"Painting is my vehicle of transit.
I don't always know where I am going or what it means"
Creating a film about someone's life is always difficult. Some are more challenging than others, depending on the complexity, scope and intellect of the person you are presenting. In the case of Leonora Carrington, the assignment is challenging to the extreme, and consequently extraordinarily worthwhile.
To place Ms. Carrington in context, the year was 1917 and the British monarch George V was on the throne when she was born on April 6th. One of four children and the only daughter, her parents had designs for her presentation at court and subsequent English society marriage. She was presented at court in 1936, but Leonora had very different ideas for her life beyond that day.
Nearly from birth, she felt the constraints placed on girls of that era. She chaffed under the "rules" and societal restrictions were to become themes woven into her paintings and writings throughout her life. Sent to Catholic school at an early age, she was never satisfied with merely listening to her teachers. If she had questions, she expected answers. Further aggravating her instructors was the fact that she was ambidextrous and extremely facile at mirror writing, which she used for her assignments. She was expelled by two convents for what each termed, "rebellious behavior." One wrote a letter to her family stating, "This child does not collaborate with either work or play." She poignantly said many years later, "All they had to do was hold it up to a mirror and they could have read it."
Celtic mythology and fairy tales, the stories of her childhood, were told to her by the Irish women in her life - her mother, grandmother and nanny. These tales, filled with animals, goddesses, and magic, began to shape the world and thoughts of this innately inquisitive girl. They remain with her today and continue to influence her art and writing.
Both painting and writing began at an early age, as she created and illustrated her own stories. Into her teens, her parents continued to view her pursuit of painting as merely a pastime, "…I suppose they thought it kept me off the streets," Ms. Carrington would later say. But it was just this pastime that would soon cause Harold Carrington to reject his daughter.
She saw her first surrealist painting at the age of ten with her mother at a gallery in Paris. She met her first surrealist artist at a London dinner party ten years later. Seldom do dinner parties transform a life as dramatically as this. The artist was Max Ernst and the two were immediately enthralled with one another. Leaving behind the life her parents planned, she left London to follow Ernst to Paris and pursue the life she had always envisioned.
There were two idyllic years before the war ensnared the couple. As the Nazis were entering France, Ernst was arrested as an enemy alien and imprisoned a second time. Leonora had been able to arrange his release from the first arrest but that was not to happen now. Nearing complete emotional exhaustion, friends helped her escape France, crossing the Pyrenees into Spain.
The cold reach of her father however awaited her arrival. Through contacts with the British embassy, he learned of his daughter's emotional state and took the extreme step of having her institutionalized at an asylum in the town of Santander. The treatments that followed should have never happened, should never have been allowed. Leonora later chronicled those bleak months in her journal like story, "Down Below."
At her core, woven deeply within her art and life experiences is a voice. A voice that continues to surface from the depths of suppression, war, love, ecstasy and heartache. It is this voice that will be discovered and brought forth. From her home in Mexico City, she is our guide allowing us to verbally and visually enter the world she continues to create, experiencing a life and career that is and has been magical and horrific. The paintings we film dissolve to expose concrete locales. Her stories, like her paintings, reveal a childhood, great love, a flight from Nazi occupation, a cruel asylum and at last a welcoming country and home. We watch and listen with fascination and awe, while at 93 she continues to weave her magic.
Sadly, Leonora passed away May 25, 2011. She was 94.