The Surrealist Artist and Author You Need to Know About

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Leonora Carrington & Alejandro Jodorowsky performing Penelope (1957)

The fantastical world of Leonora Carrington – painter, novelist and lover to Max Ernst – is finally seeing due celebration in a new book

Who? Born in Lancashire in 1917, Leonora Carrington was the daughter of wealthy industrialists. Displaying a rebellious streak from an early age, she was expelled from numerous convent schools and wore an open disdain for the pomp and ceremony of British high society. Famously, during a visit to Ascot, a young Carrington was so outraged to find that women couldn’t place bets that she decided to read a book – Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza – instead of watching the races. She felt suffocated by life as a debutante, and fled to Paris with her lover, the German painter Max Ernst, where she flourished as an artist with the support of Ernst and the community of Surrealist painters the couple surrounded themselves with; including Dalí, Miró and Picasso. The work she created was rich in symbolism and full of eccentric figures which blurred the lines between humans, animals and plants.

But these were turbulent times for Europe. The Nazis soon made their way to Northern France and Ernst was imprisoned. Carrington, who was 22 at the time, fled to Spain and had a nervous breakdown. She was placed in an asylum, but eventually escaped both war-torn Europe and the clutches of her family, who wished to plan a wedding for their daughter that would advance their own social status. Instead, Carrington moved to Mexico, where she lived for the rest of her life, producing wildly inventive work and becoming a national treasure in her adopted homeland.

What? Aside from her paintings, Carrington wrote fiction which was every bit as playful and absurd as her visual art. This week sees the release of The Debutante and Other Stories, a book of Carrington’s Surrealist tales collected together for the first time by new feminist publisher Silver Press. For the publishers, “reading Carrington means entering a very singular imaginative world”. The stories are full-bodied; brimming with mystical creatures, flavours and scents. Heroines include a woman who sells her soul to a boar in exchange for a kilo of truffles, and a young debutante who persuades a hyena to attend a coming out ball in her place – even though it means murdering her maid in the process (because the hyena requires a human face to wear, of course). By turns funny, fierce and feral, the stories overflow with Carrington’s rare imagination. Often they feel like non-sequiturs, in that the reader ends up somewhere totally unhinted at by the story’s beginning, but this disorientating effect only proves that you’ve been taken on a wild ride. Where the stories cohere is in their focus on sensuality, their insistent satirising of upper class traditions and the way they force us to rethink the hierarchy of beings. In Carrington’s stories animals are just as smart – if not smarter – than the humans they interact with.

Why? Publisher Silver Press grew out of “years of conversations” between the founders and their friends. Discussions about “work, power, publishing” and favourite writers lead editors Sarah Shin, Alice Spawls and Joanna Biggs to realise that a feminist publisher was exactly where their “intellectual interests, professional experience and politics could dovetail”. The Debutante and Other Stories is a delightfully subversive, irreverent and thought-provoking collection, which shines a spotlight on Carrington’s unique talents. Much of her work hadn’t been in print for some time and Silver Press “just really wanted that book to exist.” The publisher argues that the stories have “the same relevance they had when [Carrington] wrote them” – concerned as they are with universal themes of “love, duty, anarchy, religion, society [and] political inanity.” As publishers, the women behind Silver Press “are interested in books by women that fall through the gaps – books that seem obvious and essential to us but which haven’t been commissioned, or aren’t in print or need to be put together”. They lament: “you can wait around forever hoping someone else will do so…”

The Debutante and Other Stories is out April 6, 2017, published by Silver Press.