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Frida Kahlo despised being called a Surrealist. She deemed the term a European invention and a misreading of her work. But Surrealism’s leader, André Breton, disregarded her protests, calling her “a young woman endowed with all the gifts of seduction, one accustomed to the company of men of genius.” She was from Mexico, which, to him and his male peers, was “the Surrealist place par excellence,” overflowing with dreamlike imagery. Breton’s commentary sums up much of Surrealism’s chauvinism and pompousness, as it shamelessly coopted another’s culture and regarded women artists as muses. “The problem of woman is the most marvelous and disturbing problem in all the world,” Breton famously proclaimed in his second Surrealist manifesto in 1929. This fascination was particularly directed to women under the age of about 25 — the femme enfant, or woman-child — whose mystical, erotic, and naïve spirit bewitched and aided men in channeling their irrational side.
Kahlo was not alone in her frustrations. As Whitney Chadwick brilliantly documents in her 1985 book Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, the majority of women artists associated with Surrealism did not identify with it — they were uninterested in unleashing the subconscious through illogical, uncanny compositions. Rather, they articulated their work in much more personal and purposeful terms, often grounded in autobiography. “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality,” Kahlo once said. And while it’s notable how many women participated in Surrealism, albeit on the sidelines, the movement was sexist even as it pretended to exalt women and encourage their liberation. (A somewhat indignant Meret Oppenheim countered this view when she told Chadwick, “Personally I consider the problem of female versus male as solved, although I know that many have not arrived at this point.”)
To understand the macho, egocentric nature of Surrealism and the eliding of women artists of this time, you need look no further than the fiercely imaginative and belatedly recognized artist Leonora Carrington. Born in 1917 to an overbearing, well-to-do family in Lancashire, England, Carrington entered Surrealist circles upon falling in love with the revered artist Max Ernst, who was 26 years her senior. Together they lived idyllically in the French countryside, making art and hosting festive dinner parties where Carrington served up omelettes with locks of her hair. Their romance, however, came to an abrupt halt with World War II, when Ernst was interned at a concentration camp. Carrington shortly thereafter went to Madrid, where she suffered a nervous breakdown and was taken to an insane asylum.
Carrington could’ve been the perfect profile for a femme enfant: in her early twenties, beautiful, eccentric, and subject to a bout of insanity. As Chadwick explains, for the femme enfant, “[t]he element of instability, often bordering on madness, … was as much a part of her image as was her naiveté.” Breton, who wrote Nadja, a novel based on his romance with a woman who went mad, was captivated by Carrington’s episode — he believed that insanity in a woman gave her visionary power, becoming even more transporting and mythical in men’s eyes. As Chadwick writes, Breton rendered the mad woman “a subject for scientific and poetic inquiry,” where she in turn was “passive, powerless, and at the mercy of the unconscious.”
But Carrington avidly rejected the label of a femme enfant. As she put it in 1983, “I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse … I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.” Similarly, while trapped in an insane asylum, she was too busy either suffering unfathomable pain from the Cardiozal injections that induced seizures or hallucinating naked and strapped to a bed, as she lay in her own feces. There was nothing glorifying about her condition. “It was very much like having been dead,” she later said.
Carrington wrote about her time at the asylum three years after being released, in 1944, and at the suggestion of Breton. By this time, she was already living in Mexico City, where she moved after marrying a Mexican diplomat to escape her controlling family. She would remain in Mexico City until her death in 2011, leading an autonomous artistic life and becoming increasingly feminist in her outlook. In that vein, Down Below is not about a surreal spell of madness, but is a startlingly lucid book that on the one hand demystifies mental illness, and on the other reveals how the episode brought her clarity and power of mind. Indeed, this slim but heavy account, just reissued by the New York Review Books, makes it difficult to treat Carrington as a passive, otherworldly specimen to analyze as she breaks down her own experience.
