The meandering five-hundred mile road trip in spring of 1943 from New York to the border with Mexico was merely the first lap in a journey that immersed Leonora Carrington in this land and its customs for decades. For many in her New York circle, Mexico was a chaotic mix of colorful revelry and soul grinding poverty; simultaneously brutal, beautiful, and belligerent. To comprehend the magnitude of Leonora's move to Mexico it is necessary to understand the life she had left behind in France; a chaotic Europe in the throes of war, months of internment in a Spanish asylum, an arduous flight into exile in New York and a heart-rending rupture with the painter Max Ernst; the love of her life. This period of Leonora's life is chronicled in my latest book, Surreal Lovers: Eight Women Integral to the Life of Max Ernst.
When she eventually arrived to Mexico City, it felt as if she was on a different planet. Everything was unfamiliar, “even the trees,” she recalled, it was suddenly a totally new world, “exciting and utterly strange” and she fell in love with it right away. First stop was the abandoned ex-Soviet embassy where European exiles were given temporary shelter. This lumbering landmark building at 204 Vasconcelos in the now ultra-hip, restaurant-loaded Colonia Condesa was once the elegant residence of feminist revolutionary, Alexandra Kollontai, the world's first female ambassador. The reinstated embassy became a haven for Soviet spooks whose blatant spying activities went viral in Mexico during the Cold War period. Their antics, and the embassy, feature in the 1980s thriller The Falcon and the Snowman.
Within weeks Leonora and her Mexican husband, Renato Leduc had moved to Giordano street in the barrio of Mixcoac with its cobbled plazas and ancient churches. But, it was the colorful public markets that initiated Leonora's passion for bizarre Mexico; “To discover chipotle chiles and maguey worms! It seemed such an exotic country to me—from the character of the people, their contact with the dead, the variety of food, plants, animals and the landscape.” The tram that took her from Mixcoac to La Merced, the enormous central market, stopped near the Zocalo, a vast plaza at the heart of Mexico city. Nearby on Guatemala street today is Leonora's bench sculpture called 'There's no room'.
Within months of their arrival she and Renato were drifting apart, but it was Leonora's encounter with a group of artists at a wild party in San Angel that brought their marriage to an abrupt end. Among the guests were the two women who became her closest friends, the Spanish painter, Remedios Varo and the Hungarian photographer Kati Horna; the other Hungarian photographer she met that evening was Chiki (Emerico) Weisz. When Leonora and Renato separated soon afterwards, Remedios invited her and Chiki to move into the home she shared with the poet Benjamin Péret, in a tumbledown building at 18 Gabino Barreda in the working class barrio of San Rafael.
The flat could only be accessed through a window, yet works by Picasso, Dalí, and Miró hung on the flaking walls. The artists who gathered there kept alive the spirit of the Parisian surrealists; playing surreal games and creating bizarre dishes such as cooking tapioca with fish heads, adding black squid ink and serving it to undiscerning guests as caviar. Gunther Gerszo depicted the group in his painting The Days of Gabino Barreda Street, on view in the MUNAL (National Museum of Art) at Tacuba 8. Close by, at Tacuba 28, the Café Tacuba, which Leonora frequented, serves traditional Mexican dishes in a colonial setting.
The Sonora Market located on Fray Servando Teresa de Mier in the historic center of the city was a favorite haunt of Remedios and Leonora. Known as the “witchcraft market,” the two women went there not only to buy potions and amulets but also to educate themselves on the occult. Natural healers and savants in the market introduced them to alchemical experiments that they later practiced in their kitchens. Mediums and seers foretold the future through a variety of means; crystal balls, palm readings and the Tarot cards. Leonora consulted the Tarot frequently and even created her own set of cards.
Chiki and Leonora's stay in Gabino Barreda ended in 1946 when she discovered she was pregnant. The divorce from Renato was finally legal so she and Chiki decided to get married and move into a place of their own. The simple ceremony took place at the home of Kati and José Horna in the Colonia Roma—where the newlyweds had recently moved to a flat on the tree-lined Avenida Alvarez Obregon. Now immortalized in Roma directed by Alfonso Cuaron, the Colonia Roma with its shabby elegance was one of the loveliest neighborhoods in Mexico City during the 1940s.
Many of the rundown mansions had been divided into apartments and the rents were reasonably cheap. Leonora had no outlet for her paintings in Mexico until she met Edward James, the poet and patron of artists such as Salvador Dalí and René Magritte. The English collector, who had excellent contacts in the art world, arranged for her to have a solo show in New York that was key to her career and led to her being represented by Inés Amor, the influential owner of the Galeria de Arte Mexicano. Founded in 1935, the gallery still exists in the landmark building at 43 Rebollar in the artsy San Miguel Chapultepec barrio.
By this time Leonora had given birth to two boys, Gabriel and Pablo. Motherhood suited her, nurturing both her sense of well-being and her art as is reflected in the magnificent works Daughter of the Minotaur and Giantess; paintings steeped in Celtic myth. On the lintel of her doorway Edward James had written, “This is the house of the Sphinx.” Edward was living in Xilitla a remote village in mountains of San Luis Potosi where he was creating the surreal, sculpture garden, Las Pozas. While in Mexico City he often stayed at the Hotel Majestic with its magnificent rooftop restaurant overlooking the Cathedral and the National Palace where Leonora and friends often joined him.
