MEXICO CITY -- Phantoms come, phantoms go. They swirl around Leonora Carrington, a tiny woman of 91 with a tart intellect and a posh British accent, as she sips Earl Grey tea at her kitchen table. They rise like black vapors from the pavement of Avenue Reforma, where a menagerie of Carrington’s enigmatic bronzes startle pedestrians and spook passing cars.
“Nobody ever takes this chair,” says Carrington in her genteel, impish voice, indicating one of four matching seats for her tea-time guests. “I think it’s haunted by my husband.”
After more than six decades of living in Mexico, where she has raised two sons and outlived two husbands, Carrington is being showered with accolades, exhibitions (including the outdoor sculpture show on Reforma) and essay tributes as one of her adopted country’s greatest living artists and its last remaining link to a key chapter of Modern art history. She appreciates the attention. “They’ve been very receptive and very kind here in Mexico.”
With her two grown sons long gone and her second husband now deceased, Carrington resides in near-solitude, with only her live-in housekeeper for daily company. She still makes art in a small studio overlooking a narrow courtyard dominated by a huge jacaranda tree that she planted ages ago. She has been offered a new sculpture commission but isn’t sure she’ll do it. Then again, maybe she will. “I have to survive somehow.”
Over the years, Carrington has developed a familiarity with spectral presences, a fellowship with un-assuaged spirits. Listen and you can hear the skeletons still rattling around in the closet.
There was the Catholic convent school where, Carrington says, “you were taught, really, to hate yourself.” There was the authoritarian father, and the older brother who tried to boss around his precocious, rebellious younger sister, “but he was not very intelligent.”
Later there was the brutal forced separation from Carrington’s then lover, the great Surrealist artist Max Ernst, and the flight across southern France and Spain from Hitler -- that “hellish demon,” Carrington calls him. Then the nervous breakdown, the brief stay in a Spanish psychiatric hospital, her family’s frantic attempt to ship Carrington off to a South African sanatorium or else bring her back home to face the Luftwaffe’s squadrons, raining fiery destruction on England.
“I have always thought, and a lot of people won’t agree with this, that we’re incredibly driven by fear, basically. Aren’t we?” says the diminutive woman in the purple cardigan. “It’s awful to be frightened. I think it’s a very strong, very powerful thing, fear.”
No one who has scrutinized her paintings or circumnavigated her sculptures will be surprised to learn of Carrington’s fear factor. Her imagination is populated with nightmarish visions, Hieronymus Bosch-like bestiaries, eerie anthropomorphic architecture.
Grotesquely beautiful creatures flit and glide across her medieval-Renaissance landscapes. Images resolve themselves into wordless fables inspired by the artist’s lifelong interest in Celtic and other pagan mythologies. Her images can seem whimsical and playful, biting and satirical, or an alchemical combination that both delights and unsettles. Whether Carrington’s half-animal, half-human figures are romping in gardens of earthly delights or leaving dark moral furrows on the universe can be hard to say.
In conversation, the artist and occasional author makes clear her high regard for four-legged creatures and her wariness toward two-legged ones. As a young girl she loved to ride horses; her brothers loved to shoot and hunt. “I think we humans are pretty awful animals,” she ventures.
Aside from back pain and some inevitable slowing, her health seems good, which is odd when you consider that she’s been smoking since she was 11. Evidently it was part of her youthful persona. She was kicked out of three schools in England before her parents finally packed her off to Florence.
“I was requested to leave. They said, ‘This child does not collaborate with either work or play.’ I was never any good at games. I was frightened of [girls’ field] hockey. They had these sticks -- terrible! They’d kill us!”
While studying in Italy she first entertained the idea of becoming an artist. Her work now belongs to the permanent collections of some of the world’s most prestigious museums. But because of the self-loathing instilled by her Catholic nun teachers in England, she has “a kind of allergy to looking at my own things.” She still hasn’t been to see her sculptures on Reforma because she thinks she would feel “embarrassed.” (They’re expected to be there through October.)
“I hated being in a convent,” she says. “It’s another form of power. Manipulation. Because who can say -- one God for the whole universe? I think there must be millions of gods! And they’re not all of them very nice.”
Carrington today pays little attention to cultural fads, professing ignorance of terms like “Conceptual art.” Yet she retains an astonishing ardor for ideas, discussion, critical thinking. Her intellectual vigor, spiked with dry wit, takes the edge off her bleak assessment of humankind.
“Tell me the problems, because you’re more in touch with things than I am,” she asks, eager to chat about the current pressing threats to planetary survival. “Tell me a few!”
Hmm. . . . How about the rising tensions between the West and the Islamic world?
“Well, there’s nothing I can do about it, but it’s frightening, yes,” says Carrington, who seldom watches television and skims the morning newspaper only “to see if anything awful is about to happen.”
A few minutes later, the conversation turns to the suicide attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “But what was that, exactly?” she inquires. “I saw it on the TV.”
In truth, Carrington avoids politics like the Black Plague. The only time she couldn’t help but be involved in them was in May 1940, when the German army swept past the Maginot Line en route to Paris. Ernst was rounded up by the Nazis and barely managed to get out of Europe with the help of art collector-patron Peggy Guggenheim. He and Carrington never rekindled their affair.
Asked to describe her former lover, Carrington sticks to stock phrases: “very intelligent,” “very good artist,” “good sense of humor.”
Passionate? “We won’t go into that.”
Heartsick and fearing for her life, Carrington was able to make her escape from southern France to Barcelona, then Madrid and Portugal, where she embarked for New York and eventually Mexico with her future first husband, Mexican diplomat-writer Renato Leduc.
In Mexico, she connected both with local artists and other European exiles, such as the French Surrealist poet Benjamin Peret and his wife, the Spanish painter Remedios Varo. After divorcing Leduc she married a fellow refugee, the Hungarian photographer Emericko Weisz, with whom she had two sons (one a writer and university instructor in Mexico, the other a doctor and painter in Richmond, Va.).
After enduring a domineering father and elder brother, Carrington brooked no such abuse from her spouses. “I was not frightened of them, because if they hit me I’d hit them back.”
Lately, Carrington has begun to worry about living in Mexico City, with its congestion, crime and toxic air. She has been toying with the idea of making one last trip to Europe, but that prospect is not entirely pleasant.
“There are places I’d like to return to. But not as I was then but as I am now. ‘Cause I’m trying to understand. And I’ve understood nothing.”
She pronounces this last word vehemently, almost violently. Beyond the stone walls of the darkening house a police siren wails.
“One is born, one lives, one dies,” she continues. “What death is, I don’t know.”