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Tea and Creatures with Leonora Carrington

Chloe Aridjis recalls taking tea with the great Surrealist in her home in Mexico

Over time, even the numbers 194 on her front door seemed to grow more creaturely, the first gatekeepers one encountered upon arrival, followed by Leonora Carrington herself, swathed in grey. Her home in Mexico City was a chessboard of Mexican sunlight and European shadow – much of the house was stone-chilly and austere, but then you’d step into a patch of sun or come face-to-face with one of her sculptures, an eruption of life emerging from the murk. After a brief greeting, she would lead you from the entrance to the kitchen. The kettle would already be on, an old metal thing rattling over the fire, while her two Siamese cats, Monsieur and Ramona, silently patrolled the premises.

I took some photographs of her one afternoon as we sat having tea, struck by the procession of instruments hanging behind where Leonora was seated. Their shadows – evoking claws, shovels, tridents, horned creatures – were imbued with a Fantasia sorcerer’s potential, and I half expected them to come alive and start marching around. I’m not certain Leonora herself was even aware of this optical effect, which so aptly mirrored the co-existence of the fantastical and the quotidian in her own work, and I don’t remember ever seeing such shadows again. 

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Leonora Carrington in her home, 2011, photographed by Homero Aridjis. Courtesy: Chloe Aridjis

Leonora Carrington in her home, 2011, photographed by Homero Aridjis. Courtesy: Chloe Aridjis

Looming out of the corners of her living room, one of the duskiest regions of the house, were Leonora’s oven sculptures: tall bronze witnesses to her daily life. Created from smaller models and then packed off to the foundry – in her words, ‘a great alchemical laboratory’ – they would return lengthened and transformed. Towering over everyone, the mask-like faces would stare out, radiating an enigmatic serenity, while down at each base a little door opened into a square compartment that could, ostensibly, be used as an oven, though I’m not sure anyone ever tried. Leonora called this sculpture ING (c.1994), as in cook-ing, paint-ing, see-ing: a sort of Golem figure, it represented the verb incarnate. In her world, everything might possess a soul; even grammar becomes an entity. When posing for this photograph, Leonora stood up straight and rested a hand on ING’s arm, her hint of a smile, gracious and reserved, mimicking the creature’s own. The framed cloudy window behind them gives the impression they have stepped out of a painting, emptying the canvas of its figures.

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Leonora Carrington with ING, 1994, photographed by Chloe Aridjis

Leonora Carrington with ING, 1994, photographed by Chloe Aridjis. Courtesy: Chloe Aridjis

The final addition to Leonora’s menagerie was Yeti, a lively Maltese dog who accompanied her during the last three years of her life, after her cats and husband had passed away. The last photograph I have of her was taken by my father in March 2011, two months before she died. The dog exists in the present, its gaze fastened on the plate of biscuits on the table, while Leonora’s focus is on something beyond. Clutching her cigarette, she is aware of the camera yet doesn’t acknowledge its presence. Her expression is intense, indomitable. Behind her crouches an old stove – ING’s clunkier, once more functional, cousin – and, most importantly, the door to the kitchen: one of many charged thresholds in her home. 

Main image: Leonora Carrington’s kitchen, c.1998, photographed by Chloe Aridjis. Courtesy: Chloe Aridjis

Chloe Aridjis is a writer who lives in London, UK. Her third novel, Sea Monsters, will be published by Chatto & Windus in early 2018.

Issue 6

First published in Issue 6

October 2017
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