Leonora adored the new home she and Chiki had moved into on Chihuahua street, particularly its interior patios with plants and a tree in the middle. It was still in Roma, close to her circle of friends most of whom were exiles, very few of the Mexican artists fraternized with the Europeans and vice versa. Frida Kahlo in particular had a pretty low opinion of the surrealist women artists she had met in Paris in the 1930s, calling them stuck-up “bitches.” Though she was fond of Leonora, who occasionally made the trip to the village of Coyoacan to visit her at the Blue House (Casa Azul). Xochimilco was another village close to the city that she enjoyed visiting. It was surrounded by a network of waterways and she often took her sons for boat trips on the brightly painted barges that meander along the lush banks, covered with flower gardens and vegetable patches.
Frida Kahlo gave a huge party at the Blue House for her friends on her birthday in July 1954; just weeks before her death. Guests feasted on her favorite dishes, turkey in a chocolate chile sauce and tamales stuffed with chicken and wrapped in banana leaves. Leonora was invited and chatted at length with Rivera who was a witty raconteur and an excellent source of gossip; he and Clemente Orozco were the only mural painters she liked, the surrealists and the muralists did not get on. The three Mexican “greats,” Rivera, Orozco and David Siquieros dominated the Mexico art scene and their work covers the walls of landmark buildings throughout the historic center. However, Leonora was the first female artist to be commissioned to paint a large-scale artwork in Mexico.
The intricate and intriguing mural The Magical World of the Maya is on display in the Sala Maya at the Museum of Anthropology; it was painted for the opening of the museum in 1963. Another of her murals is in a less well-known and more remote location, though the setting alone is worth the trek. Painted on the wall of the house where Edward James lived while creating Las Pozas, Leonora's painting of an 8-foot tall fantasy creature with coiled breasts and the head of a ram appears to be leaning nonchalantly on a pillar of the portico. A medley of different architectural styles, El Castillo (the Castle) is now a small hotel whose idiosyncratic rooms include the “Don Eduardo” with tall, stained glass gothic windows and marvelous mountain views, once Edward’s bedroom.
Mexico's stellar gourmet and exotic foods market is the San Juan Pugibet where the city's top chefs shop. Located between Luis Moya y Buen Tono streets it was beloved by Leonora who adored unearthing unusual edibles. The market was where she bought the ingredients for one of her preferred dishes, mole poblano, and she excelled at it and served it regularly to dinner guests. Excellent “mole” can be found in the simplest of places, like the 110-year-old Tacos Beatriz with branches throughout the city.
Mexico's student protest movement met with unbridled, state brutality just days before the opening of the 1968 Mexican Olympic Games when hundreds of young people were killed during a rally in Tlatelolco Square. Leonora, now 51 years old, was afraid for Gabriel and Pablo who were activists, yet she joined other intellectuals in denouncing the government's human rights violations. But when she learned her activities had been reported to state officials, she immediately left for New York taking her sons with her. Over the next decade she lived in a miniscule apartment in Manhattan. Visits to Mexico were infrequent; she was terrified of flying and on one occasion was so petrified she wore her life-jacket inflated during the flight.
In the late-70s she rented a house in Cuernavaca, a charming colonial town with a temperate climate an hour south of Mexico City. Her dream was to convert it into a women's commune with a library on feminist and esoteric topics, classes on martial arts and contraception plus an ingenious method of dealing with the loathsome task of washing up. Cutlery was unnecessary because meals were to be eaten with your hands from a table in the garden. An opening in the center would allow for the leftovers to be washed through the hole with a hose so they could fertilize the soil below. Unfortunately her plans never came to fruition.
Leonora returned to Mexico in 1980, but her life was severely disrupted in 1985 when a major earthquake struck Mexico City. The Colonia Roma suffered extensive damage and an apartment block opposite her home collapsed, killing many of the inhabitants. Once again she left Mexico and did not come back to live until the early 90s. With Leonora in residence again, the house at 54 Chihuahua became a Mecca for reporters, academics and admirers; now it is about to become a museum where anyone can linger in her reconstructed kitchen. If you were fortunate enough to get through the forbidding front door when she was alive this is where you would be offered tea, or occasionally tequila, while Leonora talked and smoked.
To friends and family she was warm, welcoming and witty, but interviewing her was not for the faint hearted. Rule number one was not to ask her to explain her work; “Nothing to explain!” would be her retort. Or to talk about her lovers; on romantic love she was scathing, “You have to own your soul, as far as it’s possible to own your soul ... But to give it over to some half-assed male? I wouldn’t recommend it.” Honors and accolades were poured on her in her final years, some of them pleased her though she was indifferent to most. Of greatest importance to her were her sons.
The regular lunches she had with Gabriel were sacrosanct, and almost always took place in the Sanborns at 74 Salamanca in Roma. Though she had a profound love of Mexico, Leonora Carrington thought of herself as British but she was also proud of her Irish heritage and attributed her “Celtic creativity” to her Irish genes. She died in 2011 at the age of 94 and is buried in the Panteon Britannica, a British Cemetery in the Colonia Tacuba.
Irish author Margaret Hooks recounts the life of Leonora Carrington prior to her arrival in Mexico in her latest book Surreal Lovers: Eight Women Integral to the Life of Max Ernst.