In October 2010, a couple of months earlier than her demise, I mentioned my final goodbye to my cousin Leonora Carrington. As I left her dwelling in Mexico Metropolis, she stood waving on the doorstep. Immediately, I’m again for the primary time – to see Leonora’s home recreated as a customer attraction. It feels surreal, however the surreal has turn out to be the on a regular basis since I set off to search out Leonora in 2006, virtually 70 years after she checked out of our household and Britain. She travelled first to Paris to be together with her lover, the German artist Max Ernst, earlier than transferring on to Mexico with a diplomat she met after she and Ernst have been separated by the second world conflict.
This home, 194 Calle Chihuahua, is the place she was anchored for greater than 60 years. Right here, she painted a few of her best-known works, together with The Juggler, which bought at public sale in 2005 for £436,000; And Then We Noticed the Daughter of the Minotaur, now at MoMA in New York; and her mural The Magical World of the Mayans, now on the Nationwide Anthropological Museum in Mexico Metropolis.
In addition to being a pivotal determine within the surrealist motion, Leonora was a sculptor, textile artist and author – it was on this home, too, that she wrote The Listening to Trumpet, deemed by the Guardian to be one of many 1,000 novels to learn earlier than you die. And it was right here that she raised her youngsters, two sons, by the person she married in Mexico, a Hungarian photographer referred to as Chiki Weisz.
The home remains to be crammed together with her sculpture: bizarre and wacky items, together with a maquette of How Doth the Little Crocodile, named after the Lewis Carroll poem. Leonora held court docket at this tackle, essentially the most unique of the Nineteen Forties artist-émigrés who Frida Kahlo, the incumbent queen of Mexican artwork, dismissed as “these European bitches”.
The £3m restoration, by the Metropolitan Autonomous College of Mexico (UAM), is now virtually full and I’ve been invited right here to work on numerous related tasks earlier than its opening later this yr. (Digital visits are already doable.) It feels very unusual, being again right here with out Leonora. Within the kitchen – the engine room of her world, the place we spent so many hours sitting chatting – her teacup, glasses and a few letters are on the desk in entrance of her empty chair. There’s a cigarette within the ashtray. I’m half anticipating her to return in, sit down, relight her cigarette and say: “So, what’s the information as we speak?”
Leonora was 94 when she died, however her curiosity by no means wavered. She was much more focused on speaking about politics – or world occasions, or the newspaper vendor down the road, or her canine Yeti’s newest escapades – than she was about Ernst or Picasso or Dalí or Duchamp, all of whom she had recognized in Paris. Day by day together with her was an journey: she lived completely within the second, all the time looking out for glimpses of ridiculousness or oddness or enjoyable.
On the kitchen cabinets, her jars of spices, together with her handwritten labels, nonetheless stand. Taped to the cabinet doorways, simply as they all the time have been, are a collection of postcards together with a number of the royal household, considered one of them doctored so Prince Charles – who gave Leonora her OBE on a go to to Mexico in 2000 – is sporting a balaclava. Folks used to ask in the event that they have been they ironic. Maybe so, however a part of Leonora missed her homeland. Certainly, in The Listening to Trumpet, her alter ego-protagonist Marian Leatherby, 92, goals of escaping to Europe from the Spanish-speaking nation she was transported to a few years earlier than.
You’ll have a way of how 194 Chihuahua feels for those who’ve seen Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning movie from 2018. It’s set in a home a couple of streets away: each have the identical Bauhaus-style structure, the identical leaded home windows, the identical inner courtyard, the identical open staircase to the rooftop world the place the washing is finished, and hung within the blazing sunshine to dry. In Leonora’s time, the roof terrace was the realm of Yolanda, her housekeeper. Immediately, it’s a spacious paved space the place Leonora’s sculptures stands guard.
