“Houses are really bodies,” Leonora Carrington writes in her 1974 novella The Hearing Trumpet. “We connect ourselves with walls, roofs, and objects just as we hang onto our livers, skeletons, flesh, and blood streams.” Like bodies, homes are intimate places, and Carrington was staunchly private with hers. The British expat lived much of her long life in Mexico, but she also resided in mansions, pensions, apartments, and cottages in London, Paris, Florence, Madrid, Lisbon, New York, Chicago, and other locales. We know from Carrington’s writing that home was an essential, even corporeal concept. How did the many places in which she lived shape who she was and how she made art?
In Surreal Spaces: The Life and Art of Leonora Carrington (Princeton University Press, 2023), the British journalist and writer Joanna Moorhead explores how each of the artist’s homes marked her life and work. Moorhead revisits all of Carrington’s former residences, seeking traces of the artist in their surrounding landscapes, climates, and communities. Crucially, many of these locations have changed little since the artist left them, allowing Moorhead plenty of room to excavate fascinating details about Carrington’s life.
Carrington was an enigmatic, at times reclusive painter who defied labels and often refused interviews. Lucky for us, Moorhead had special access to her: Carrington is a distant cousin. And even though the artist left the United Kingdom at age 20 to escape her stormy family dynamics, she granted Moorhead a rare welcome at 194 Calle Chihuahua, her longtime Mexico City home. From 2006 until Carrington’s death in 2011 at age 94, Moorhead spent countless hours in conversation at the artist’s kitchen table. In a sense, this book picks up where those moments left off, with Moorhead following her subject’s international journey.
Moorhead’s investigation reveals that some of Carrington’s most mysterious creations are inspired by real places from her past. For example, the bleak, shell-like structure looming in the background of “Bird Bath II” (1978) is a depiction of Crookhey Hall, the vast Victorian manor where Carrington spent formative years of her childhood. And the eerie garden in “Down Below” (1940) is inspired by the large park around the Santander sanatorium, where Carrington was confined for six months during World War II. Learning about the very real traumas and experiences behind these fantastical paintings makes them all the more poignant.
The artist spent much of her life in urban centers, but she also enjoyed pivotal moments of transformation in more rural settings. Moorhead explores Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche, a scenic village in southern France where Carrington and her lover, Max Ernst, lived from 1938 to 1940. The couple bought and remodeled an old farmhouse on the outskirts of town, and though the property has never been opened to the public, Moorhead gained access and the book shares the stunning two- and three-dimensional murals that the two artists created on the home’s interior and exterior walls. We also learn about Carrington’s heart-wrenching decision to flee the home while Ernst was interned as an enemy alien and falsely accused of espionage, not knowing if she’d ever reunite with her lover.
Moorhead sheds light on Carrington’s time living alone in New York and Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s, and it’s a joy to learn about her avid involvement with women’s movements there. But the author really shines when writing about sharing tea and tequila with Carrington in Mexico. In an especially tender anecdote that reveals the cousins’ close bond — and Carrington’s ceaseless curiosity — Moorhead recalls sitting beside Carrington’s bed one afternoon as the artist seemed to be napping. Suddenly, Carrington sat up. “Why do you think there have been so few women artists through history,” she exclaimed, referencing not the dearth of women artists but their relative level of success compared to male counterparts, “when there have been so many women writers?”
The Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in Mexico City began restoring Carrington’s home in 2018, but the museum is not yet open to the public. While we await its completion, Surreal Spaces offers more than enough to enjoy. The book is a rare combination of meticulous research and personal warmth. Moorhead offers us something so few had access to: a glimpse of this groundbreaking artist at home — in each one of them.
Surreal Spaces: The Life and Art of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorhead (2023) is published by Princeton University Press and is available online and in bookstores.