Underground Dandelions: Leonora Carrington and the Female Surrealist

This article, adapted from a version in the College Hill Independent, was originally published in the 3rd Issue of Bluestockings Magazine.

Saturday, October 19. MTA construction work means the 4 is running local, which works favorably as I need some time to sit quietly with myself. I am headed to St. Mark’s Place for the Occult Humanities Conference. I like it here on the subway. I pace my reading according to the number of stops I have left. I pace my thoughts to this as well. I sit down, I take out my paper and make notes. This is what my handwriting should always look like; as if it were always beyond my control. Automatism; a quick hand, a lucky draw. I feel fast in my head too. I have a pen and I make notes. I note that there is a woman across from me at an angle with ruby all over. Ruby lips, ruby in her ears, ruby is her wool coat, but her hair is grey and short. I woke up in the apartment aware of the colors slipping into grey morning. The first talk of the morning is on the British born painter, Leonora Carrington.

I am invested in her work having seen it as a child in Mexico City before developing the biases of an art history student.  My mother would ask me to remind her where El Museo Tamayo was inside the Bosque de Chapultepec. Sometimes she would get lost, she had a lot on her mind. I cannot remember my thoughts clearly about people, about my family, but I remember looking at lines. I promising to make my hand and mind one organ. The lines guide the hand, they are the direct link to the brain.

Leonora liked animals; sometimes in her paintings there are rabid looking ones that look like they would be hungry even after being fed. Some of them look like the Xoloitzcuintles, these black dogs without fur that run in the garden of Dolores Olmedo near my aunt’s house. Leonora added fur to them, probably because they would be cold otherwise. If you concentrate hard enough you can tell animals your secrets and if they think you are kind they will tell you theirs– but this is non-verbal tactile thought; pet me here. There are always women in her paintings, they look like dandelions and hold orbs that look like eggs. I cannot think about this right now, I am too young.


At 34 Stuyvesant St, I push the red doors. Politely, in kind manner, with a stack of badges before her, a girl tells me that they have sold out of tickets but that I should feel welcome to have coffee with the lecturers before the talk. I do as she says and walk into the wooden room. I talk, with coffee, we talk; who are you, how did you get here. It is a new thing, this, the Occult Humanities, It is new to me. There are no real questions when you already have a sense of someone’s answer. However, in conversation there are formalities so I answer and smile with twitching legs. I write, I am still a student.

It is time to go into the lecture hall. I am not a child, my legs have grown and they walk. Susan Aberth of Bard has titled her talk, “Like A Messenger to the Deep: Deciphering the Occult in Leonora Carrington.”

Leonora Carrington’s DNA contained Irish ancestry that brought Celtic rites to the symbolism of her work. What woven pattern of her unique double-helix calls forth ancestral knowledge of magic? My deep is in the Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid which has claimed for me my inheritance, the bad, the good, all of it has been mapped already.

When I was a child I would see her paintings, next to those of Remedios Varo. Two women, best friends. In The Hearing Trumpet, a novel Leonora wrote in 1950, the narrator is an old man who says, “Beauty is a responsibility like anything else. Beautiful women have special lives like prime ministers but I don’t want that.”

André Breton, the self-imposed founder of Surrealism said, Leonora, I like your style. Leonora said, Shut the fuck up. I am more of a surrealist than you will ever be. Leonora had fallen in love with Max Ernst at mortal age 19. He was mortal age 46. She left her home and country and lived in Paris with Max and the Surrealists. She had her own thing going on. Dear André, just because I am naked at this party doesn’t mean that you can tell me what to do, that you can tell me what my art means. Deal with it.  As a student of Art History, I read Breton’s Manifesto, I learned about surrealism and slowly I stopped being a surrealist. My imagination had to stop, I had to learn to think and write analytically. My natural epistemes, my intuitive intelligence had to be defended using the scaffolding of theory built by men. I found myself the youngest and usually one of only two or three females in Graduate seminars. My lexicon had to match the professors, my memory had to be sleek and sharp, I had to cut the men’s arguments down. Any mistake, any misreading of Kant and you are dead meat. I had to forget that I could cry. For three years I almost didn’t.

