Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington dies

Rebellious British artist and author Leonora Carrington, who spent most of her life in Mexico., and was one of the last original surrealists, has died in Mexico City.
British-born artist Leonora Carrington, last among the original surrealists, has died in Mexico City. (Henry Romero/Reuters )

Rebellious British artist and writer Leonora Carrington, who spent most of her life in Mexico, and was one of the last original surrealists, has died in Mexico City.

Mexico's National Arts Council confirmed on Thursday that the prolific, 94-year-old artist had died a day earlier.

"She created mythical worlds in which magical beings and animals occupy the main stage, in which cobras merge with goats and blind crows become trees," the National Arts Council wrote, adding, "These were some of the images that sprang from a mind obsessed with portraying a reality that transcends what can be seen."

Born into a wealthy family in Lancashire, U.K., Carrington demonstrated a rebellious streak early on. Expelled from several schools before her parents finally granted her wish to study art in Florence, she ultimately shunned their aristocratic expectations by running off to Paris with a middle-aged, married man: celebrated surrealist Max Ernst.

The surrealist art movement, led by André Breton in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, was characterized by bold experimentation with colour, art forms and the creative process.

For a time, Ernst and Carrington lived an idyllic life together creating art, first in Paris alongside the likes of Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Joan Miro, and later in Provence. However, the outbreak of the Second World War proved disastrous for their relationship.

A visitor studies Chiki Ton Pays, a painting by Leonora Carrington, during a preview of Latin American Art at Sotheby's in New York in 2009. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)

Ernst, a German-born Jew, was initially arrested as a "hostile alien" before being discharged after a few weeks. Following the Nazi occupation, however, the Gestapo arrested him again. Though Ernst managed to escape to the U.S. with the help of art patron and later wife Peggy Guggenheim, his second imprisonment sparked a breakdown for the young Carrington.

The British artist fled to Spain, where her family had her confined to a psychiatric hospital. When she had the opportunity to leave, she immediately sought refuge with a Mexican diplomat she had met through Picasso in Paris.

He agreed to marry Carrington to facilitate her escape from Europe and to help her distance herself from her family. She spent some time in the U.S., but after dissolving her marriage of convenience, she eventually re-established herself in Mexico City, where she would largely spend the rest of her life.

Mexican inspiration

Carrington found fresh artistic inspiration in Mexican culture and amid a circle of literary and artistic peers that included Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Luis Bunuel, Remedios Varo and Kati Horna. In 1944, she also met and married Hungarian photographer Emerico (Chiki) Weisz, who died several years ago.

Over the decades, she gained fame internationally for her strange, vibrant and haunting paintings, murals, sculptures, poems and novels. She released a memoir entitled Down Below in 1989.

For years, she was neglected in her homeland, except for the patronage of U.K. surrealist collector Edward James. But in 2000, she received the Order of the British Empire.

More recently, British journalist Joanna Moorhea — a second cousin of Carrington's who sought to reconnect with the family's black sheep — helped revive interest in the artist and spurred Surreal Friends, an exhibition of Carrington's work in the U.K.

Her work is included in The Colour of My Dreams, an exhibit of surreal works opening Saturday at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Carrington is survived by Gabriel and Pablo, her two sons by Weisz. After a viewing at a Mexico City funeral home on Thursday, she was buried at the city's British cemetery.

"Leonora was truly a woman who was one of a kind," said Mexican author Elena Poniatowska, a longtime friend who wrote the novel Leonora based on her life.

A man looks at a bronze sculpture by British-born Mexican surrealist Leonora Carrington on display on Reforma Avenue in Mexico City in 2008. (Gregory Bull/Associated Press)

With files from The Associated Press