Leonora Carrington’s Magnum Opus to Highlight Sotheby’s Modern Evening Auction

Leonora Carrington’s Magnum Opus to Highlight Sotheby’s Modern Evening Auction

A masterwork of surrealism, 'Les Distractions de Dagobert' will be offered in New York this May with record $12 – 18m estimate.
A masterwork of surrealism, 'Les Distractions de Dagobert' will be offered in New York this May with record $12 – 18m estimate.

T he most significant work by the celebrated Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, Les Distractions de Dagobert, will be offered during Sotheby’s Modern Evening Auction in New York, where it will become the most valuable work by the artist ever offered at auction with an estimate of $12 – 18 million. Appearing on the market for the first time in nearly 30 years, the work is widely recognized as the defining masterpiece of Carrington’s career, showcasing rich surreal imagery and luminous color on a large scale. The work was painted in 1945, just two years after Carrington’s arrival in Mexico from Europe as part of a wave of Surrealist artists who emigrated to the Americas in the wake of the war, signaling the beginning of a period of transformational productivity and artistic independence for the artist. Once in Mexico City, alongside the community of “exiled” Surrealists including Remedios Varo, Wolfgang Paalen, Alice Rahon, and others, as well as modern Mexican painters including Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Carrington shook off the role of “muse” assigned to her by André Breton to achieve an unprecedented level of mastery and freedom in her painting. Les Distractions de Dagobert is the crowning achievement of this critical period, the most significant milestone in her artistic career, and a major landmark in Surrealism.

Leonora Carrington, Les Distractions de Dagobert. Estimate: 12,000,000–18,000,000 USD
“Les Distractions de Dagobert is the definitive masterpiece of Leonora Carrington’s long and storied career, bearing all the hallmarks of the artist at her absolute height. The painting pioneers the visionary style that we associate with surrealism today, while equally evocative of Hieronymus Bosch’s anarchic tableaus, bridging artistic boundaries to achieve an entirely new language. Like Carrington herself, the painting defies easy categorization, existing on an astral plane of its own unique being.”

Today Les Distractions de Dagobert epitomizes how the Surrealist movement evolved into a global artistic phenomenon that continues to influence contemporary art and culture, 100 years after it was first codified in the Surrealist Manifesto. The 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, titled The Milk of Dreams, used Carrington’s work as a thematic framework, exploring the definition and boundaries of humanity and the relationship between people and the natural world. Throughout Carrington’s work, in which a mysterious and intoxicatingly charming universe of infinite potential unfolds, there are echoes of thematic threads pulled by some of the leading living artists featured in the Biennale, from Golden Lion winner Cecilia Vicuña’s poetic examinations of history and memory to Firelei Baez’s lush images of human-plant-animal hybrids. Carrington’s visual style is now deeply ingrained into the Surrealist popular imagination, whose resonance can be seen across a wide spectrum of contemporary artists working today, including Cecily Brown, María Berrío, Shara Hughes, Emma Webster, Christina Quarles and Ewa Juszkiewicz.

Les Distractions de Dagobert will go on public exhibition in Los Angeles this week from April 17–19, before travelling to New York where it will go on view starting 3 May ahead of the Modern Evening Auction on 15 May.

“While painting Les Distractions de Dagobert, Leonora experimented with light and color, to create worlds within worlds. One could say that her works developed a very personal interpretation of Surrealism, influenced by her motherhood, she ‘gave birth’ to her creations. Leonora studied with great care and attention both the northern Renaissance painters and the Quattrocento, and Les Distractions de Dagobert combines these influences in an extraordinary exploration of objects and textures, conjuring chromatic fire and illuminating our inner space in a fiery meditation.”

Les Distractions de Dagobert

In Les Distractions de Dagobert Leonora Carrington presents a tapestry of meticulously crafted vignettes, each offset by unique and intricate landscapes. The work’s elaborate tableau corresponds to the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Its title references medieval history: Dagobert was a Merovingian king who ruled Gaul in the early seventh century, popularly remembered as a king whose taste for sexual excess was matched by a love of luxury. The scenes vary from ghostly extinct volcanoes to a lake of fire engulfing an inverted idol, to a watery world where a giant with a double animal head holds a human-faced puffer fish. As would become Carrington’s hallmark, the imagery here draws from a diverse network of influences, ranging from the Irish mythology she learned as a child to alchemy, the Kabbalah, and indigenous Mexican cosmology. Each section is rendered in exquisite detail; from the radiant tonality she achieves through thin glazes to the exceptionally fine draftsmanship, it is a testament to Carrington’s technical brilliance.

