Saturday 18 November 2017

Surrealist painter with an Irish glint

Aedn Gormley

She was one was one of the last surviving participants in the Surrealist movement of the 1930s and spent most of her adult life in Mexico, but was very influenced by Irish mythology and fairytales.

The first major retrospective in Ireland of the work of Leonora Carrington (1917 - 2011) is about to open at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. It's a timely rediscovery of Carrington's work, as she had enormous stature in Mexico but remained relatively unknown in Ireland.

Raised in England, she was the daughter of a British father and an Irish mother from Moate, Co Westmeath. IMMA curator Seán Kissane has been working on this retrospective for about four years and is a huge admirer of Carrington's work.

"Her interest in mythology came from Ireland with an Irish mother and nanny, so the children were raised on these completely fantastical stories from a very young age, connected with a Celtic twilight," Seán told me.

Seán described how Leonora completely rebelled against high society. She was from a very wealthy family and was all set for the marriage market, but she ran away with the artist Max Ernst. "It was a huge shock and it wasn't rebellion for the sake of it, she used this energy to create incredible pieces, almost from the moment she left home in 1937."

Her personal story is extraordinary. With the outbreak of World War II, Ernst was arrested but managed to escape. He left Carrington behind and travelled to America with the help of Peggy Guggenheim. Leonora suffered a mental breakdown and was institutionalised. She eventually fled to Mexico where she lived until her death in 2011 at the age of 94.

Seán feels that there is something very truthful about Leonora. She went through an awful lot but was a very honest person and very determined. It's clear to see that the move to Mexico was good for her. She was comfortable there and felt that the Mexicans were like the Irish.

I wonder though, about entitling this exhibition 'The Celtic Surrealist'. Seán agrees that 'Celtic' is a terrible word and that we all rebel against it. However, with the international interest in this exhibition and in terms of the way Leonora observed these mythical stories into her work, he believes the word is correct.

"With this exhibition I'm really thinking about the Spanish language audience and North American audience, a lot of people are travelling for the exhibition and it's more readily understood as a term."

The works are mainly coming from Mexico, with some from North America and Britain. "Her biggest patron was Edward James, he amassed a collection of more that 100 of her paintings, but when he died his enormous collection was broken up, so there are about 10 paintings in the UK now and we have been lucky to get about seven of those."

Part of the reason this artist is little known in Ireland is that she didn't want to promote herself and it was extremely hard to get access to her. She didn't like to deal with the press and tended to move galleries frequently. It really is quite something to have this impressive retrospective in a Dublin gallery. It consists of some 30 paintings, six sculptures, four tapestries and 30 works on paper from the 1940s onwards. It holds a particular focus on the imagery that enchanted her as a child and on the cultural influences of Mexico.

'The Celtic Surrealist' is curated by Seán Kissane, Curator: Exhibitions, IMMA. It opens on the 18 September in the Garden Galleries (formerly the New Galleries) at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. See

Aedín Gormley presents Movies and Musicals (Sat 1-4pm) and Sunday Matinée (Sun 1-4pm) on RTÉ Lyric FM.

Irish Independent

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