Leonora Carrington’s Alchemical Paintings and the Sacred Domestic Space

Leonora Carrington was a student of the esoteric and magical arts, particularly the legends of Ireland and Mexico. Though raised in the debutante circles of England, she ran off at a young age with surrealist (and then-married) Max Ernst. In Paris she was at the center of artistic circles that included Salvador Dalí, André Breton, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp. During World War II Ernst was arrested by the Gestapo for his “degenerate art” and the traumatized Carrington sold their house to pay their debts and left for Spain, perhaps after suffering a nervous breakdown. There she spent time in a Spanish mental asylum (which she wrote about in the novel Down Below). Peggy Guggenheim helped Ernst escape to America, and the two married by the end of the year. 

Without Ernst in her life, Carrington ran away to Mexico and married the poet Renato Leduc to gain residency rights. In Mexico she found a community of European émigré artists who were sheltered from the war by the progressive policies of the Mexican government (1). She later married photographer Emerico “Chiki” Weisz, with whom she had two children. Through the rest of her life she balanced both her Irish heritage with the myths and traditions of her adopted home of Mexico.

Also in Mexico, Carrington met Remedios Varo, a Spanish-Mexican surrealist painter. The two became good friends and provided much creative stimulus for each other, particularly in the realms of alchemy, magic, and witchcraft. According to Susan Aberth:

Using cooking as a metaphor for hermetic pursuits they established an association between women’s traditional roles and magical acts of transformation. They had both been interested in the occult, stimulated by the Surrealist belief in ‘occultation of the Marvelous’ and by wide reading in witchcraft, alchemy, sorcery, Tarot and magic. They found Mexico a fertile atmosphere where magic was part of daily reality; traveling herb salesmen would set up on street corners with displays of seeds, insects, chameleons, special candles, seashells, and neatly wrapped parcels with such mysterious labels as ‘sexual weakness:’ all used for the practice of witchcraft by the curanderas (healers), brujas (witches), and espiritualistas (spiritualists) who outnumbered doctors and nurses. Mexico proved a vibrant influence on Varo and Carrington, for whom the power of spells and omens was already very real. (2)

Leonora Carrington - The House Opposite

Leonora Carrington, “The House Opposite” (1945)

This inspiration can be seen in Carrington’s painting The House Opposite, which has cooking as a featured activity. The table at the center seems almost like an altar, and the domestic sphere of the woman is shown to be a site of magical power. Aberth describes the central human/animal hybrid figure:

With the calm of a priestess she ingests a ritual meal, an act that provokes all types of activity and transformations in the surrounding pictorial spaces. We are now in the domain of the feminine sacred, where food production and consumption is a magical act. (3)

The chair next to her appears to have a tiny human head at the top. In the lower right of the painting, three females—two light-skinned and one dark—stir a large round cauldron that’s suspended from the ceiling like an alchemical apparatus. One of the women wears a cape featuring the night sky, while another holds herbs to be added to the brew.

As Whitney Chadwick explains:

Carrington’s ‘House Opposite’ makes sense as a house because we are familiar with the ordinary houses upon which this one is based; this is a house opposite familiar norms. With her transpositions, Carrington reveals houses and their kitchens as laboratories in which women work on fantastic transformations that she makes appear ordinary. (4)

Another of Carrington’s exposures to the occult was through her friend Kurt Seligmann, whom she first met in Paris. Seligmann’s 1948 book, The History of Magic, gave her plenty of insight into esoteric traditions. (5)

Leonora Carrington’s Irish Roots

In 1949, Carrington read Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, published the year before, of which she said reading was “the greatest revelation of my life.” The book sparked her interest in learning more about her Celtic roots. When she was young, Carrington loved the Irish folktale novel The Crock of Gold (1912) by novelist and poet James Stephens. Carrington’s mother was Irish, and her Grandmother Moorhead had informed young Leonora that they were directly descended from the Tuatha dé Danaan. Also called the Sidhe (People of the Hills), the Tuatha dé Danaan were a legendary white race that lived in hills and possessed magical abilities and special powers like shapeshifting. (6)

Leonora Carrington - Sidhe the White People of the Tuatha de Danaan

Leonora Carrington, “Sidhe the White People of the Tuatha de Danaan” (1954)

Sidhe, the White People of the Tuatha dé Danaan depicts the white fairy-like Sidhe women seated around an altar-style table, surrounded by animals. The soup bowl, yam and fruits, and earthenware water jug all allude to feminine rites.

Leonora Carrington’s Hermetic Phase

In the 1950s Carrington’s art took a hermetic turn, with a number of paintings featuring the alchemical processes of distillation and transformation. Examples include And Then They Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur (1954), AB EO QUOD (1956), and Hunt Breakfast (1956).

Leonora Carrington - AB EO QUOD

Leonora Carrington, “AB EO QUOD” (1956)

AB EO QUOD has been called Carrington at her most hermetic. An altar is covered by a cloth and holds the Eucharistic wine and bread, along with shafts of grain, grapes, and a pomegranate. A white rose is on the ceiling, dripping a substance into a large egg on the altar, “thereby instigating the alchemical process, as the steam vaporizing off the egg indicates.” An embroidered fire screen bears a phrase in Latin from the Asensus Nigrum, an alchemical text from 1351: “Ab eo, Quod nigram caudum habet abstine terrestrium enim decorum est”—roughly, “Keep away from any with a black tail, indeed, this is the beauty of the earth.” Large moths (or maybe butterflies), a symbol of transformation, fly around the egg. (7)

At first glance Hunt Breakfast appears to be a breakfast attended by macabre characters just before an English hunt, complete with dogs and horses. Closer inspection, according to Aberth, reveals the black-clad bride can be identified as Artemis/Diana, the goddess of the hunt, night, the moon, and also the protector of animals who come out to greet her. She wears the horns of Isis or Hathoor, and the triangle around her head is a symbol of the threefold goddess and the three stages of womanhood: maiden, mother, and crone. The clearing is a magic circle, complete with an altar holding wheat and wine, as well as vegetables and fruits. Her body is shaped similarly to that of the alchemical sign of sulphur. The groom holds the alchemical egg, completing the symbolism of an alchemical marriage.

