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The figure in Leonora Carrington’s ‘The Giantess’ (c.1947) towers above land and sea, gazing away from the viewer as a flock of wild geese escapes from her cloak and swirls around her magnified form. A hybrid, with flame-like sheaves of wheat for hair and a round face as pale as the moon, she is a creature that belongs somewhere beyond reality. Feet pressed into the earth as though she has just landed, she stands in the greenish haze of the sea – mesmerising and powerful.
So too is the magnetic creature at the centre of Elena Poniatowska’s Leonora, a fictionalised account of the eventful life of the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington (1917- 2011), now the subject of a major retrospective at Tate Liverpool. Based on years of conversation and friendship with the avant-garde artist, Poniatowska weaves the loves, losses and dreams of one woman’s life into an elaborate tapestry that spans place and time.
Growing up in a stifling upper class family in rural Lancashire, Leonora was born a rebel. A source of endless frustration to the industrial magnate Harold Carrington –the father she both resents and resembles – she is repeatedly expelled from a series of Catholic schools. From an early age she is a ‘restless soul,’ living in a world of her imagination infused with the Celtic mythology passed down by her mother and devoted nanny. Poniatowska attempts to trace the roots of Carrington’s artistic preoccupations and motifs in these childhood years, as she describes Leonora’s intense kinship with her horse Winkie – ‘“We two are one,” she tells her mother’ – and obsession with hyenas, images that would later recur throughout the artist’s work. As she approaches adulthood, Leonora is unable to toe the line of an obedient debutante and rejects the conventional future prepared for her, insisting that her only intention is to enrol at art school. Abandoning a world of privilege, she enters a whirlwind that will become her life.
Leonora steps into the heart of the bohemian world of Surrealism when she meets Max Ernst at the Chelsea College of Arts, beginning a long love affair with the German artist, married and 26 years her senior. In Paris, she mixes with the names that define twentieth century art and literature (Marcel Duchamp, André Breton, Paul Eluard, Man Ray, Lee Miller, to name but a few). Poniatowska dwells on this period of Leonora’s life, and although this stage was certainly crucial for the artist’s self-discovery, at times the narrative thrust loses itself in a blur of big names, libertine parties and intellectual chatter. Germany’s declaration of war on France brings a new focus to the story when Ernst – a source of suspicion as both a German and a Jew – is arrested and transported to a concentration camp. Isolated and in despair, Leonora suffers a nervous breakdown and at the behest of her family, is herself imprisoned in a sanatorium in Spain. Some of the novel’s most painful moments occur in this episode, as the surrealist fascination with madness becomes her painful reality.
When a real-life deus ex machina encounter with a Mexican diplomat enables her escape, Leonora embarks on a future of exile in Mexico that brings both sorrow and renewal.
The narrative races through these events and relationships at a gallop, a pace that reflects Leonora’s impulsive inner life but which offers little space to breathe. At points, the subjective experience is sacrificed as historical characters and events dictate the focus of the plot, highlighting the challenges posed by this literary experiment. Although it is based on a true story, Poniatowska states: ‘I call it a novel, for it has no pretensions whatsoever to being a biography, but is instead a free approximation to the life of an exceptional artist.’ Like Leonora’s belief that she is a hybrid, ‘a mare riding through the night,’ and the mythical creatures that suffuse her paintings, this ‘novel’ defies fixed boundaries. Though it is a fascinating tribute to a complex life, the narrative suffers from its own boundlessness – there is too much to take in.
However, when Poniatowska immerses herself in Leonora’s perspective, the effect is entrancing: ‘Every day the Carringtons walk the Westmeath roads and out of the mist come shades that assume the form of birds and lambs, occasionally of a fox, and frequently of horses like those Leonora so loves.’ ‘Leonora walks without registering the distance she covers. Walking is her salvation. Watching the asphalt disappear beneath her feet is like watching water flow by. “I am a pirate and I am all-powerful!”’ In these lines, the external world seems to shift and melt away, animated by the artist’s vision.
Offering a window into the character behind Carrington’s fantastical paintings, Leonora: A Novel invites the reader to gaze at the world reflected in the artist’s eyes.