Probably the most intimate view into Leonora’s world comes while you step into her first-floor bed room, off a slim, tiled, exterior hall. Nowhere is the pure frugality of her lifestyle higher displayed than on this easy room, with its single mattress, a couple of chairs, desk and cupboard. Her husband Chiki, by the top, slept subsequent door; he died in 2007. The one merchandise of abundance in Leonora’s bed room is books: they cowl the cabinets alongside the far wall, simply as they cowl the partitions of her sitting room and the research the place the typewriter, on which she wrote The Listening to Trumpet, sits on a desk.
The books are maybe the perfect perception the home provides into her thoughts: they vary from the modern novels she beloved (Ian McEwan, Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood have been all favourites) to the books that knowledgeable her artwork: tomes on the occult, gnosticism, kabbalah, tarot, herbalism and shamanism; titles on Renaissance artwork and numerous actions; in addition to the work of her buddies, together with the photographers Lee Miller and Kati Horna, the painter Remedios Varo, and the Nobel prizewinning Octavio Paz. Birds with Human Faces and Birds with Human Souls share shelf area with The Guide of Owls and Skilled Obedience Coaching for Canine. (I’m undecided that one was deployed to greatest impact on Yeti.)
“I knew she was a surrealist,” says Dr Alejandra Osorio, director of the undertaking. “And that was about it. I truly knew extra about her writing than her work.” The home was purchased by UAM full with greater than 8,600 objects, starting from garments to phonebooks, from half-finished artworks to diaries that recorded her goals. Combing by means of the trivia of Leonora’s life has given Alejandra insights into the life of somebody she by no means met, however now thinks about every single day.
“I really feel very related to her,” she says. “She was a really congruent individual: what she believed, she lived. Due to the themes of her artwork – the occult and so forth – individuals typically suppose she was difficult. However I don’t suppose she was. She was instinctive: she believed in emotions and following them.”
Excitingly for the growing variety of artwork historians and teachers focused on Leonora’s work, the Casa Estudio Leonora Carrington, as 194 is now recognized, features a research centre on that surprisingly spacious roof terrace. Alejandra thinks one particularly fertile space of analysis may very well be looking by means of Leonora’s annotated books to search out hyperlinks together with her work. That makes me giggle, as a result of Leonora famously refused to debate what her work meant. Demise might but reveal her in a approach she refused to be revealed in her lifetime. My intuition is that she wouldn’t have minded: she all the time informed me she wasn’t focused on dwelling on what would occur after she’d gone.
In 1988, the Guerrilla Ladies made their landmark piece The Benefits of Being a Girl Artist. Listed among the many deserves have been avoiding the stress of success, making it into the revisions of artwork historical past, and having a profession surge post-80. Leonora scores on all counts. Though she died 10 years in the past this month, and though she lived into her 90s, her status and her standing are, I imagine, nonetheless of their infancy. However her fame is rising, because the Casa undertaking reveals. Museums the world over are actively looking for her work. There have been 5 main worldwide exhibitions over the previous few years, with one other postponed to 2023 due to Covid. And two museums of her sculpture have opened in Mexico, one within the city of San Luis Potosí, the opposite in Xilitla the place her good friend Edward James created a rare surreal sculpture backyard.
Final yr, an indie band from LA referred to as Conditioner launched a single about her, entitled Leonora. “We’re simply a few younger guys in our 20s,” band member Riley McCluskey informed me. “However after we got here throughout Leonora’s work, we have been blown away. She appeared in a position to entry some area that the majority people can’t entry – or at the very least, not usually. Her worlds have been lovely, scary, profound. They offer us glimpses past the on a regular basis.” Leonora’s themes – particularly feminism, ecology, the connectedness of every little thing, the occult and non secular which means exterior organised faith – really feel very 2021.
As I head to the airport, I cease to purchase some tickets for Mexico’s nationwide lottery. To mark the tenth anniversary of her demise, they function Leonora’s picture. Within the spirit of surrealism, I purchase one absolutely anticipating to scoop the £1m jackpot. However realizing Leonora has been a far larger prize than that.