In a Mirror in a Riddle

Lose yourself in Leonora Carrington’s dream vision: Arken will cradle you like a small speckled quail egg blessed by a sacred hand.

Leonora Carrington, Artes 110, 1944. The Stanley and Pearl Goodman Collection © Estate of Leonora Carrington / VISDA. Photo: Myrna Gonzàlez Tovar.

The resurgent interest in Surrealism seen at present, well over a hundred years after it first emerged as a movement, is not a phenomenon I claim to know much about. Certainly, the exhibition Leonora Carrington, just opened at Arken Museum of Modern Art, rides in on a wave of renewed attention to Surrealism. Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) was part of the Surrealist scene in Paris in the 1930s and later in Mexico City. This is the first major solo show of her works in Scandinavia, but not long ago visitors could trot in Covid-defying single file past a selection of her works in Louisiana’s exhibition Fantastic Women. This year’s Venice Biennale took its name from the title of a book by Carrington, namely Leche del sueño (The Milk of Dreams).

If I were to venture an opinion on the matter, the particular interest in Carrington’s works may be due to the fact that we recognise, in glimmers, some of the fierce fear that the Nazis installed in people during the Second World War. It drove Carrington to her mental breakdown in 1940 and to her subsequent migration, alongside many other artists fleeing fascism, from Europe to Mexico. If we do not feel the anxiety directly yet, snugly hidden away as we are in our Nordic land of plenty, it certainly lurks like a very vivid nightmare poised to spring from the dim shadow theatre of our blackout curtains as they flutter at bedtime. 

Fortunately, there is more than danger afoot in this exhibition. Carrington is not easy to pin down, a description she herself would have been quite pleased to own. Although her personal experiences and art are closely interwoven – a few select works by fellow artists and good friends can also be found in the exhibition – a ceaseless struggle for freedom and a determined resistance against constricting and reductive interpretations, intellectualisations, and patriarchal structures were constants in her life and artistic work. Her oeuvre is immense, and with a presentation of over a hundred works created over a period of seventy-six years, the curatorial team, led by art historian Naja Rasmussen and curator Sarah Fredholm, have had enough on their plates. The result is a delight.

Visitors are welcomed by the large, fantastic painting The Giantess (The Guardian of the Egg) from 1947. A mild-looking young woman stands in a landscape complete with leaping deer and hunters cavorting around her delicate bare feet, which are planted in the forest while sea creatures and sailors swarm out at sea. Dressed in an orange ankle-length dress that is also a hieroglyph-adorned stela, the woman reaches all the way up into the dark sky. Her face is the sun and the moon in one, surrounded by a golden mane of straw. The woman holds a bird’s egg in one tiny hand. The other hovers above the egg as if in a gesture of blessing. Her shoulders are draped by a white cloak from whose folds nine geese fly out and scatter in the sky, grey-black, white-brown.

I take wing with them to fly through gallery upon gallery filled with Carrington’s gothic, psychedelic pictures teeming with people, animals, and magical beings. Eggs held in hands form a luminous trail throughout the exhibition.

Formally, Carrington was a conventional painter. Almost all of the paintings in the exhibition, which also includes a number of woven carpets and a few smaller sculptures, are executed in a classic Northern European Renaissance tradition. Long, broad strokes of ochre lay down a mid-tone ground across a majority of the paintings. These strokes act as an almost invisible structure that connects the smaller, more delicately painted elements, which, once the dark and cold umber tones of the shadows have been put in place and the white highlights applied, unfold in the domain of colour, the upper layer of the paintings.

It will hardly go unnoticed that Carrington was strongly influenced by the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (ca 1450–1516). To my mind, Carrington is a little more anarchic, which is exactly what makes her paintings so very cool. They are by turns painted with zealous precision using the thinnest of brushes or cheerfully unfinished, raw, and almost clumsy in their insistence not on surface, but on perspectives unfettered by rules, on convulsively proportioned bodies; the egg in the hand is a turnip is a sugar cube is a poison pill is a mirror in a riddle.

Carrington’s works are incredibly detailed. Sometimes I get a little dazed and daunted by the confusing profusion of symbols, but I think it’s all about attitude. For while viewers will undoubtedly find an incredible number of multicultural symbols and references in Carrington’s works – where everything from mystical tarot, ancient Egyptian semiotics, Jungian dream interpretation, and religious insignia merge into rich worlds of people drinking tea in strange ways, attending weddings, or engaging in other exchanges – her symbolism is very idiosyncratic. Of course, this does not mean that the works can mean anything at all. Just look at the interesting catalogue created to accompany the exhibition, in which Carrington’s life and cultural interests are competently unpacked. For her own part, Carrington was fiercely opposed to explaining her art. To her, art was life as such: being in it with her  channels kept open, body and soul. I think we should try to surrender to that.

The conditions for losing oneself in the works are certainly optimal. On several occasions I found myself almost wanting to cry in front of the works. Quite apart from the artworks themselves, I believe this is also because the exhibition design creates, for me at least, a redeeming feeling of unpretentious safety and security. Wall colours such as dusty green and soft old pink play into the artist’s palette without being demonstrative. Elegant architectural touches in the form of room-dividing colonnades provide a soft rhythm as we pass through the exhibition. Furthermore, the milieu of which Carrington was a part is presented in simple wall texts without allowing biographical details to overpower the works. In short, the show succeeds in encapsulating Carrington’s oeuvre without pigeonholing her.

A single work differs from the others: a simple mask, sparsely shaped, almost like a sheet of paper with two pointed oval hollow eyes and a serrated mouth. It is the most miserable secret snowdrop letter the world has ever seen. Diamond tears fall from the eyes and splinter at the bottom of my soul.

Carrington wrote short gothic stories, often featuring young female protagonists, animated vegetables such as cabbages (which fight to the death) and carrots (which enjoy being cooked), animals with cyclopean eyes, by turns brutal and unhappily in love, and horses engaging in strange and wondrous dressage. The world presented in these tales is often horrifically dark – like her pictures, but worse – heaving with infanticide, cruel transformations, and carnivorous devouring of poor innocent nannies. The stories are often fragmentary and frequently end with jolting abruptness, just as we think a moral is about to unfold. Paintings and stories are two sides of the same coin for Carrington.

Carrington was able to paint and write with both hands, forward and backward, at the same time. I found an example of this while perusing a small untitled work on paper from 1942. Perhaps it is a preliminary study for Artes 110 (1944), which hangs next to it. The sketch-like drawing includes a flying squirrel, a horse tied to a tree, and some hard-to-decipher text so small and spidery that I might’ve easily overlooked it, believing it to be lines of pure abstraction. However, when I realised what it actually said, in reverse, it felt as if Carrington was telling me something: don’t go overboard on all the magical whimsy.

“I am always hungry / left hand / right hand 

My dinner is spoiled / again.”

Leonora Carrington, The Giantess (The Guardian of the Egg), 1947. Private collection © Estate of Leonora Carrington – VISDA. Photographer unknown.