IN MEMORY OF THE MOST MAGICAL FRIEND I HAVE EVER HAD: LEONORA CARRINGTON


By Gloria Orenstein

On May 25, 2011 a great light was extinguished from the firmament with the death of the surrealist artist, Leonora Carrington at the age of 94. I don’t want to retell the story of her life here, which is completely amazing in itself, nor do I want to analyse her art or literature as I have done on numerous occasions in books and academic journals. I want to tell you about this great friend of mine and about how my life changed on July 6 , 1971 when she turned up in New York City just as I had been trying to understand the symbolism in her creative works, and had spoken aloud about it to the cosmos in these words:  “If I can’t go to Mexico, then let Mexico come to me.” Leonora was then living in Mexico, and since in those years there was nothing written about her, she had told me that I would have to come to Mexico if I wanted to understand her work. I could not make the trip at the time, and so I asked the help of the cosmos. At that exact moment the phone rang, and a huge English accent greeted me from the other end of the receiver saying:

“This is Leonora Carrington. I have just arrived in New York, and I would like to meet you.”

I told Leonora this story and said I didn’t know if she could believe what had just happened.  “Of course I believe it , Gloria. I’m a witch.”, she said proudly. I was quite shaken by all this, electrified would be more accurate, but I went right out to meet her at the Chelsea Hotel, and she greeted me with her fingers making the sign of the horns of the moon. “What’s that?,” I inquired, completely confused by the meaning of her gesture, and she replied “Those are the Holy Horns.” “The Holy Horns, of what? “, I persisted.. “The Holy Horns of Consecration”, she said with intensity. “Of consecration? , Consecration of what?” “OF THE GODDESS”, she boomed so loud that I would never forget it. I, who had only heard of Gods and Goddesses in the plural had no idea what this was about.  She told me I would have to travel with her to Paris if I wanted to know. I finally managed to do that, with the help of my brother’s credit card, and in Paris we met a few of her Surrealist friends. I soon began to understand that Leonora was often referring to The Celtic Goddess from the Irish roots of her family background, and also from having been raised by an Irish Nanny who taught her to love Irish folklore and mythology.

By the end of our three days together in New York, meeting with the feminists of N.O.W, (among whom were Betty Friedan and Jacqui Ceballos), because Leonora was very interested in starting a branch of NOW in Mexico City, and after our week together in Paris, I realized that in the way a little bell would ring for Alice B. Toklas whenever she met a genius, that bell had rung for me, and I knew I was in the presence of the most intelligent and multi-talented woman I had ever met. Leonora’s range of knowledge and experience was so vast that, at first, innocent as I was in those years, I could not follow a lot of what she spoke about.  I did not know anything about Alchemy or Tibetan Buddhism at that time. Her interests ranged from the esoteric sciences, art and literature (especially mysteries and detective novels) to cooking and her love of nature. Yet, despite her magical powers, her artistic talents, and her erudition, Leonora and I shared our oppression as women under patriarchy. She had suffered through many of the traumas in her marriage that I had experienced in my own. We had both been put down and ridiculed for our beliefs in surrealist visions and magic, and we had both been squashed for our enthusiasm when indulging in some of what today we call “New Age” practices. However, at that time these practices were still connected to their most original, and ancient sources. Not only did Leonora speak eruditely about Alchemy and Jung, she also studied with a Tibetan Lama, and eventually spent a week or more living outdoors in a  Canadian forest as part of a Tibetan Buddhist spiritual retreat. She had belonged to a Gurdjieff group in the past, and when I was in Mexico she took me to a meditation class led by a famous Japanese master. I was introduced to all these new (for me) approaches to life, these esoteric activities, on my first visit to her home in Mexico City, where I spent six weeks as her guest. On that occasion she handed me the manuscript of what was to become her novel THE HEARING TRUMPET, and asked me to read it. Imagine my surprise when I came to the last line that said:

“If the Old Woman can’t go to Lapland, then Lapland must come to the Old Woman.”

