Carry On, Leonora: 1

(This is the first of five sections of a piece I’ve been puzzling over all summer about the great British Surrealist painter and writer, Leonora Carrington. Puzzling because I don’t quite know where I’m going with this, though it clearly fits into the thematic territory of other posts on here from the last few years. The five pieces appear to have developed a certain symmetry of their own.)


I don’t know what keeps drawing me back to Leonora Carrington. That I love and am deeply involved to the point of obsession not just with many of her images and texts, but also with the way they interrelate, is very likely part of it, but that combination of affections is true for several artists and writers. I have more or less strange and unresolved debts to many, as most writers and artists do. Most of their names crop up with relentless frequency in my writing, and do not need rehearsed here except to note one detail: they are almost all male.

Although I could list an alternative selection of women writers, artists and musicians who have influenced, affected or disturbed me in ways every bit as profound as those usual suspects, it is their usualness that interests me here, given how unusual they are in their art, and how it is that Carrington effortlessly disturbs that under-considered tendency toward my own gender.

A recent trip to the Peggy Guggenheim illustrates this more or less precisely. In the eighties, travelling on a tiny budget with my first partner, an art historian, after going round the churches and galleries devoted to the great Venetian and Italian artists, we would usually head to the Guggenheim to top up on Modernism, as it were. There I found myself obsessively sketching the same few paintings over and over, usually trying to get a handle on Cubism and that moment of perceptual shift that obsessed me at the time. Surrealism was less interesting – hadn’t Ashbery told us everyone was a Surrealist now, or rather then?

Nonetheless I distinctly remember the de Chirico, Dalí, Miró, and the Ernst – de Chirico was exempted because he pre-empted Surrealist orthodoxy; Dalí because he was ejected from it for being heretically well-known; Miró because of that command of line; Ernst because of the techniques – the slight rudeness of frottage and grattage that nonetheless linked back to Braque’s use of painter-decorators’ techniques for reproducing wood grain or marble. That was something my paternal grandfather had known how to do, and in any case related further back still to Da Vinci’s famous remark in the notebooks about finding images in random patterns.

(The other reason for admiring de Chirico was equally personal and subjective: an encounter with one of his horse’s heads in a small Venetian gallery one year had been followed by hearing Iggy Pop’s ‘Horse Song’: a little chimeric switch clicked on in my brain.)

So it therefore seems extraordinary that it wasn’t until this last visit that I really looked at the one Leonora Carrington painting in the collection. Her obsessions with both horses and Ernst are well-documented. Her difficult relationship with Guggenheim is explored in Elena Poniatowska’s biographical novel, Leonora. But on those previous trips I had evidently just classed it with the Victor Brauner nearby as not only small but minor, and passed on by.

Leonora Crabbington

Of course in the meantime I had drawn on her accounts of extreme anxiety, most notably The House of Fear, at a point of crisis in my own life, plus I’d embarked on a long term relationship with Crete, the Great Island where I began writing this, which sent me back to what I’d considered the stock imagery of the Labyrinth and that ultimate chimera, the Minotaur. In several senses, it’s not until you’ve visited the labyrinth, both as a psychological and as an archaeological phenomenon, that you begin to reconsider its aptness as a depiction of the mind, with its simultaneous awareness of, and difficulty with, historical fact and mythopoeic perception.

That the palatial constructs of the Minoans were labyrinthine was an interpretation by their less sophisticated Mycenaean supplanters in just the way that early modern archaeologists like Evans and Schliemann not only excavated but reconstructed the Minoans, the Trojans, and indeed the Mycenaeans themselves. (Or as the Anglo-Saxons described the ruins of Roman Britain as being in some way ‘enta geweorc’, ‘the work of giants’.) Whether we re- or mis-interpret something we don’t fully understand, we occasionally by doing so invent interesting ways of conceptualising understanding itself. Leonora, of course, already knew this.

She was inside and outside Surrealism in precisely the way that, for instance, Edwin Muir describes the Labyrinth continuing beyond its physical limitations:

…since I came out that day,

There have been times when I have heard my footsteps

Still echoing in the maze, and all the roads

That run through the noisy world, deceiving streets

That meet and part and meet, and rooms that open

Into each other – and never a final room –

Stairways and corridors and antechambers

That vacantly wait for some great audience,

The smooth sea-tracks that open and close again,

Tracks undiscoverable, indecipherable,

Paths on the earth and tunnels underground,

And bird-tracks in the air – all seemed a part

Of the great labyrinth.

Similarly, she was also within and outwith Britishness, in the realm of dark whimsy that we encounter equally in Dadd and Carroll, the traumatised nonsense of Lear or Milligan that finds fruit in the imagery of Python and Gilliam, the ‘English magic’ of Susannah Clarke’s Strange and Norrell, or the ancient Quixotic cult of Doctor Who – but which doesn’t take firm root in British poetry. Surrealism is replayed as a Celtic fringe sport like the hurling: the apocalyptic Celts, who are displaced by the bourgeois Movement and the suburban madnesses of the Confessionals, who then in turn must head away from the metropolis, to Mytholmroyd, to California, in order to find room for their own strangenesses.

Of course, out there on the edges, the others persisted – among the Scots, W.S. Graham was conducting his own reconfiguration of the reader’s experience of the printed page, MacDiarmid building a personal internet of information, Hamilton Finlay planting a garden of text, Kenneth White and Alastair Reid wandering in the time-honoured Caledonian fashion. The Welsh with David Jones or Lynne Roberts, the North-East with Bunting and latterly MacSweeney, the Irish with of course Beckett but also, crucially, Flann O’Brien – and in Mexico, throughout it all, Leonora Carrington – were all doing other.

As someone living and writing in Oxford throughout the 80s, I felt estranged from both the British Poetry Revival as exemplified by Cambridge and London poets such as Prynne and Mottram, even as I worked out my own relationship to the same US figures writers in those affiliations admired – O’Hara, Berrigan and Hejinian, rather than Ashbery, Duncan and Silliman, perhaps. But equally, I felt no strong links to the post-Auden school exemplified by John Fuller and my contemporary, Mick Imlah. Connecting to Scottish writing as – complex term – an Informationist helped the literary cartographer in me just as, in later years, poet-to-poet translation would help me define a role at an angle to the major European canon, but that didn’t necessarily sit well, pun intended, with the absurdity.

It is the role of what British writers disparagingly think of as ‘humour’ that is the issue here: the comic as a lesser form to the high seriousness they feel inheres to the significant art of their time – you know, the stuff they write. Of course the ‘comic’ is precisely what takes us close to the less controllable and predictable: what we are really doing when we laugh is as mysterious to us as what we do when we sneeze, or defecate, or dream, or orgasm: we are placed in touch with our animality, our inner otherness. It is the ‘odd’-ness of Tristram Shandy, that won’t do long but has somehow nonetheless persisted. This is all summed up exactly by the title of that painting I overlooked by Leonora Carrington: ‘Oink!’

About W N Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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3 Responses to Carry On, Leonora: 1

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