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Elena Poniatowska: Leonora (Leonora)

Leonora Carrington was a Surrealist painter and novelist. This was in itself unusual as there were very few women Surrealists and very few British ones. As this article shows, while she was well-known in Mexico, where she spent most of her adult life, she is barely known in her home country. Elena Poniatowska’s first novel, Lilus Kikus, a feminist book, like this one and many of her other works, was illustrated by Leonora Carrington. This long book is a rambling biographical feminist novel about Leonora Carrington, telling her story.

Leonora Carrington was the daughter of a rich Lancashire-based industrial magnate. Indeed, he did so well that he merged his companies with others to found the all-powerful Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). He had three sons and one daughter, Leonora. Right from the start, we see Leonora as a free spirit, rebellious or wilful (depending on your point of view). There was a strong Irish influence on Leonora, as her mother, Maurie, was Irish and so was her nanny, who taught her about the sidhe, something she continued to believe in and which influenced her painting. She was also very fond of animals, particularly horses, even claiming to be a horse! Though her father was strict with her, wanting her to become a respectable upper class lady, he also indulged her at times, buying her horses, including one she rode bareback, a very unladylike thing to do. What I don’t want to do is what everyone else does, she proclaims.

However, her free-spiritedness continued and her parents could not control her so she was sent off to a convent school. She was expelled from there and also a second one she was sent to, not only for her rebellious behaviour but because she just did not fit in. It’s her Irish blood. Ireland is home to idiots and lunatics, the Mother Superior comments. Poniatowska, of course, takes Leonora side and shows us an intelligent girl, struggling to cope with a world that expected certain things from girls and women, things that Leonora did not subscribe to.

Eventually, she was sent to Miss Penrose’s Academy in Florence. She had already shown an interest in painting and drawing but, now she was in Florence, a new world opened up for her, as she explored the art works to be found in Florence (instead of attending classes), discovering new artists she adored at the time. However, once again, she did not fit in. Your daughter is uncontrollable, Miss Penrose wrote to her parents. No-one ever has the least idea what she’ll do next, nor how she’s going to react.

Leonora then manages to persuade her parents to send her to Paris but when she tells her parents that she wants to be an artist, her father comments Artists are immoral, form illicit unions and are obliged to inhabit attics. He will later say Those who dedicate their lives to art are either poor or homosexual. No child of mine could be so foolish as to think that painting could serve any useful purpose. He wants her to be presented at court and, much against her will, she is. However, when she is invited to the royal box at Ascot, she spends her time reading Aldous Huxley‘s Eyeless in Gaza.

However, she manages to get her parents to send her to the Chelsea College of Art and it is there that she discovers surrealism and, in particular, Max Ernst. She meets him at the first International Surrealist Exhibition, held at the New Burlington Galleries. They soon start an affair (Max Ernst is married to his second wife at the time) and Leonora discovers the joy of love and sex as well as meeting many people in the art world. Soon they are off to Paris (where Ernst’s wife is an important gallery director). Her father refuses to help her but her mother does. We follow their unconventional and passionate life in Paris but the war is coming and Ernst is a German citizen. He is interned and Leonora manages to escape to Madrid where she meets and marries a man, Renato Leduc, in the Mexican embassy who can help her escape Europe.

However, she has a breakdown and is sent off to a clinic in Santander, where she is pronounced incurable. We follow in considerable detail her breakdown and her cure. Back in Madrid, Max is with Peggy Guggenheimn. He still loves Leonora but needs Peggy’s money. Leonora’s family are determined to send her to South Africa via Portugal. However, she and Renato go off to New York. There she meets again many of the Surrealists (whom Renato does not like) and Max pursues her, to Peggy Guggenheim’s disgust. However, she agrees to move to Mexico, not least because, if she stays in New York, as she tells Max I shall never be more than your projection. She has tried to escape being controlled by men, when she fled from her father and now wants to flee from Max.

However, in Mexico, not knowing the language nor the culture, she becomes beholden to Renato. I don’t know who these people are, I don’t know why they appear to be in flight, I don’t know why the women hide their faces in their shawls, I can’t bear them and I can’t bear myself. I’ve no idea what I’m doing here in Mexico. She hates the cruelty of bullfights, which Renato adores. She meets Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo but does not take to them or their work and does not want to be merely part of their group. It is only when she bumps into Remedios Varo, the surrealist painter whom she had met in Paris, that she can escape from Renato. Varo is part of the group of women surrealist painters who were underestimated then and still are, whom Poniatowska is determined to promote.

Leonora becomes close to Remedios and her friends and it is through her that she meets Imre Emerico Weisz, known as Csiki, a Hungarian Jewish photographer who had been in a concentration camp. The pair will later marry and have two sons. The rest of the novel tells of her life in Mexico, the many paintings she did, her writing, her family and her relationship with Edward James, a keen supporter of surrealism. While she liked Mexico and stayed there (with trips to Europe and short stays in the United States during the 1968 upheavals, in which her sons were involved, and the 1985 earthquake, when her house was damaged) she found fault with it. The day that a Mexican state functionary gives up his uniform and walks among the people like one of them, or the day when a woman stands up to her abusive husband, Leonora will feel more at home in Mexico.

Elena Poniatowska knew Leonora Carrington well. (You can see Elena Poniatowska’s reminiscences about her in this video (in Spanish)). She states quite clearly that this is not a biography but a novel, though obviously a novel with many bibliographical elements. Above all, she tries to show Leonora Carrington, the woman who wants to be herself. Both women were ardent feminists and condemned Mexico and Mexicans for their sexism. I don’t know of any religion which does not proclaim that women are mentally feeble, unclean, or inferior to the male of the species, Leonora Carrington said. The book had considerable success in the Spanish-speaking world. Sadly, in the English-speaking world, where both women are little known, it has had far less success. Both as a biography of a remarkable woman and a fine novel it deserves to be much better known.

Publishing history

First published by Seix Barral in 2011
First published in English in 2015 by Serpent’s Tail