Why that was just like my sentence about how Mexico must come to me. When I mentioned this to her, she replied quite nonchalantly: “Naturally, Gloria. This is why I had you come here to Mexico. Now do you think I should have this novel published?” Had she magically and psychically orchestrated all these extraordinary events?—I think she did the work of a shaman in the way she wove the threads of synchronicity (that the Surrealists refer to as “le hasard objectif”) together. I did ask her why her protagonist, an elderly woman in an old age home in Mexico City so desired to go to Lapland throughout the novel, and she responded saying: “The Shamans of Lapland just happen to be the most magical people on Earth, Gloria.” In saying this, she made such an important pronouncement that I knew I had to remember that fact forever. Of course I did NOT know what a shaman was when she told me that. It was years later that this sentence was to come home to me in my own life.  But back to my visit to Mexico.

This visit was the most extraordinary and generous gift I have ever received. Leonora took me everywhere, and  I literally spent every day with her. We visited the Witches’ Market in Mexico City. We went to faith healers in the country, who passed an egg over me to heal me. We traveled to her other house in Cuernavaca where she had dreams of founding a retreat center for women and having the group lead a spiritual, visionary lifestyle. She wanted this house, which she called The Rath at Cow Horn, to be devoid of all furniture except for the dining table in the center of her Garden of Eden in the back yard—the garden would provide all the food for the household.  There would be no time spent doing dishes. We were told we would eventually take a garden hose and wash off the plates and the food would be funneled into a hole in the table, and would return to the earth to be recycled. The bedrooms would have no furniture to take care of. Out of the wall would be a ledge (there were already ledges coming out of many of the bedroom walls) and one would simply put a mattress and blankets on the ledge for a bed, and just fold things up in the morning. That would leave ample time for spiritual practices, for creativity, and for working in the garden.

    We took a trip to the pyramids at Teotihuacan, and she told to me forget everything I had been told about them. I was to imagine what they reminded me of and what might have taken place at this site.  I came up with the idea that they might have been the site of a great center of scientific and astronomical observation. When we visited the pyramids at TULA I had the most important lesson in how Leonora sees and understands these ancient, archeological sites. She asked me to walk very far away from the pyramids (the ones with the “astronauts” on them) and then to approach them slowly and tell her what I observed.  Unfortunately I did not see the way she did, and I couldn’t come up with anything important. Then we redid this many times. Finally, she realized that I did not see what she did, and she told me that as we approached the pyramid, the “astronauts” seemed to descend below the pyramid into the underground—it was a visual phenomenon, an Optical Illusion. When you come close to the façade of the pyramid, you can’t see what is on top of it because it is as if you are standing under it. She concluded that they had vanished into the earth, and that the pyramids may have been put there to commemorate a race that had possibly come from outer space and had disappeared into the underworld. I began to understand the mythos that was unfolding in her vision—how the ancestors, like her own Celtic ancestors, both the real ones and  the mythical ones who had worshipped the Goddess, had vanished into the underworld, and how the knowledge that we were seeking of the beyond, the hereafter, and the origins of all that exists, was most likely buried in the underworld beneath the pyramids, but if we could learn to expand our psychic and clairvoyant vision, we might begin to perceive these other worlds from which they had come and to which they had gone. She believed that women would evolve psychically, and they would bring forth this knowledge for they would develop the wisdom and the techniques for saving all life on earth. She was definitely a precursor of today’s Ecofeminists. This is the meaning of her Women’s Liberation poster MUJERES CONCIENCIA (1972), where the New Eve is returning the Apple to the Biblical Eve, for she refuses to accept that demeaning role associated with The Fall of all humankind  any longer. The New Eve in her poster is rising with the Kundalini energy that is passing through the chakras of her body and illuminating her Third Eye. The poster is green for the greening of the Earth that will come about with the rising of the women – up and out of their patriarchal domination, by overthrowing their oppressive mythic and actual social roles. When the poster was completed, I happened to be in Mexico, and then we were leaving for New York. We carried one hundred of these posters to New York to distribute to feminist friends of mine. Leonora belonged to a small group of feminist activists in Mexico City in those days. She had one meeting at her house where I got to meet these women. Whereas in New York we were doing consciousness raising about our roles in the family, in relationships, and in society, about how our access to jobs and education for advanced careers was blocked by sexist practices, in Mexico the women were speaking to each other about new and more magical ways of activating and developing their psychic, clairvoyant vision so that their evolution towards enlightenment would unfold. Leonora saw many things we did not see in a humorous way too. In Paris, where I was going to return after our week together there, and where I would be living in an old apt. that had nothing on the walls, she would stare at the walls for a while, and then she would say things like: “Gloria,  don’t you think a painting of a large blue cow would go beautifully right there?” In her house in Mexico City, there were very few things on the walls. People would often be surprised, because with all her art, they imagined she would have a lot of it displayed at home. NO. I think it was in some way related to the fact that when she looked at walls she saw things that we did not see, but she did not need an art display on her walls to enjoy colorful surreal vistas and imagery.

