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Leonora Carrington: The Great Creator

As Leonora Carrington reflects on her time in a mental hospital in Spain, she too reflects upon the act of creation as a whole.

Self Portrait (1937-38), Leonora Carrington

"You dream of walls that hold us in prison,

It's just a skull, least that's what they call it,

And we're free to roam"

– Frank Ocean, White Ferrari

There are rocky divisions through the slipstreams of our language, and their frontiers can often divide spirit and matter: in 2022, it is subversive to believe in the invisible, and to know the distinction between watching and seeing, knowledge and wisdom, house and home. Houses are big blocky jewels whose bolts curl and wood shivers around those uncertainly cosying up with philosophical materialism, but Home is bramble veins that run from the heart to the soil. Home is to grip Velcro-tight onto something or someone or some feeling with all ounces of the spirit, and know that once illusions fail and coins become dirty glass and friends look like backs and you’re scraped on bony knees there will be someplace you can return to, almost impulsively. When it changes, it doesn't, and without knowing it you’re calling there, walking there, dreaming there.

Leonora Carrington lived 94 years. She was born in Lancashire, 1907, died in Mexico, 2011. By the time she was living out her second decade and deemed "incurably insane", she had already eloped with artist Max Ernst and fled the nazis across Madrid. But the cost of an above-world life like a folkloric dead sea scroll is also a subterraneous life without roots. A life without a house is nothing new for the bohemian class, those vagabonds whose transhumant wares are gaudy thoughts, but a life without a home is a whole other matter.

Though the book, Down Below, Carrington’s diaristic exorcism of her years in a psychiatric hospital in northern Spain, is buccaneered on the black flank of the mind without a promise of beaches, it is also a manual of how Leonora Carrington built herself a Home.

Step 1: leave the Home you’ve been given. The terrible mobilization of Nazism meant upheaval for many, and to Carrington they were a soulless force that existed way beyond comprehension whose causal twinkle was too many stratospheres away to glimpse. Robots without a pulse programmed for existential deforestation. Her initial signs of madness to onlookers began in a sprint, yearning for reconnection to the natural world, for a touch-song with animals and for harmony with the ancient yawn of a mountain. The people around her saw only a transgression to realms beyond or before the Anthropocene, unlearned and irresolute.

That was when Leonora Carrington began to sense a space-time conjunctivitis. It’s true that an uneasy spirit confettis from the body (in hip-bones, eyebags, and acne) and then papercuts back again like the sky falls along with your dopamine. It started for Carrington in her stomach – which was the microcosmic petri dish of the earth – and to purify its sulfuric aether she sweated until her body was stony and lean. Her suitcase was embossed with the word “REVELATION” like epiphany can only be kinetic. But if that is true, then so is the opposite, and her lateral, physical flight across the world was tarried by a vertical pull internally, displacing her from any recognisable sense of belonging. At a traffic jam, the world also became spiritually jammed. She felt the earth’s hateful lacerations across her own frame, and they threatened to stiffen her joints and swallow her up. At the same time, her mane of a hairdo was perpetually ballooning upwards in anticipation of neuroelectric ascension. Paradoxically, the deeper she went, the more horizon she could also see and it was beginning to curve nauseously beyond the fog.

How to build a Home, step 2: watch Genesis from your balcony in chains. One of the many motifs in Carrington’s lexicon is the egg. She once painted herself as a giantess queen of geese towering over bathtub seas, holding precious in her palms a golden egg. It has all the textures of a creation myth. Inside the Santander hospital, she hallucinated eggs and understood the true earthquakes of a yolk, finding the promise of every tomorrow rocking within those aragonite cliffs. Ursula le Guinn once criticised Kubrick’s bone-worshipping 2001: A Space Odyssey for missing the point of evolution entirely. If you’re going to write about the universe, she said, you’re going to need a carrier bag: you need a matrix, a womb, an egg; a box for crops, a home for people, a cave for art, and as Carrington soon discovered, a belly for the cosmos.

Her system of self was one that was ever-expanding and any foreign bodies alighted as glitches in the nexus of her sensemaking. The cathodes began to blink red, and suddenly she found herself equipped with a premonitory field of vision way beyond her peers. Everything was at stake, not just the fleeting Home she had constructed with Ernst in their kingdom above conformity, but every Home on every planet everywhere. The milky way had shifted an inch, but perhaps even more terrifyingly, she felt that same seismic power was well within her grasp.

“I would like to set you free but I won’t be able to do so, because this astronomical force will destroy me if I don’t crush you all… I must destroy you together with the whole world because it is growing… I am growing… and I am afraid, because nothing will be left to destroy.”

– Down Below, p. 40

In her delusion, from a hospital cell, Carrington believed that the stars inside her stomach were inflating like a balloon and her along with it and the end would be solar atrophy and the triumph of chaos. The universe inside her was pure evil. She was gaslit the crown jester by the doctors, but still felt strapped to the fender of a perennial black dawn. To save Max she would have to save Madrid and to save Madrid she had to complete the riddles of the lab coat pyramids she was entombed within. Attempting to revert her mental diaspora she had to begin an exodus from the facility in which she found herself and towards the Jerusalem of “Down Below”, the moniker she gave to a far less constrictive villa in the institution. Her paradise. On the map Carrington drew, Down Below is depicted as the sun, so intiating herself a disciple of a new heliocentrism whose mad art directly related to elucidation and order.

