Leonora Carrington and the Secret of the Sacred Feminine

A surprising discovery in the work of Robert Graves unlocks the meaning of the surrealist’s elusive ‘Pig Rush’

For 16 years, Pig-Rush, a large oil painting made by Leonora Carrington in 1960, has hung over my sister’s mantelpiece in New York. For 16 years, family members and visitors alike have attempted to decipher the intriguing work. My mother once asked Leonora what she’d been thinking when she painted it and she quickly replied, ‘One should never think when one’s painting.’ Pig-Rush’s meaning remained both infinite and elusive.

Leonora Carrington, Pig-Rush (Nacimiento de cerdos), 1960, oil on canvas, 80.6 × 90.2 cm. © 2019 Estate of Leonora Carrington/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; courtesy: Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco

The painting’s dramaturgy, if one could call it that, involves three bearded figures in extraordinary hats being ambushed by a herd of wild pigs. The pigs, mainly black and ivory, are led by a large white sow – her hackles raised, eyes narrowed, fangs on display – as they swirl around the men. The men seem utterly taken by surprise, their beards wiry with alarm, the pointy medieval tips of their shoes no match for the pointy snouts lunging towards them. Each articulates a different response with his hands: one man curls his fingers as he is toppled over by a pig that seems to enter him; another holds his hand to his chest; the third raises his in a signal of stop or surrender. These human figures appear frail and insubstantial, as easily knocked over as chess pawns, while the animals are possessed by a bristling vigour. The ‘rush’ from the title adds to the drama, capturing the whoosh and churning of hooves. The painting’s autumnal palette is so russet and earthy, one can almost smell the soil being kicked up by the pigs as they leap from the ground.

Might the painting illustrate, as do many of Carrington’s short stories, fantasies of the animal spirit’s ascendancy over the human? Some Carrington enthusiasts have interpreted the painting as depicting three rabbis accosted by a herd of pigs – but the artist had tremendous respect for Jewish culture and tradition. Her husband was the Jewish Hungarian photographer Emerico ‘Chiki’ Weisz, whose family was murdered in the Holocaust, and she would never have dreamt up such a repugnant scenario. Three elders with a faintly oracular air, yes, that much could be agreed on; but beyond that, no interpretation convinced us, none at all, until one day a few weeks ago, my mother, an erstwhile medievalist, made a discovery.

Robert Graves, The White Goddess, 1948 (new edition, 2013). Courtesy: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Carrington had described reading The White Goddess, Robert Graves’s study of poetry and myth, as ‘the greatest revelation of my life.’ She acquired it in 1948, the year it was published, and it was arguably one of the most important books she ever read (along with the teachings of the Kabbalah). Indeed, one can speak of a before and after in her work. In its pages, Graves argues that the ancient cult of this goddess is inextricably linked to ‘pure poetry,’ and declares matriarchy as the earliest form of social order.

One day, with Pig-Rush still on her mind, my mother picked up her copy of The White Goddess. A little less than halfway through the book, she happened upon a passage about the War of the Bulls, apparently the central episode in the Cuchulain saga. Graves begins by noting that ‘in ancient times swine-herds had an altogether different standing from that conveyed in the parable of the Prodigal Son: to be a swine-herd was originally to be a priest in the service of the Death-goddess whose sacred beast was a pig.’

He continues: ‘There is a hint in the Romance of Branwen that the swine-herds of Matholwch King of Ireland were magicians, with a power of foreseeing the future. And this hint is expanded in Triad 56 which attributes to Coll ap Collfrewr, the magician, one of  “the Three Powerful Swine-herds of the Isle of Britain”, the introduction into Britain of wheat and barley. But the credit was not really his. The name of the White Sow whom he tended at Dallwr in Cornwall and who went about Wales with gifts of grain, bees and her own young, was Hen Wen, “the Old White One”. Her gift to Maes Gwenith (“Wheatfield”) in Gwent was three grains of wheat and three bees. She was, of course, the Goddess Cerridwen in beast disguise.’

Leonora Carrington, A Map of the Human Animal, 1962, watercolour, ink and pencil on paper, 43.6 × 36.5 cm. © 2019 Estate of Leonora Carrington/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; courtesy: Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco

Pig-Rush, then, is a depiction of the White Sow goddess Cerridwen as she oversees a swirl of swine that rushes at three powerful swineherds, here in their guise as magicians. The painting is therefore not only one of the most powerful and direct portrayals of a key Celtic mythological figure in Carrington’s work, but a visual affirmation of her belief in the supremacy of a feminine deity. 

In Welsh medieval legend Cerridwen was an enchantress, her name derived from the Celtic word cerru, meaning cauldron; she embodied the transformative power of magic. (Graves suggests a different etymology: wen means ‘white’ and cerdd means ‘gain,’ as well as ‘the inspired arts, especially poetry’). In any case, she was bringer of grain, bees and life, as well as the White Lady of Death and Inspiration: a great shape-shifting goddess who encompassed the entire cycle of existence.

Elsewhere, Graves wrote, ‘she was in fact Albina, or Alphito, the Barley Goddess who gave her name to Britain.’ In portraying her, Carrington also paid tribute to the Irish mythologies that nourished her Edwardian childhood. She often featured pigs in her work – they formed part of her domestic-cum-fantastical menagerie – in paintings such as The Temptation of St Anthony (1947) and The Visitors (1960), in her wonderful bronze Albino Hogg (2004–2005), or as Igname, the splendidly attired boar lover of forest-dwelling Virginia Fur in the story ‘As They Rode Along the Edge’ (1937–40), whose wild heroine takes revenge by slaughtering the hunters who killed Igname and the nuns who ate him. But the pigs of Pig-Rush are given much more force and agency.

Designed by Leonora Carrington, crafted by Jane Stein and Vita Gorvy, Double-sided mask for head [for the play Opus Siniestrus], 1976, mesh, acrylic, felt, cane, yarn, leather and velvet ribbon, 58.2 × 64.8 × 33 cm. Collection TOLA Archive. © 2019 Estate of Leonora Carrington/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; courtesy: Joanne Pottlitzer

Pig-Rush currently hangs in a gallery in New York, one of more than 20 paintings and six masks featured in an offsite exhibition organized by the San Francisco art dealer Wendi Norris. Carrington’s first solo show in the city in 22 years, ‘The Story of the Last Egg’ takes its title from an unpublished play Leonora wrote in 1970 which was given a dramatic reading at the gallery earlier this month. According to the press release, the exhibition’s aim is to ‘emphasize and celebrate the artist’s lifelong preoccupation with themes of fertility, ecology and female power.’ Pig-Rush embodies these themes in oblique, mysterious ways, and perhaps for that very reason is all the more bewitching.

‘Leonora Carrington: The Story of the Last Egg’ is on view at Gallery Wendi Norris, New York, until 29 June.

Main image: Leonora Carrington, Green Tea, 1942, oil on canvas, 61 × 76.2 cm. © 2019 Estate of Leonora Carrington/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; courtesy: Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco

Chloe Aridjis is a writer who lives in London, UK. Her latest novel is Sea Monsters (2019).

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