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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Leonora Carrington: Rebel-in-Exile

Coming together for the fourth session of our current Philosophy Club series last Thursday, we found ourselves considering the female rebel through the lens of surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington. Born into a well-to-do family in Lancashire, England, in 1917, Carrington’s childhood and adolescence reads as a litany of expulsion. Refusing to cooperate in both the classroom and the games hall, she was expelled from two successive catholic boarding schools. Resisting the feminizing agendas of finishing schools in first Florence, then Paris, she failed to make it to the finishing line of either. If she found refuge from familial and societal expectations in art, what fueled her creativity was the alienation she felt from the high society world into which she had been born, and the anger she felt over the role within that world for which she was being groomed. She hated being a debutante, and turned her official ‘coming out’ party at the Ritz in London into a shocking short story that made a mockery of the ‘marriage market’ mentality informing this archaic upper class ritual. After running away to Paris with Max Ernst at the age of 20, she quickly rejected the ‘muse’ moniker assigned to her by the surrealist fraternity and became a serious painter in her own right. Finding herself on the run yet again – first from the Nazis in Occupied France in 1940, soon after from her childhood nanny ‘minder’ following a stint in a mental asylum in Spain – she responded to being disinherited by her father by entering into a marriage of convenience, escaping war-torn Europe, and making her way via New York to a life of personal and artistic freedom in Mexico.

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.

Fast-forward about 70 years to some wonderful film footage of Leonora Carrington being interviewed in her Mexico City kitchen by British journalist Joanna Moorhead - a cousin of Carrington's who, on discovering the existence of this long-lost artist relative, went off to Mexico to 'find' the black sheep of the family. A better 'portrait' of the female rebel at age 90 one could not find...Carrington is sharp, funny, insightful, tough, her own person. She insists that to intellectualize art, to try to explain what one of her paintings means, is to totally miss the point...For a woman whose life has been defined by exs - expelled, expulsed, exiled, expatriated -  there is one 'ex' that Carrington will not abide, and that is explication. In spite of what Carrington might have to say about our inevitable fall into analysis, we work this idea: seeing in Carrington's youthful flights from anything that might have tied her into a role, pinned her to convention, the possibility that to rebel is to be active, to be in movement - ever resisting the narrowing down, the cinching in, the packaging up, that accompanies ex-plication (from the Latin plicare - to fold away).

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!