In October 2010, a few months before her death, I said my last goodbye to my cousin Leonora Carrington. As I left her home in Mexico City, she stood waving on the doorstep. Today, I’m back for the first time – to see Leonora’s house recreated as a visitor attraction. It feels surreal, but the surreal has become the everyday since I set off to find Leonora in 2006, almost 70 years after she checked out of our family and Britain. She travelled first to Paris to be with her lover, the German artist Max Ernst, before moving on to Mexico with a diplomat she met after she and Ernst were separated by the second world war.
This house, 194 Calle Chihuahua, is where she was anchored for more than 60 years. Here, she painted some of her best-known works, including The Juggler, which sold at auction in 2005 for £436,000; And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur, now at MoMA in New York; and her mural The Magical World of the Mayans, now at the National Anthropological Museum in Mexico City.
As well as being a pivotal figure in the surrealist movement, Leonora was a sculptor, textile artist and writer – it was in this house, too, that she wrote The Hearing Trumpet, deemed by the Guardian to be one of the 1,000 novels to read before you die. And it was here that she raised her children, two sons, by the man she married in Mexico, a Hungarian photographer called Chiki Weisz.
The house is still filled with her sculpture: weird and wacky pieces, including a maquette of How Doth the Little Crocodile, named after the Lewis Carroll poem. Leonora held court at this address, the most exotic of the 1940s artist-émigrés who Frida Kahlo, the incumbent queen of Mexican art, dismissed as “those European bitches”.
The £3m restoration, by the Metropolitan Autonomous University of Mexico (UAM), is now almost complete and I’ve been invited here to work on various connected projects before its opening later this year. (Virtual visits are already possible.) It feels very strange, being back here without Leonora. In the kitchen – the engine room of her world, where we spent so many hours sitting chatting – her teacup, glasses and some letters are on the table in front of her empty chair. There’s a cigarette in the ashtray. I’m half expecting her to come in, sit down, relight her cigarette and say: “So, what’s the news today?”
Leonora was 94 when she died, but her curiosity never wavered. She was far more interested in talking about politics – or world events, or the newspaper vendor down the street, or her dog Yeti’s latest escapades – than she was about Ernst or Picasso or Dalí or Duchamp, all of whom she had known in Paris. Every day with her was an adventure: she lived absolutely in the moment, always on the lookout for glimpses of ridiculousness or oddness or fun.
On the kitchen shelves, her jars of spices, with her handwritten labels, still stand. Taped to the cupboard doors, just as they always were, are a selection of postcards including some of the royal family, one of them doctored so Prince Charles – who gave Leonora her OBE on a visit to Mexico in 2000 – is sporting a balaclava. People used to ask if they were they ironic. Perhaps so, but part of Leonora missed her homeland. Indeed, in The Hearing Trumpet, her alter ego-protagonist Marian Leatherby, 92, dreams of escaping to Europe from the Spanish-speaking country she was transported to many years before.
You’ll have a sense of how 194 Chihuahua feels if you’ve seen Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning film from 2018. It is set in a house a few streets away: both have the same Bauhaus-style architecture, the same leaded windows, the same internal courtyard, the same open staircase to the rooftop world where the washing is done, and hung in the blazing sunshine to dry. In Leonora’s time, the roof terrace was the realm of Yolanda, her housekeeper. Today, it’s a spacious paved area where Leonora’s sculptures stands guard.
The most intimate view into Leonora’s world comes when you step into her first-floor bedroom, off a narrow, tiled, external corridor. Nowhere is the natural frugality of her approach to life better displayed than in this simple room, with its single bed, a few chairs, table and cabinet. Her husband Chiki, by the end, slept next door; he died in 2007. The only item of abundance in Leonora’s bedroom is books: they cover the shelves along the far wall, just as they cover the walls of her sitting room and the study where the typewriter, on which she wrote The Hearing Trumpet, sits on a table.
The books are perhaps the best insight the house offers into her mind: they range from the contemporary novels she loved (Ian McEwan, Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood were all favourites) to the books that informed her art: tomes on the occult, gnosticism, kabbalah, tarot, herbalism and shamanism; titles on Renaissance art and various movements; as well as the work of her friends, including the photographers Lee Miller and Kati Horna, the painter Remedios Varo, and the Nobel prizewinning Octavio Paz. Birds with Human Faces and Birds with Human Souls share shelf space with The Book of Owls and Expert Obedience Training for Dogs. (I’m not sure that one was deployed to best effect on Yeti.)
“I knew she was a surrealist,” says Dr Alejandra Osorio, director of the project. “And that was about it. I actually knew more about her writing than her paintings.” The house was bought by UAM complete with more than 8,600 objects, ranging from clothes to phonebooks, from half-finished artworks to diaries that recorded her dreams. Combing through the minutiae of Leonora’s life has given Alejandra insights into the life of someone she never met, but now thinks about every day.
“I feel very connected to her,” she says. “She was a very congruent person: what she believed, she lived. Because of the themes of her art – the occult and so on – people sometimes think she was complicated. But I don’t think she was. She was instinctive: she believed in feelings and following them.”
Excitingly for the increasing number of art historians and academics interested in Leonora’s work, the Casa Estudio Leonora Carrington, as 194 is now known, includes a study centre on that surprisingly spacious roof terrace. Alejandra thinks one especially fertile area of research could be searching through Leonora’s annotated books to find links with her paintings. That makes me laugh, because Leonora famously refused to discuss what her paintings meant. Death may yet reveal her in a way she refused to be revealed in her lifetime. My instinct is that she wouldn’t have minded: she always told me she wasn’t interested in dwelling on what would happen after she’d gone.
In 1988, the Guerrilla Girls made their landmark piece The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist. Listed among the merits were avoiding the pressure of success, making it into the revisions of art history, and having a career surge post-80. Leonora scores on all counts. Although she died 10 years ago this month, and although she lived into her 90s, her reputation and her status are, I believe, still in their infancy. But her fame is growing, as the Casa project reveals. Museums across the world are actively seeking her work. There have been five major international exhibitions over the last few years, with another postponed to 2023 because of Covid. And two museums of her sculpture have opened in Mexico, one in the town of San Luis Potosí, the other in Xilitla where her friend Edward James created an extraordinary surreal sculpture garden.
Last year, an indie band from LA called Conditioner released a single about her, entitled Leonora. “We’re just a couple of young guys in our 20s,” band member Riley McCluskey told me. “But when we came across Leonora’s work, we were blown away. She seemed able to access some space that most humans can’t access – or at least, not often. Her worlds were beautiful, scary, profound. They give us glimpses beyond the everyday.” Leonora’s themes – especially feminism, ecology, the connectedness of everything, the occult and spiritual meaning outside organised religion – feel very 2021.
As I head to the airport, I stop to buy some tickets for Mexico’s national lottery. To mark the 10th anniversary of her death, they feature Leonora’s image. In the spirit of surrealism, I buy one fully expecting to scoop the £1m jackpot. But knowing Leonora has been a far bigger prize than that.