Leonora Carrington in Mexico City: perspective of a person, place, and time
The year was 1966. America was mired in an unwinnable and unconscionable war. The Civil Rights movement was about to burst on the scene after generations of festering below the surface of White consciousness. And all over the so-called free world, a restless energy was growing among the youth that was to become a formidable tide for change.
That was the year my husband and I packed up our two children and took off for Mexico — a country not tainted by the shame of Viet Nam, though plagued by its own demons of which I was not yet aware.
It was two years before the 1968 Olympics. Mexico was the host country and was priming itself for centre stage. In less than a generation it had transformed its capital from a backwater rural society into a modern, sophisticated city with a rich and diverse cultural life, and it wanted to show its new face to the world.
European intellectuals who had escaped fascism and Nazi concentration camps laid the foundation for the change. A younger generation of Europeans, disillusioned with their homeland and lured by the vitality of the scene, followed them across the Atlantic Ocean. Ex-pat Americans in opposition to the Viet Nam War settled in and added to the cultural ferment.
Within this melting pot of cultural diversity, Octavio Paz published Labyrinths of Solitude and Carlos Fuentes followed with Artemio Cruz. The bilingual poetry magazine El Corno Emplumado was born and many well-established Latin American writers were choosing Mexico City as their home in exile.
The new face of Mexico prompted technological advances and architectural innovation. The Metro with its silent trains, elegant design, and displays of pre-Hispanic artifacts was in the process of being built. And the National Museum of Anthropology, an architectural masterpiece housing work of extraordinary power and beauty, had just opened its doors two years earlier in historic Chapultepec Park.
It was against this background that the Mexican Olympic Committee contacted my husband with a proposal: To photograph the most talented and notable of Mexico's creative community for a coffee table book in honor of the event. Among those he was to photograph was the highly acclaimed and brilliant artist, Leonora Carrington, a woman as well-known for her eccentricities as for her creative output. Leonora took to my husband immediately and invited him to one of her famous dinners. "Bring your wife," she said.
Leonora had a caustic wit and a reputation for not "suffering fools gladly." It was rumored that she carried a horse whip to gallery openings to keep undesirables away. I was more than a little nervous at the invitation.
A maid let us in and escorted us to a large, rectangular wooden table in a sparsely furnished, dimly lit room. The family and other invited guests were already seated around the table with Leonora at the head; her husband, Hungarian photographer Chiqui Weisz at the foot; and their sons, Gaby and Pablo on one side. Among the guests were her two close friends: Kati Horna, a photographer of some note, and Anita Brenner, a well-established writer and the publisher of Mexico/This Month, an English language magazine in Mexico City. The conversation around the table was articulate and witty.
Unlike her reputation as a distant and reclusive character, Leonora greeted me with warmth and kindness. She sat me on her right and plied me with questions about my young sons while she told me stories about her own, including her impulsive dash to Chapultepec Park to give birth to her firstborn. At the end of the evening, she asked me to return.
In a short time, our acquaintance grew into a friendship. I was grateful for her companionship and the attention she gave my boys in a country where they had no relatives. She was generous towards them, often visiting with small gifts and bars of chocolate. In time, they came to think of her as family and looked forward to her visits.
My husband and I became part of the permanent table along with Chiqui and Leonora's sons. Her taste in people was eclectic, but always interesting, from the still beautiful Maria Felix to the astrologer who had been enlisted by British intelligence during the Second World War to chart Hitler's moves. They all came and went, except for Kati and Anita, and the three were constantly exchanging stories of their early adventures in Mexico. At times Leonora would share hilarious anecdotes of Andre Breton in Mexico or of a somewhat dull Salvador Dali in New York — both of whom she knew from her Paris days. More somber stories often ensued of hidden intrigues and acts of vengeance that were cryptically told and then quickly hushed.
At Leonora's table, I tasted my first mole poblano, tender chicken in a rich chocolate-chile sauce, and to this day I've yet to taste one as rich in its blend of flavors. After dinner we'd play a game in which each of us would think of a person but not reveal the name. The hidden identity was uncovered through the hidden person's relationship to animal, color, sound, scent, shape or whatever association was asked for. Descriptions morphed into metaphors and the game shifted into poetic allusion, until the evening came to an exhilarating end.
Leonora shared much of her life with me — from the inhuman treatment she received in a mental institution in Spain (an agreement between the Nazi regime and her industrialist father to keep her out of a concentration camp) to the betrayal by Max Ernst in his marriage to Peggy Guggenheim. Memories that I had thought at the time to be far in her past, but now know through my perspective of age weren't far at all. These wounds had not yet closed, nor had the one of the death of her friend Remedios Varo who had died a few years earlier and whose paintings she took me to see in the village of Eronga in Michoacan. I could not miss the similarity in sensibility. Yet their work was so different in energy.
She spoke a great deal of her childhood and the restrictive, suffocating world of her patriarchic British father. But she also spoke of her Irish grandmother, a woman in touch with her Celtic heritage, who initiated Leonora into the world of white magic — the cult of the Druids. In this world of ancient magic she found her spiritual home, and there she is truly a priestess of the highest order moving easily between worlds through the portals opened by her beloved grandmother.
These multiple worlds removed from three dimensional sensory perceptions create a tapestry of rich colors and ever changing zoomorphic imagery that is reflected in her art. In contrast, her physical world is sparse. The rooms of her home are devoid of clutter, her bedroom a single bed, wardrobe, and chair. The library and what bits of worldly comfort prevail are in Chiqui's room.
