Mexico City – Leonora Carrington, the Lancashire-born former debutante who eloped with Max Ernst and became one the greatest – and last surviving – female surrealist artists has died in hospital in Mexico City at the age of 94.Carrington was also part of a famous wave of artistic and political emigres who arrived in Mexico in the 1930s and ’40s. In the male-dominated realm of surrealism, she was a member of a rare trio of Mexico-based female surrealists along with Frida Kahlo and Remedios Varo.
The artist, who had lived in Mexico since the 1940s, was the daughter of a textile magnate and was presented at court in the 1930s. But she became enthralled by surrealism as an art student and befriended many of the great artists of the 20th century, including Ernst, with whom she lived in France, Picasso, Dalí, Duchamp, Miró and Man Ray. She attended the wedding of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
During the second world war, when Ernst was interned by the Vichy regime, Carrington fled to Madrid, where she had a nervous breakdown and was briefly confined to an asylum, before being rescued by a Mexican diplomat, Renato Leduc, whom she married in Lisbon and with whom she moved to Mexico City. She subsequently married the Hungarian photographer Chiki Weisz, with whom she had two sons.
In 1943, her work was chosen for an exhibition of significant women artists in New York, by Peggy Guggenheim, Ernst’s new partner. Long considered a significant artist in Mexico, her work with its fantastic imaginary birds and animals and its strange hooded figures, was exhibited in London in 1991 and Chichester last year. One of her paintings, The Giantess, was sold at Christie’s for $1.5m two years ago. She was awarded an OBE in 2000. Carrington’s death was announced by the national council for culture and the arts in Mexico. She had been admitted to hospital suffering from pneumonia.
She got to know Picasso and Bunuel (“uncouth Spaniards”), Dali, Man Ray, Miro, Breton, Tanguy, Peret, Belmer, Arp and many others. With her wild, dark beauty she looked the perfect submissive “femme enfant”, but she rejected the notion of being anyone’s muse (“all that means is that you’re someone else’s object”) and was quick to snap if anyone took her for granted.
When Joan Miro gave her some money and told her to get him some cigarettes, she told him to “bloody well” get them himself. Dali won her approval by calling her “a most important woman artist”, and her work was shown at exhibitions along with the work of Meret Oppenheim, Remedios Varo, Eileen Agar and other women.
Carrington was known for her haunting, dreamlike works that often focused on strange ritual-like scenes with birds, cats, unicorn-like creatures and other animals as onlookers or seeming participants.
“She was the last great living surrealist,” said longtime friend and poet Homero Aridjis. “She was a living legend.”
Friend and promoter Dr. Isaac Masri said she died Wednesday of old age, after being hospitalized. “She had a great life, and a dignified death, as well, without suffering,” he said.
Leonora Carrington’s great patron was Edward James, who arranged her first solo show at Pierre Matisse’s gallery in New York in 1947. By 1960 she was well known in Europe and Mexico, and that year a retrospective of her work was held at the Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno in Mexico City.
“She created mythical worlds in which magical beings and animals occupy the main stage, in which cobras merge with goats and blind crows become trees,” the National Arts Council wrote, adding, “These were some of the images that sprang from a mind obsessed with portraying a reality that transcends what can be seen.”
She wrote magazine and newspaper articles, novels, essays and poems and made thousands of paintings, sculptures, collages and tapestries that were exhibited in Mexico City, New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Tokyo and many other artistic centers
She became a Mexican citizen; she and Leduc divorced, and she married her second husband, the Hungarian-born writer-photographer Emerico “Chiki” Weisz, in 1946. They had two children, one of whom, Pablo, eventually became a painter in his own right.
In Mexico, she befriended the poet and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, Frida Kahlo and her husband, the irascible muralist Diego Rivera, the late Spanish movie producer-director Luis Bunuel and many others.
Carrington took her two sons and left Mexico in 1968 in protest against the army’s Oct. 2 massacre of demonstrating university students, but returned a year later.
In 1971, she went to Canada and Scotland to study Buddhism under a Tibetan monk in exile, then came back to Mexico City. She left again for New York after two earthquakes devastated the city in September 1985, and three years later moved to Chicago.
She returned to Mexico a couple of years after that. The artist is survived by two sons, Gabriel and Pablo. Her body was taken to a Mexico City funeral home for viewing, and she was buried Thursday at the city’s British cemetery.