She had so many visionary dreams that were partially realized that I believed everything she told me. Once she said that I should return to Mexico the next year and she would have built a gypsy caravan, and we would travel all over Mexico together in it. I loved her dream of a wandering gypsy life, and I believed in it. The next summer I called Leonora to tell her that I had bought my ticket and was ready for our adventure. She was shocked. What adventure was I talking about? I reminded her of the gypsy caravan, and she just burst into a fit of laughter. “Oh Gloria, you couldn’t have taken me seriously. I am coming to NY now to see Pablo (her son),  and thought you would be there, but since you have your ticket already, come on down to Mexico and stay in my house with Chiki and Gaby.“ I did just that, and I didn’t know whether I was disappointed or elated at the thought of a second summer in Mexico. But without Leonora it could never be the same.

      Our adventures in friendship continued for many years.  It was some seventeen years later that I was to receive the next phone call that would transform my life forever. It came from a Sociologist, Berit As, who taught at The University of Oslo, in Norway. She was trying to found a Feminist University, and she had come on a fundraising mission to the U.S. She called me from Berkeley, and found me in my office at USC just as I was planning our ecofeminist conference, that was held in 1987.  She said she was coming to Los Angeles, and asked if she could stay with me. I had such a small apartment that I said it would hardly be possible, but that I had many friends with large homes who could put her up. She insisted that “they” (now it had changed to “they”) ABSOLUTELY HAD TO STAY WITH ME. “Don’t you want to know who I am traveling with, Gloria?” asked Berit. Innocently I asked her who her companion was, and imagine my shock when she said she was traveling with A SHAMAN FROM LAPLAND. Things had come full cycle in a very surrealist way of seeing life.

     As I said about my trip to Mexico without Leonora -’it would not be the same- today I want to say that this life will never be the same for me without Leonora. There is so much more I would want to write about her and about how truly blessed I have been that she manifested in my life in the very way that she did—which I sometimes refer to as her Mary Poppins arrival—turning my academic research on her art and writing into a process I now refer to as “the Methodology of the Marvelous”, but I simply want to close by saying how much I miss her being in this world.  We who knew her and loved her and studied and admired her creative work have been incredibly fortunate to have known her and to have had her with us for so long. I am truly elated that she lived long enough to see her art attain the worldwide recognition and adulation that it has. This is unique for women artists, and even more so for women of Surrealism, which has never been in the mainstream of the art world, but her work had great power, and those who encountered it were all transformed by its revelations of visions and knowledge that had been occulted for centuries. I am proud that the feminist movement was created during her lifetime, so that a generation of art historians were preparing themselves for their HERSTORIC task of bringing her oeuvre to light in our time. May her work continue to thrive in our history of art and literature, and may her revelations of the marvelous continue to inspire us for generations to come.