Color is reserved for her paintings and permitted in the garden, which is teeming with healthy, verdant plant life and which she told me experiments with new shapes due to her nurturing connection. My skepticism was allayed when I watched her pass the ferns; each plant turned in her direction as she passed.
I visited her on a day she had taken ill and was confined to her bed. The bedroom is on the second floor and there is an outside walkway to reach it. As I approached her room, a black cloud floated out the door and rose into the clear, blue afternoon sky. I entered the room determined to say nothing, not even sure that I had actually seen anything. I sat on the only chair next to her bed. "You saw it," she said. "Yes," I answered. She went on to say she had brought on her illness through negative use of her powers and was exorcizing herself to get well. I believe it was during this time of deep personal reflection that she fully understood the double-edged power of the gift that had been imparted to her.
Leonora loved her sons fiercely, but she claimed a legacy of ancient knowledge that she couldn't pass on to them. It was oral wisdom transmitted through women from one generation to the next, and she believed me to be a good candidate. I was given a task. "I'm planning to paint my own Tarot deck," she said, "and I want you to dream images for me to draw." She suggested an astral visit from her. I didn't relish an out of body visitor and asked her to stay home. I promised to dream, and I did.
The next day I returned with my dream. After a lively discussion over content, she led me to the library in Chiqui's room, pulled a book on Mesopotamia from one of the shelves, and flipped it open to a statue of Marduk, guardian of Sumer. It was an exact replica of my dream image. I was asked to work on another dream. My confidence buoyed by the Marduk connection, I programmed myself before falling asleep to go as far back in time as I could in search of symbols for the new Tarot.
I found myself hurled at lightning speed through an endless dark tunnel. My physical body started to fall away and from somewhere above I watched my cellular structure burst open, disintegrate, and fall into the darkness. I jerked myself awake, shaken and afraid. From that night on I couldn't remember my dreams, and the experiment came to an abrupt halt.
However, Leonora was not about to give up. She believed in the power of women. She believed I had this power locked somewhere in the recesses of my psyche, and she was determined to bring it forward regardless of how it manifested itself.
One morning, she took me to her studio and spoke of technique. She was a master draftsman and at the time was working with pure silver. It's an exacting medium and mistakes can't be hidden. The fineness of her most intricate strokes was awesome and her work shimmered due to her control of the silver. She also used egg tempera, a technique that was used in early Renaissance but discarded over the centuries in favor of oil. She had her own formula that she mixed before each painting session. The colors she created through this technique were luminous and gave her paintings a jewel-like quality.
My first assignment was to draw an egg. I had to spend weeks examining the egg from different angles and observing the fall of the shadow at different hours of the day. The egg held multiple meanings for Leonora, and the shape is manifested in many of her paintings. She shared with me the story of coming across a nest of robin's eggs when she was a child. Not realizing how delicate the shells were, she had put her finger through one. "I killed a life," she said.
Finally, we decided that I would work on a puppet in papier mache, and of course, we'd start with the egg. Once again she had her own formula that she had devised to give papier mache the look of porcelain. I did make a perfect egg-like head and was about to tackle the limbs when a unique turn of events presented itself.
President Diaz Ordaz asked Leonora to go on a mission to the state of Chiapas, the home of the Lacandon Indians, to find an industry for them. The people were poor with no infrastructure for production of any kind, and he had hoped he could start a craft industry in the region. She considered introducing pottery but knew little about the craft and nothing about the clay content of the local soil. I had a ceramics background, was working with a potter in his studio in Mexico City, and could offer some expertise in establishing a workshop. A mutual friend, a geologist, could read the soil and was invited to join us.
We stayed at the home of the Swiss photographer and cultural anthropologist, Gertrude Duby — a woman of immense integrity who had spent most of her life photographing and documenting the lives of the Lacandon. She now worked relentlessly to protect their rain forest and culture from invasion. Using her home as base, we made many forays into the jungle where we were introduced to both the people and their spiritual leader, and were witness to the rites and rituals of a culture that had not yet been decimated by the predatory advances of the civilized world.
The project never developed due to growing unrest among the students and Diaz Ordaz's fear of dissent. It culminated in the massacre of hundreds of young people in Tlatelolco Square just days before the 1968 Olympics. Many lives were lost and dreams destroyed. The best educated of Mexico's youth disappeared with no trace. Their parents withdrew into themselves, frightened and bereft. Their school friends lived in terror of being next and hardly ventured out. The thriving cultural vitality of the city was reduced to ashes overnight. Mexico City became a silent scream with people scurrying home and secret police with radios on every corner.
I had been in Tlatelolco Square minutes before the army moved in with its tanks and guns and was saved by the quick thinking of a reporter who plucked me from the crowd and led me out through a narrow street. I was saved. Others weren't so lucky. Many friends were arbitrarily thrown into jail and tortured or exiled from the country. Leonora worried about her boys, and we were both pro-active in our efforts to make this story known and to disseminate information.
The situation in Mexico did not improve. The government churned out daily propaganda targeting foreigners as the underlying cause for the unrest. One day I returned from work to find "gringos go home" written in the dust on my car. I knew it was time to leave. My husband and I had parted several years before, and it no longer felt safe to remain with two young children. A year later we settled in Montreal, and I never saw Leonora again.
More than forty years have passed, but it could have been yesterday. A beaded necklace that she brought me from Bermuda hangs on my wall. Her dog-eared copy of Rene Daumal's Mount Analogue remains in my bookcase despite years of travel and changes of residence. Recently, I opened an old journal I had kept on dreams and found a note from her tucked inside. I threw out the journal, not the note. These small gifts of connection are touchstones for me of a gift far deeper — of experiences that have shaped me through my having crossed paths with this remarkable woman.