Leonora Carrington - Hunt Breakfast

Leonora Carrington, “Hunt Breakfast” (1956)

Prominent in Hunt Breakfast is the pomegranate, symbol of Persephone’s descent to the underworld and the time of winter. Also featured is the cabbage, which for Carrington is a symbol of the alchemical rose:

The Cabbage is a rose, the Blue Rose, The Alchemical Rose, The Blue Deer (Peyote), and the eating of the God is ancient knowledge, but only recently known to ‘civilized occidental’ Humans who have experienced many phenomena, and have recently written many books that give accounts of the changing worlds which these people have seen when they ate these plants. Although the properties of the cabbage are somewhat different, it also screams when dragged out of the earth and plunged into boiling water or grease – forgive us, cabbage . . . The cabbage is still the alchemical Rose, for any being able to see or taste. (8)

Leonora Carrington - El Mundo Magico de los Mayas

Leonora Carrington, “El Mundo Magico de los Mayas” (1963)

In the 1960s Carrington studied the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the ancient Maya. She hoped to better understand their preconquest beliefs by reading the mythical narrative (9). In El Mundo Mágico de los Mayas (1963) the inspiration of the Popol Vuh can be seen in the mural’s panorama of the material and spiritual life of the Mexican people. Measuring 15-by-7 feet, the panel depicts the celestial, terrestrial, and subterranean realms, and also shows Catholic processions, native healing ceremonies, and mythological entities.

Although Carrington admired the traditions of her adopted home, she didn’t completely embrace its religion but blended it with her own European traditions:

The Mexican traditions of magic and witchcraft are fascinating, but they are not the same as mine, do you understand? I think every country has a magical tradition, but our approach to the unknown is peculiar to our ancestry. It is something that has to do with your birth, your blood, flesh and bones. (10)

Grandmother Moorhead's Aromatic Kitchen - Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington, “Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen” (1975)

In the painting Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen an invocation is taking place in a bright red kitchen. A magic circle is drawn on the floor, lined with three heads of garlic, and with inscriptions written in English and Celtic that refer to events from the legends of the Tuatha dé Danaan. Chadwick notes that garlic cloves “are integral to all magic and healing rituals in Mexico,” and show the kitchen “as a place of strange transformations where strong magic is necessary to neutralize the enormous goose.” (11)

A full moon is seen through the window, and two robed figures are cooking, one preparing food on a Mexican or Irish stove and the other grinding corn on a Mexican stone mortar. At the center of the circle is an altar piled high with a cabbage, eggplant, peppers, corn, and garlic. Of the three robed figures around the altar, one holds a knife, another a bowl, and the third a head of garlic. A gigantic white goose, an image of the Celtic mother goddess, is stepping into the circle as if summoned. According to Aberth, in this painting “Carrington has created her own powerful incantations, designed to invoke the Goddess herself, who looks suspiciously like the Mother Goose of her beloved childhood fairy tales.” (12)

From the late 1960s through the ’70s Carrington lived for a while near New York’s Gramercy Park and often visited the Kristine Mann Library of the C. G. Jung Center though she “was not particularly interested in either Freud or Jung.” Carrington recorded her dreams but said her art was not inspired by them. At the Center, she primarily studied personality traits, though it’s possible she also delved into its large collection of works from esoteric traditions from around the world and the archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism. (13)

Carrington died in 2011 at the age of 94. For more on her life and work, especially as it relates to magic and the hermetic arts, pick up a copy of Susan Aberth’s excellent Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art.

The featured image for this post is Carrington’s Are You Really Syrious? (1953).

Notes:

1. Aberth, Susan. “The Alchemical Kitchen: At Home with Leonora Carrington.”
2. Aberth, Susan. Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varo, pg. 96. Quoted in Aberth, Susan. Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art, pg. 60.
3. Aberth, “At Home.”
4. Chadwick, Whitney, ‘Pilgrimage to the stars,’ in Leonora Carrington: Paintings, Drawings, and Sculptures 1940-1990, pg. 30. Qtd in Conley, Katharine, “Carrington’s Kitchen,” Papers of Surrealism, Issue 10, 2013.
5. Aberth, Susan. Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art, pg. 66.
6. Ibid., pg. 79.
7. Ibid., pg. 93.
8. Ibid., quoted on pg 94.
9. Ibid., pg. 97.
10. Ibid., quoted on pg. 122.
11. Chadwick, Whitney, ‘El Mundo Magico: Leonora Carrington’s Enchanted Garden,’ in Leonora Carrington, The Mexican Years, ed. Holly Barnet-Sanchez, The Mexican Museum-University of New Mexico Press, San Francisco, 1991, pg. 14. Qtd in Conley.
12. Aberth, Susan. “Surrealism, Alchemy,” pg. 122.
13. Ibid., pg 103.