Leonora, Linares and the Alebrijes, 1

(I’ve been meaning and indeed longing to get back to this account of my non-encounter with Leonora Carrington two years ago in Mexico City, and to describe what I met instead. Revisiting my drafts within a month of the earthquake there, I’m mindful that what to me was an exciting cultural event unfolded in the indeterminate lull between recurring tragedies.

Schedule-juggling has been partly why it’s taken me such a long time to get my head round this piece. The main reason, however, has been trying to engage with the unsettling elements of my attempted encounter, and its relation to that equally unsettling directness about death, which was one of the reasons why Breton termed Mexico the most surreal country in the world, and which is explored in Claudio Lomnitz’s fascinating study, Death and the Idea of Mexico.

The European response to that directness might be summed up by Wolfgang Paalen’s ‘El genio del espacio’, an artwork made for the International Exhibition of Surrealism in 1940. Daniel Garza Usabiaga describes this as ‘a pistol made out of bones through which the relation between weapons and death was made explicit.’

When I read about this first, I was reminded of a passage in Julián Herbert’s memoir, ‘Mama Leukaemia’, in which the young Julián goes with a teenage friend who wants to buy a pistol. You know it will end in tragedy, but the masterful detail is the slurred description of the gun by the addict who sells them it. As his translator Brendan Riley notes, ‘the illegal gun [is] a Smith & Wesson, which the stoned seller slurs as “Mita y Hueso”. Interestingly those two words individually mean “myth” and “bone”.’

It is the matter of fact way that Julián Herbert finds that pun, which in turn echoes Wolfgang Paalen’s surreal pistol of bone (which in turn echoes the ‘organic pistol’ made from the inedible parts of cooked mutant animals in Cronenberg’s film ‘eXistenZ’, and so on in the infinite recession posited in that film between film and game and reality…) which reminds me of Leonora Carrington’s warning to her cousin when she attempted to find an explanation for Leonora’s origins as an artist: ‘You’re trying to intellectualise something, desperately, and you’re wasting your time. It comes from somewhere else.’

I think it is the somewhere-elseness than concerns me here. We have the habit of locating that literally somewhere else, in for instance the exoticised other that Breton made of Mexico. But it is also, as for Carrington, a way of engaging with the internal otherland of the creative act.

At one point, the poet and translator Richard Gwyn joked to me that I had a double in Mexico in Julián Herbert. Of course there is no relation whatever between the Acapulco writer and myself, and the comparison merely casts my themes and preoccupations in a rather minor light. Like Roberto Bolaño, Herbert is neither a surrealist nor what we think of as realist, but rather focussed on the crisis of a life lived among narcos and prostitution. Death, poverty, and grief are not so much the themes of his work, but the landscape he attempts to negotiate in order to approach his actual themes: what is love and identity, and what is knowing this worth?

But even where a comparison is inapt, a link is formed. I had been travelling or rather getting away a lot (for me) over the year or so between my father’s death in 2014 and this trip, and I had begun to realise I was trying to gain some space to grieve. I think I was trying to internalise the images that confronted me in Mexico City into a softer if not safer, post-Surreal, cartoonish inner landscape. It was this negotiation between recognition and appropriation in that embryonic space in the imagination which took up the time.)

I went to Mexico City in late 2015 for a number of reasons apart from my standard excuse of having been invited. As a denizen of poetry’s floating world, it is my passive habit never to seek out opportunity nor, if at all possible, to refuse it. As a contributor to Pedro Serrano’s and Carlos Lopez Beltran’s influential 90s anthology, Generation of the Lamb, I had hoped that some such invitation might eventually come my way.

Essentially – though, with the stubbornness of Panza’s donkey, I would do nothing to encourage this – I wondered if everyone else might help me further my re-encounter over that year with the work of Leonora Carrington. Having pictured her in Mexico through Elena Poniatawska’s magical biographicist novel, I now had an image of Mexico City as punctuated if not populated by her giant sculptures, and of its galleries as being full of her works and those of her close friend, Remedios Varo. Just as I’d travelled to China and to Somaliland to translate, I had the vague idea this might be some form of ekphrastic pilgrimage. Except Leonora wasn’t there.

With anti-zeitgeistlich precision, I arrived just after the crest of the wave of revived interest in her work had passed, taking many of her actual paintings to Liverpool Tate, where I had already viewed them, on the continued momentum of which it was currently shepherding her sculptures around Mexico.

I imagined this wave as a train, bearing the sculptures in a long line, covered with tarpaulin, as though, at the sounding of its whistle, I could witness it passing, a grotesque silhouette on the horizon, as though an obsidian saw had been fashioned from the profiles of shadow puppets, or like a giant sequoia version of those pieces of wood carved into outlines of a coastline that the Inuit used to navigate.

So when I asked my interpreter and guide, the immensely polite and patient Giovanni, to take me to firstly the anthropological museum, and second the gallery of modern art, and thirdly to wherever the street of the crocodiles in a crocodile boat was, I had no idea I was setting him a fruitless task.

However, he rose to it splendidly, and we went on a hope-filled pilgrimage to sites empty of Leonora, but full instead of something not quite other from her, but, in the true sense of the double, a likeness.

While we were walking down Paseo del Reforma, Giovanni pointed out details in the series of photographs hung on the park railings of the earthquake of 1985 (which coincidentally took place on the same day, September 19th, as the 2017 earthquake), in which there were thousands of casualties as well as massive destruction.