Carrington's map of the institution

Step 3: your universe needs a periodic table; your creations need coal. Expanding beyond her stomach meant assimilation of the external world, so Carrington populated her universe with brahman figurines whose frenzied identity was affluent on archetypal recollection. In art is the soul's inherent mitosis, and the ancient rememberance that a part is a whole is a part. In the hospital in Santander, building an armoury of dark materials would allow her to become a similarly formless master on her mission to Down Below, using this apparatus of eggs, fruit, clothes and pens to usurp the holy trinity of the old world. She decided to disguise herself in the ecstatic convulsions of the holy ghost, and ultimately transcend to androginous gravity; immaterial boys, immaterial girls, and dark matter.

“I was she who revealed religions and bore on her shoulders the freedom and the sins of the earth changed into Knowledge, the union of Man and Woman with God and the Cosmos, all equal between them. The lump on my left thigh no longer seemed to form part of my body and became a sun on the left side of the moon… It was no longer painful, for I felt integrated into the Sun.”

– Down Below, p. 45

Postnatal acceptance. Carrington didn’t choose to create. Fate tore her belly open and bowled over the world, but now the Behemoth had to be contained. Step 4: reassimilation. What began as a restless stomach foretelling the pangs of war was now released, tenfold, into a corporeal vision of space. Her spirit had plunged down below and then back up til her mouth spoke rays of an unrecognisable star. The veins on her knuckles became ley lines, her elbows and knees meteorites, and her pin-prick pupil a quasar rebelling against entropy. Carrington was lost, but a new world was found.

The Tree of Life (1960), Leonora Carrington

She describes the act of writing the book as a condition towards “deliverance”, like the expungement of the subconscious onto paper could be salvation. Art as therapy is nothing new, but there is the sense in this book that Carrington is re-empowering herself with the forces of her once rampant mind. She is relaying her trauma as an act of emancipation, of course, but also in returning to that mind state she is revalidating it all over again, but this time from the perspective of a wholly different – near unrecognisable – mind state. Despite some doctor’s prognosis the two are not mutually exclusive of one another. Both exist along the same cranial chain: the mind that believed itself to be a reincarnation of Queen Elizabeth and the mind that lucidly produces generational artwork is the exact same mind.

Although in retrospect Carrington saw her confinement as the painful gestation of knowledge she is now thankful for, Down Below is in many ways the artist's manifesto against the prejudice uniforming of mind space. Even in the horror of avalanche daydream the power is tangible. Because we know more about the ocean than the brain, it is only human to wonder whether we are “mad” or might go “mad”, and who gets to decide what is “incurably insane” and what isn’t. Carrington writes with a shocking lucidity and welcomes you so unjudgementally into a glossary once deemed too dangerous for her peers that by the end of it, all signifiers make complete sense. It is a tour of diction and weird linguistics: of world-building. In a room that Carrington designated as her study to save the universe, she picked out a quote by Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno which reads “God be thanked we have pen and ink.” I keep all of my notebooks. They’re rarely diary entries like Carrington’s but the collection of words, definitions, fragments, thoughts, desires, stories, poems and essays constitute a kind of cartography of my inner world. These words too will find their place on the map. In the sanctuary of a leatherbound notebook, whose elastic ribbon I hope can hermetically seal away any spikes of passion or particularly garish experiments, there are pages that actually burn. Some feel like strange heirlooms written by a better writer, but there are also some that I can’t bear to look at. Sometimes they hurt, or used to hurt, like looking at a picture of yourself from a particularly unhealthy spell. More often I cringe. We change hourly, and I no longer recognise that writer. At the top of one of these pages from 2017, I wrote “You might lose your mind. Make sure you do.” Yuck… But those words have never seen the light of day until now, they weren't intended for anyone else. I thought them, I wrote them, I believed them.

I hope that it doesn’t appear like I am romanticising mental illness, but I do think that the icky obsession with the mad artist is founded in an acknowledgement that creation is a delirious romance of the mind. It is about falling into any mental state, any unexplored cerebrum like a rosebud country - just there around the corner from memory and smell - and loving it so hard and with such detail, that it births something you could never predict. All is permitted within the infinite bounds of consciousness, where squigglier categorisation can go unpoliced by empiricism. The power – and therefore the danger – of rejecting sense as you might tell me it exists, is insurmountable. I think it is a worthy endeavour to romance the mind. To be excited to think is true summer love, to be excited to dream is sex, to adore thought in all forms at all moments is to feel something far more ancient and divine pollinate your sight like eye floaters made of ambrosia. In that ribbony, retinal calyx, you can watch the solar system construct and deconstruct in real-time. Once you return Home there are whole species at your back rolling on the breeze, and an alien language in the grain of your table, and millipedes and sphinxes beneath the folds of your pillow, and a plumage of supernova at the bottom of your kitchen sink. Can’t you hear the bubbles fizzing? God is Home, and if that Home is constructed within the gold and pink Saturn rings of your own cortex, then Home is you, too. And God be thanked we have pen and ink to remember it with.


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