It was here, at last – a refugee exiled in a foreign country – that Leonora Carrington stopped pounding rebellious fists against a world into which was supposed to fit (and didn’t) and started creating a world into which she did fit – a world that revolved around making art, cultivating friendships with other artists-in-exile, raising children, fighting for causes (amongst these, women’s rights), learning all she could about her adopted home, living by her own personal ethos: “To yourself be true, then you will not be false to anyone.” It was here, too - with these biographical details under our belts - that we began to 'work' Carrington’s story in the context of what we have learned about the female rebel thus far, and to coax from her story new insights into this complex and, at times, paradoxical trope.
A quick survey of Paris-based 1930s Surrealism got the ball rolling: not only did this revolutionary anti-bourgeois art movement form the backdrop of Carrington's artistic and literary practice; the movement's over-riding exhortation to use any means necessary to "lay waste to the ideas of family, country, religion" clearly resonated with how Carrington had led her life from the outset. Small wonder that Andre Breton, who penned the manifesto from which this exhortation is drawn, called Leonora Carrington Surrealism's "authentic heroine"...Seeing, in this young, beautiful and "transgressively independent" woman who subverted social conventions and enjoyed a wildly bohemian lifestyle, the very embodiment of his movement. If the philosophical tenets underlying the Surrealism within which Carrington was initiated and then put on a pedestal were brought home to us when we played "Exquisite Corpse" - a party game created by Breton et al to highlight "the mystique of accident" which was, for the Surrealists, a metaphor for life itself - it was through doing a feminist reading of Carrington's 1938 "self-portrait" that we began to see how "wild child" Carrington had subverted, in turn, the relatively passive role of "femme-enfant" assigned to her by the male Surrealists, and started to carve out a richly intuitive surrealist tradition that was independent of them.
This idea was carried forth into our viewing of Ally Acker's video rendition of Carrington's short story, "The Reluctant Debutante." In addition to providing us with the perfect forum for exploring how "active" resistance and "passive" complicity can, at times, walk hand-in-hand in the persona of the rebel, this surreal tale of a 'masked' hyena who almost succeeds at 'passing' for a young woman at her 'coming-out' ball provoked an important discussion of the impact that social class and economic privilege can have on becoming a rebel in the first place.
Leonora Carrington died just last May, at the age of 94. She never courted publicity, which means that you won't find much about her, or by her, in the library or bookstores - not in Canada, anyway. That said, she is famous in Mexico. And luckily, there has been a renewal of interest in her life and art in the UK over the past few years, due in large part to Joanna Moorhead's efforts in organizing a retrospective of her work, along with that of other women surrealist artists, in 2010. We can be grateful, too, that Carrington lived well into the era of mediated hyper-visibility, which means that you can catch her in a number of candid interviews on You-tube, and in so doing get a marvelous sense of what she was like as a person. In terms of getting a glimpse into what becomes of the much-mythologized 'wild child' rebel when she grows up and grows old, this on-line resource proved invaluable to the Philosophy Club: allowing us to bring our evening to a close with a discussion of age as it relates to the female rebel; linking us, interestingly enough, back to our Invisible Matron series, and the question of whether women grow more or less radical as they age.
Next week, the Philosophy Club draws on what we have learnt thus far about the female rebel and leads our monthly members' salon evening. The rebel at the centre of this salon event is birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, and the conversational form that we will be using to explore Sanger's life and work is soapbox rhetoric. Looking forward to seeing you there!