He told me how his mother, a nurse, was attempting to reach a hospital which, it turned out, had been completely destroyed, and so immediately set out for another, only to get lost and so to meet his father, who had not only directed her, but took her details to make sure she made it safely. Later, he called, they went out together, married, had a son, called him Giovanni, and so returned to the great continuity of normal life. As I was gazing at these black and white images of flattened buildings, desperate rescuers, and hanging ruins, I thought of the old cliché about the earth moving for lovers, and wondered what we really meant or thought we meant by such expressions. So it was we arrived at the Museo Nacional de Antropología.

Because I was on a mission to find Carrington sculptures, and because I knew my stamina for huge museums was limited, I asked if we could just look at two (huge) rooms, the Aztec and the Mayan, in that order. Because this is really an account of what we found elsewhere, I’ll confine myself to three details.


The first is a glimpse of three spirals: one an Aztec sculpture of a coiled snake or (I fantasised, via Burroughs) a centipede; another was painted on terracotta, with a hand at the centre, as though at the end of a long, coiling arm, and the third a painting on, I think, a Mayan pot, again a black coiling line, but this time with a child at the heart of its umbilical whirl.


The second detail was the Aztec Flower God, Xochipilli, sitting cross-legged on his throne of mushrooms, tobacco and morning glory, looking like death either warmed or drugged up – we’ve had a model of this for years, and occasionally remember to put dried flowers in his fists, so it was a shock and a delight to encounter him, large as whatever state he actually occupies.

The third was a note to an exhibit of several pots in the shapes of rabbits:

‘Pulque, neutle in Nahuatl, has a strong odour and high alcohol content. Its patron was the god Ome Tochtli, “Two Rabbit”. In view of its calorific value, adults were only allowed one drink, and drunkenness was prohibited because the excess of pulque would make people fall under the influence of the Cenzon Totochtin or Four Hundred Rabbits, which meant losing control and becoming aggressive and violent.’


As we came out of the museum, there were a number of voladores, ‘fliers’, preparing to ascend a blue pole for the tourists. The pole was thirty metres high, and they were carefully binding rope around their waists and settling their feathered headgear, preparing for and becoming the part. At the top of the pole was a small open-framed square, like the crowsnest of a ship but open at top and bottom.

We didn’t mean to watch, but couldn’t drag ourselves away as they climbed, and the musician set himself at the very top, and began to play flute and drum simultaneously as, after elaborate, careful sailors’ knottings, they flung themselves one by one from the platform, whirling around the pole while spinning on their individual axes and descending so gradually it seemed to take an age till, suddenly, the first one and then the others were reaching for the grass with their fingertips as though rising to the surface of some absolutely clear ocean.

This was at once a ritual and an entertainment, for which everyone gladly paid. I wanted to hang back as ever, but as with the strangeness of the imagery I had tried to ration in the museum itself, the sheer physicality of what had happened – the rippling of their shirts, the neat hooking of one foot around the rope as it played out, their open-eyedness as they stared at and almost into the earth – compelled me more deeply than the notes I scribbled down could register.

Now our search for Carrington began in earnest. At the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, I stared at a small Magritte I’d never seen before as Giovanni checked with the staff. It was one of those synecdochic images where an outsized leaf stands for a branch, or perhaps starts turning into one of his vegetative birds, and I remember it seemed to be crayon or pastel rather than paint. There were no Carringtons to be had.

We crossed the Paseo to the Museo Arts Moderno, where I amused myself booping like an owl into the peculiar acoustics of the stairs below the dome, while Giovanni established that, no, they had no Carringtons either – everything was out on tour – but there were a few paintings by Remedios Varo. Here I experienced that familiar sinking feeling of embarrassment as I realised that I had thought one of these, ‘Creation of the Birds’, was actually by Leonora Carrington. The contrast of Varo’s light delicate line and Carrington’s forceful figures and colours should have been obvious. But I could at least console myself that here was a sort of twin-as-substitute to the absent Leonora.


Downstairs there happened to be an exhibition of the photographs of Lee Miller, and in this there were two images of Leonora Carrington – one a disturbing shot of Leonora as a young woman sunbathing topless while Max Ernst, clearly very much her elder, placed his hands over her breasts like a lecherous bikini top. The other shows her self-possessed in a black shawl, staring the camera down as she stands over a basin – is that an egg nearby,? Is she mixing paint? – I imagined this as after Ernst’s internment, when she found herself able to make do and more as an individual and as an artist.


And that, it seemed would be that. After a snacky lunch that took almost all our remaining cash (I, as usual, had erred on the side of meanness with what I carried), we walked as far as the end of the park and the beginning of the straight line the Paseo takes to the historic city centre, caught a bus, and I indulged in a little ruefulness that it was an awful long way to come to see no Leonoras at all when, glancing out of the window, we passed a massive sculpture of ‘How Doth the Little Crocodile,’ the one where all the little Carrollian crocodiles are sitting in a pirogue made out of a larger crocodile.


We bounded off the bus at the next stop and headed back in search of a possible street of sculptures, but there was only this splendid single piece, and we then had to walk the rest of the long way back in the considerable heat, each secretly cursing both my obsession and my lack of research.

About Bill 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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