As someone who had only really known Carrington’s visual art, I found myself questioning the Surrealist interpretations that surround it upon reading Down Below, and my suspicions were only confirmed upon learning more about her life and reading more of her writing. In addition to Down Below, the New York Review Books has published a collection of her illustrated children’s stories, The Milk of Dreams, and the Dorothy Project issued a complete anthology of her short stories, which span the 1930s to the ’70s. Taken together, this body of work, which isn’t widely known, illuminates the artist’s profound and lifelong investigation into the self and articulates her vision of the world, which was definitely not Surrealist.
It’s easy to mistake Carrington’s paintings of animal and human hybrids in fantastical landscapes for Surrealist art. But her images aren’t fanciful because she made free, irrational associations like her male peers. Rather, her art is a reflection of a serious and real affinity with animals, as she consciously drew on the Celtic legends on which her Irish mother and nanny raised her. From a young age, Carrington absorbed stories about animals that had telepathic powers, especially the horse, which in both her art and writing appears as her sort of alter-ego — such as in her famous self-portrait from 1937–38, where she portrays herself with mane-like hair, beside a rocking horse, while a real horse runs in the distance. She is also in the company of a hyena, an animal that appears in Carrington’s story “The Debutante” (also from 1937–38), where it saves a young girl from her social obligations by killing a housemaid and ripping her face off to wear as a disguise.
“I think animals have everything — maybe a bit more than we have, but I believe that human beings are animals,” Carrington said in an interview with Hans Ulrich Olbrist. In her children’s stories, a beautiful, cruel boy finds his equal in a grinning crocodile and an imaginative youth has wings for ears, allowing him to fly. The illustrations feel like sketches for Carrington’s paintings, allowing you to contemplate individual characters — like a vulture stuck in gelatin or a six-legged monster — that seem to convene in her more elaborate landscapes.
Her short stories reveal a solitary world where humans are cruel, “whip” vegetables, and have a “sickening smell.” Company is only found in animals — as one character remarks, “I have few friends and am glad to have a horse for a friend.” Carrington’s writing style is matter of fact, unfazed by its absurd descriptions and oftentimes violent events. She sneaks in strange, evocative details without calling attention to them, such as a gentleman’s “white hands gesturing like an elephant’s trunk” or a woman’s “long hair, always full with nocturnal animals.” What we see as fantasy, Carrington experienced as real. “Even though you won’t believe me / my story is beautiful,” she writes in a coda to a story.
Down Below is similarly steeped in its own logic, whereby Carrington’s possessions, like night creams and a nail buff, have cosmic powers, and she at turns becomes a car, the Sun, or the Moon, and where an unpleasant nurse is perceived as a vacuum cleaner. Carrington rationalized her experiences at the asylum in terms of both her Celtic upbringing and fascination with alchemical transformation. In describing the initial stages of her breakdown, she writes, “I was still limited to my own solar system, and was not aware of other people’s systems.” But she would eventually become painfully and acutely attuned to them. “I suddenly became aware that I was both mortal and touchable and that I could be destroyed. I didn’t think so before,” she reflected years later.
In her memoir and fiction — and, in retrospect, her visual art as well — Carrington strives to understand people’s “systems;” to peer into them and visualize all their beautiful or ugly selves, often through animal incarnations, as in fables. Evil characters have hair “like black vipers” or “a little bird’s laugh,” and good ones have skin that glints like stars. In Pamela Robertson-Pearce’s 2000 film about women Surrealist artists, Gifted Beauty, Carrington advises, “We have to listen to the soul … and to know when it’s a soul. … Each soul has a daemon.” It seems to me that both her writing and visual art takes up this very exercise — a kind of study of the human soul.
Carrington wasn’t interested in letting the mind go and seeing where it might wander, but rather wanted to probe and question it more deeply. She considered this gift specific to the artist, whom she described as a kind of magician — though her magic wasn’t used to bewitch men, but to give her independence. “A soul is very important,” Carrington reiterates in Gifted Beauty. “You have to own your soul as far as it’s possible. … To hand it over to some half-assed male — I wouldn’t recommend it.”