Leonora Carrington: Animal Soul

A rebel sprit and animal soul fighting for equality of all forms of life

By La Galleria Nazionale

Caballos by Leonora CarringtonLa Galleria Nazionale

The fairy-tale imaginary

Leonora Carrington was born on 6 April 1917 in Lancashire. Her father was a wealthy industrialist, her mother was a noblewoman of Irish descent.

Her childhood was marked by reading authors such as William Wymark Jacobs, James Stephens, Lewis Carroll, Beatrix Potter and Edward Lear.

Imaginaries that will influence her first writing exercises, along with maternal tales on Irish folklore. The liberating, playful and fairytale component typical of dreams will always be apparent in her works.

Against rules

Her rebellious spirit led her to be expelled from the Catholic college where she had been enrolled by her parents, immediately showing an aversion to the social rules imposed on her as a woman and belonging to an upper-middle-class family.

“They say it's not proper for girls to do the things boys do. I have three brothers. They can always do whatever they want just because they are boys. It's not fair... When I grow up I want to shave...” Leonora Carrington

The first painting

In the early 1930s, Leonora returned to England after having spent a period of artistic training in Italy to enrol at the Chelsea School of Art in London, at the time directed by Amédée Ozenfant.

Her first painting dates back to this period: Portrait of Joan Powell, in which she portrays her roommate holding a copy of Jean Cocteau's Les Enfants Terribles (The Holy Terrors).

Meeting Surrealism

In 1936, on the occasion of the first surrealist exhibition in London, she came into contact with the surrealist movement. That same year she met Max Ernst, one of the key figures of the movement. It was love at first sight.

He was forty-six, she was nineteen, and with her innocent and perverse charm embodied the surrealist ideal of the femme-enfant. The couple first moved to Paris in 1938, the year in which Leonora took part in the Exposition International du Surréalisme in Paris, and Amsterdam and later in Saint-Martin-d'Arde in Provence.

The dreamlike dimension

In 1937 she wrote and published her first short story, La maison de la peur. The Freudian psychoanalytic reading of the dream provided surrealists with the opportunity to study another dimension, creating free images, liberated from reason and logic.

In Leonora's dream dimension, the concepts of attraction and rejection are inverted: hybrid, animalistic, monstrous figures not only do not arouse horror, but posses strong erotic traits.

The books and paintings are populated by various animal figures, the horse and the hyena especially are reoccurring characters: they represent the hidden aspects of human nature, the wild instincts that are domesticated.

“Each of us possesses an animal soul…” (Leonora Carrington)

Crow catcher (1990) by Leonora CarringtonLa Galleria Nazionale

Bestial Women

Most stories from the forties feature female figures with an uncertain biological and sexual identity, where human and animal traits coexist: solitary and transgressive young people who live outside the social context and refuse to submit to its rules.

The horrid

Several works feature frightening images: blood, corpses, cannibalism and murder are presented as customary and legitimate acts. The theatrical staging, typical of dreams, is translated in the paintings through a painstaking reproduction of details.

Insanity’s abyss

Ernst was for Leonora both a source of inspiration and a fatherly and authoritarian figure to lean on. When Ernst was arrested by the Germans in 1939, the artist experienced the effects of this addiction.

After unsuccessful attempts to get Ernst released, she flees to Spain. After great psychological suffering, she was admitted to a mental institution in Santander.

The experience of hospitalisation and illness is recounted in her work Down Below of 1944. The madness, painfully experienced, will be translated into a source of inspiration and creative freedom in the following years.


In the summer of 1942 Leonora left New York to move with the diplomat Renato Leduc to Mexico City. After only a year they divorce and Leonora meets the Hungarian photographer Emerico Imri Weisz, with whom she remarries and will have two children: Gabriel and Pablo.

Like her, other surrealists move to Mexico. Among these, Benjamin Péret with his wife Remedios Varo, who becomes her close friend. In Mexico she devoted herself to experimenting with new techniques. The recurring motifs are autobiographical subjects.

In 1963, the Mexican government commissioned her a mural for the new anthropological museum in Mexico City, titled El mundo Magico de los Mayas. A significant work in which Mexican mythology and customs fuse with the artist's imagination.

The woman mannequin

The methods of self-representation of the artist, who often portrays herself as a mannequin, or with a mask that resembles the features of her own face, convey her criticism of the relationship of dependency and submission that bound the woman-artist to the surrealist movement.

In the early 1970s, she publicly took sides in favour of the women's rights movement.

“Women must regain their rights, including those mysterious powers that have always been ours and that have been violated, stolen or destroyed by men over time.”

The search for harmony

On several occasions she expresses her theories on the equality of all forms of life and on the role of women as those who have the task of maintaining harmony between all living species.

Paintings such as The Ancestor (1978) and The God Mother (1970) reflect these theories. She spends the 80s and 90s between New York, Chicago and Mexico City.

In the summer of 2010, one of the major exhibitions of her work took place at Chichester's Pallant House Gallery in the United Kingdom. Leonora Carrington died on 26 May 2011 in Mexico City due to complications from pneumonia.

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