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Leonora Carrington: The Celtic Surrealist

— January 2014

Associated media

Leonora Carrington, The Giantess (The Guardian of the Egg), 1947 circa, Tempera on wood panel, 117 x 68 cm, Collection Miguel S. Escobedo, © Estate of Leonora Carrington / ARS

Until 26 January there is still time to see the first major retrospective in Ireland of the work of Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, in the Garden Galleries (formerly the New Galleries) at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. ‘The Celtic Surrealist’ is a timely rediscovery of one of the last Surrealist painters and her role in the Surrealist art movement. Carrington is known for her figurative dreamscapes filled with extraordinary and complex narratives informed by her rich interest in mythology, alchemy, fairy tales and the occult. This exhibition of some 30 paintings, six sculptures, four tapestries and 30 works on paper from the 1940s onwards, holds a particular focus on the imagery that enchanted her as a child and on the cultural influences of Mexico.

‘The Celtic Surrealist’focuses in particular on the imagery that enchanted Carrington as a child and on the influence of Mexico on her later work. This exhibition explores her work thematically rather than chronologically, themes such as metamorphosis and transformation which are constant in her work. Carrington’s is a hybrid world full of strange and slightly disconcerting figures - creatures half-human-half-horse, elongated women, people changing into birds; transformations seen in works such as The Giantess (The Guardian of the Egg), c.1947 or Edwardian Hunt Breakfast, 1956. Certain works refer directly to the history or folklore of Ireland while others highlight the influence of Mexican culture in her fantastic imagery. Writing has always been a creative activity of equal importance as painting to Carrington, an area which has not been explored to any great extent in an exhibition before, so here the paintings are supplemented with unpublished manuscripts and illustrations, all offering a rich visual experience for the reader. 

Commenting on the exhibition Seán Kissane, Curator: Exhibitions, IMMA, said; Despite her prominence in Mexico and the USA, the work of Leonora Carrington is little-known in Ireland. Aside from a small sculpture recently donated to IMMA by the Mexican Government, no work is held in public collections in Ireland. She is not on any of the school or university curricula, and yet every study made of her work asserts the importance which her Irish background held for her and the construction of her myriad images – both in word and painting. We hope that this exhibition will offer the timely chance to make her astonishing work available to a wider audience, in Ireland and far beyond.

Between 1937 and 1947, Carrington was most closely aligned to the Surrealist movement. The importance of her writing was recognized by the leader of the movement, André Breton, who included her comic short-story ‘The Debutante’ in his Anthology of Black Humour, 1940. Incidentally she was the only woman-writer included in that book, which was both a mark of respect and an indication of the wider situation for creative women who were marginalized by their male peers. She was the archetype for a Surrealist artist: a writer, a painter, a sculptor, a weaver, a mother. During her incarceration in Spain, she experienced madness first-hand, an experience which her Surrealist brothers sought to recreate using mind-altering drugs. She was ‘Irish’ and equipped with the knowledge of that race’s fairy tales and myths, which were central to the Surrealist ideal, as evidenced by André Breton’s Surrealist Map of the World, 1937.

Leonora Carrington (Lancashire 1917–Ciudad de México 2011) was the daughter of a British father and an Irish mother from Moate, Co Westmeath. In 1936, when she was 19, she moved to London and Paris, where she became a central figure in the Surrealist movement later 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 Celtic Surrealistforms part of IMMA’s programme of painting exhibitions, which has included major exhibitions by Frida Kahlo  and Diego Rivera, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

The Celtic Surrealistis curated by Seán Kissane, Curator: Exhibitions, IMMA.

A fully-illustrated catalogue, published by IMMA and DAP, New York, accompanies the exhibition. It includes contributions from specialists Dawn Ades, Teresa Arcq, Giulia Ingarao, Seán Kissane, Alyce Mahon, Carrington’s son Gabriel Weisz, and an interview between the artist and Hans Ulrich Obrist.

For more on women Surrealists, see 'A ritual journey into Wonderland' in Cassone, June 2012

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