programme when I was a boy. The paintings in particular were very good. One was used as the main image for publicising the exhibition.

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An interesting collection and well worth the trip up to Kendal, which is a pleasant place to visit, especially on a sunny Saturday. The next exhibition at Abbot Hall will be devoted to Barbara Hepworth and, like the Lynn Chadwick exhibition last year, will also include some larger works on display in the grounds of Blackwell. That’s something I’m looking forward to.

Leonora Carrington: The Lancashire Surrealist

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

Graham Sutherland at Abbot Hall


Estuary (1946) Gouache and crayon on paper Bequeathed to Abbot Hall Art Gallery in 1992 © Estate of Graham Sutherland

The latest exhibition at the Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal is devoted to the work of the British artist, Graham Sutherland (1903-1980). His work included  abstract landscapes, still life, figure pieces, religious  subjects and portraits – including a notorious portrait of Winston Churchill which the former Prime Minister’s hated so much that it was destroyed by his widow.

As title of the exhibition, Exultant Strangeness: Graham Sutherland Landscapes, indicates, it’s devoted to one aspect of his work. But it’s a comprehensive survey, covering the whole of his career. I’m reasonably familiar with his work, especially after seeing a good selection of his paintings on display in St David’s, Pembrokeshire, a few years ago.   Although I like abstract works, there is something about his style, with the strange, surrealistic shapes and the muddy colours, that just doesn’t appeal to me. But I went to the Abbot Hall with an open mind.

During the early part of his career, in the early 1920s, Sutherland specialised in producing etchings and the first room was devoted to this aspect of his work. According to the information panel in this room, he turned to painting after the bottom dropped out of the etchings market in the USA at the tie of the Wall Street Crash. The prints displayed were very different ot his later works. They were realistic, figurative pictures, influenced by the likes of Samuel Palmer. And they show that Sutherland was a talented draftsman and skilled print-maker.

I’m not sure that the following was in the exhibition, but it gives a good impression of this aspect of his work.

Graham Sutherland OM, ‘Pecken Wood’ 1925

Pecken Wood 1925 Picture source Tate website

Turning to painting his work became abstract and he was clearly influenced by the surrealists – he participated in the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936.

This is an example of his work from this period

Graham Sutherland, Narrow Road between Hedges, 1938-9

Narrow Road between Hedges (1938-9) Oil on canvas
© Estate of Graham Sutherland

Looking at it the last thing that came to mind was a road between hedges. It looked more like a couple of slugs, or prawns on a plate. And I found the colours horrible and muddy.

There were some paintings I liked, though. This one especially.

Graham Sutherland, Limestone Quarry, Working at the Cliff Face, 1943

Graham Sutherland Limestone Quarry, Working at the Cliff Face (1943)
Gouache and wax crayon on cardboard © Estate of Graham Sutherland

It was created during his time as a war artist. The overall style was very reminiscent of the works of John Piper from this period, particularly the Welsh landscapes I’d seen in Cardiff and Manchester. And the figures were very similar to those drawn by Henry Moore of miners and people sheltering in the London Underground during the war.

I also quite liked his painting of some hills in Pembrokeshire – ‘Western Hills’ (1938-41) – although I wasn’t sure about the shape of the hills – and this small painting of a small boulder

Graham Sutherland, Small Boulder, 1940

Small Boulder (1940) Watercolour The Radev Collection © Estate of Graham Sutherland

I found that I generally preferred his watercolours and drawings to his oil paintings.

The last room concentrated on later works. I wasn’t taken with them. They were particularly muddy and I wasn’t particularly impressed by his composition and draftsmanship.

Leaving the exhibition, my overall view of Sutherland’s work hadn’t changed. However it was worthwhile visiting as I learned more about him and his work. I found his etchings interesting and the picture of the limestone quarry showed a different aspect of his work which I’ll probably investigate further.