Leonora was still in love with Max when they moved to Saint Martin D’Ardeche in the south of France after his wife Marie-Berthe Aurenche became too fed up. Max was taken to an internment camp in September 1939. Leonora tried to give him paintbrushes. She vomited to try to purify herself. The vineyard on their grounds…I wonder what the grapes taste like now. Her friends took her away from France; she ended up in Madrid at the British Consulate having the experience referred to as a breakdown. Parents, convulsive therapy, pentylenetetrazol. Induced seizures.

Leonora was then taken to Lisbon, Portugal, and escaped while under the care of a private nurse. Like many Europeans she sought refuge in Latin America and found it through the Mexican Embassy. She lived with Frida Kahlo in the Blue House. I remember the Blue House, and the fountain of Coyoacán with coyotes howling in Aztec Nahautl. Calling, something, calling.

Susan Arbeth says, “Leonora could write with both hands at the same time, doing different things with both.” I can write with two hands. How is Leonora’s brain? Are the hemispheres melted unto one another or are they completely separate? I keep getting a pain between vertebrae C1 and C8, the nerves at the nape of my neck. This is where those actions that are truly unconscious get their direction from: breathing, heart rate, hands and fingers. Leonora said, remember that we are only one species amongst many animals. Remember that we are animals. My neck-base is where the basic animal gets instructions. I think that is were my intuition comes from as well.

Leonora had a hard time in boarding school. She painted herself without breasts. In the Casa Azul they say she was a lover to Frida Kahlo. I am old enough to think about dandelion women holding orbs that look like eggs. They are always in impossible architectures; staircases that spin, mazes. They can handle it, they have a good sense of direction even though they have a lot on their minds. Beautiful women have special lives, but these lives are of their own making.

Do I have magic? I cry, my neck hurts. I am looking at Leonora on the projector screen. She is sitting in a chair with a rocking horse behind her, floating above her. This was 1936, at mortal age 21. If I go uptown I can see this painting, which she painted with her hands–with her skin–while she was still with Max in Saint Martin D’Ardeche before he was taken away.  The painting is at the Metropolitan. But fuck that place, it will make me too sad to see this painting on those walls. The man next to me in the lecture hall doesn’t mind that I am there crying listening to Susan Aberth talk about Leonora Carrington. Maybe they think I have magic and so I am forgiven these capricious tendencies. Maybe Academia should catch up to the Occult and take crying seriously. What makes you think, dear professor, that you can talk about art at such a remove? Fuck you Andre Breton, I am more of a surrealist than you will ever be. I’m more of a surrealist than you’ll ever be, professor, and right now I am not afraid of castrating your arguments.

Leonora drew herself at sixteen. Leonora was placed in an institution in Portugal. Leonora. I cannot imagine her crying. Leonora believed she was magical and this granted her floating freedom. She knew she had enough magic to say, Fuck You to male authority. How much power does the Occult give back to the Witch? André Breton, I always close your eyelids in my textbooks. You annoy me.  Leonora wrote: “P.S. Please note, the word psychosis was created as an ego saver for the psychiatrist.”

Susan Aberth says that in the mid-’90s Leonora and her work were looked to as examples and the products of A Beautiful Muse. I do not know how many people still think this way about creativity, insanity, and beauty. Is it romantic to be a hysteric, to paint floating saints? In dreams I would jump up and a gust of wind would carry me through the hallways and up the stairs. The men in the Surrealist circles, they took her seriously. In her paintings she has no breasts. There is a photo of her and Max: Look at their work together. I think they are still in love. I understand being in love with a man and what affect it can have on my work, dandelion work.


There are secret places I need to find. There is a hidden observatory in Mexico where Leonora would go to with Remedios. It is underground and only one photo of it exists. It is a secret observatory. I will find it. Remedios had to escape Franco’s Spain. There needs to be some safe underground for two strong women. I can wish it. I can wish myself into finding it. Three women. Four, so that I can bring a friend. That place is in half my DNA at least. I will find the observatory.

I need to go outside now. I will walk in the gray until I have found a place to do my dandelion work. You can’t blow me away today.


Featured Image via Google Images

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