Leonora Carrington & The Surrealist Firmament in Mexico

“Carrington’s most ambitious masterpiece, Les Distractions de Dagobert is an indisputable Surrealist achievement only possible in 1940s Mexico. Carrington’s adopted home and its ancestral traditions provided her a new level of freedom and served as the impetus of her most profound creative output, laying the foundation for the development of her distinct iconography.”

Writing to André Breton in 1936, the founder and self-appointed head of the Surrealist movement, the poet Luis Cardoza y Aragón wrote effusively about Mexico as a Surrealist haven: “We are in the land of convulsive beauty, the land of edible delusions.” Mexico, according to Cardoza, was a “place for the mutable, the disturbing, the other death, in short, a land of dream, unavoidable by the surrealist spirit.” Cardoza later published his letter to Breton in the Mexican newspaper El Nacional as further evidence of the excitement taking hold among artists in Mexico, who firmly believed that the country could serve as a new home for the avant-garde. As Cardoza’s letter implied, Mexico would not only welcome the Surrealists, but it was a place imbued with the spirit of Surrealism itself—a land destined to beckon like-minded artists from the world to convene. It was in this milieu that Carrington, along with many other European-based artists, intellectuals, and writers, would soon find themselves.

While Carrington refined her Surrealist vision into a mature body of work during her early years in Mexico, her otherworldly visual language was first formed during her earliest experiences discovering the movement at the first International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936 – where she found kindred artistic spirits in Salvador Dalí, André Breton, Man Ray, and Max Ernst, who like her were fascinated by dreams, the subconscious and the occult. She later met Ernst at a dinner party, and the two quickly formed a relationship. As a couple they traveled to France, where their circle included Pablo Picasso, Dalí, Joan Miró, Breton, Leonor Fini and Marcel Duchamp. However, the relationship would soon turn tumultuous, marked by Ernst’s imprisonment at the outbreak of World War II, resulting in Carrington’s institutionalization in Spain in 1940. During this time, she experienced acute supernatural visions, describing abstract hallucinatory experiences in her autobiography Down Below that would undoubtedly inform the psychedelic landscapes and fantastical creatures that recur throughout her work, and especially in Les Distractions de Dagobert.

Upon settling in Mexico City in 1942, where she would live on and off for the rest of her life, Carrington found a vibrant artistic community of both international artists fleeing World War II, and of Mexican modern artists, from Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera to Miguel Covarrubias and Carlos Mérida and critically, a rich friendship with Remedios Varo. Drawn together by their affinity for the occult and love of their new homeland, they were also bonded by the tragedies of their war years and their marginalization by the mainstream Surrealist movement. Their quick bond sparked a period of intense productivity, scholarly pursuit and technical experimentation for both artists, leaving a lifelong impact on both of their oeuvres. Carrington in particular devoted herself in the 1940s to honing her mastery of egg tempera, a demanding, quick-drying medium that allowed her to convey the intricate detail and iridescent coloration of the supernatural universes in Les Distractions de Dagobert.

During this period, Carrington stayed connected to the art world in the United States, notably holding her first international solo exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York City in 1947. This show, the first ever at the gallery dedicated to a woman artist, prominently featured Les Distractions de Dagobert, alongside other key works such as The Kitchen Garden on the Eyot, which is now held in the collection at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA).

The Rise of Women Surrealists

“The recent surge of interest in previously overlooked women artists connected with the Surrealist movement marks a profoundly significant cultural shift. Leonora Carrington has proved to be a lightning rod of attention, setting the stage for Les Distractions de Dagobert, the apotheosis of Carrington’s oeuvre, to take its place as a masterpiece of 20th century art.”

Les Distractions de Dagobert comes to market coinciding with the 100th anniversary of André Breton’s publication of the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. This selection of documents produced by Breton defined Surrealism as “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express…the actual functioning of thought…in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” The Manifesto outlined many of the practices and themes that would define the achievements of Surrealism in the visual arts and remains one of the major artistic statements of the century. Nonetheless, 100 years on, the parameters of the movement continue to shift and be redefined, allowing closer examination of the many artists around the world who made invaluable contributions to what we know as Surrealism today.

The auction this May follows an increased interest in the long-overlooked women artists associated with the Surrealist movement, who in recent years have been honored by museum exhibitions around the globe – including the recent Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice & Museum Barberini, Potsdam, in which this painting was a curatorial centerpiece. Accordingly, women artists associated with the movement have garnered increasing success at auction in recent years: in 2021, Frida Kahlo’s Diego y Yo achieved a record-breaking $34.9 million at Sotheby’s in New York, marking the highest price ever for a Latin American artist, and the second highest price ever achieved at auction for a woman artist. Sotheby’s also broke the record for Remedios Varo in 2020 when Armonía (Autorretrato sugerente) achieved $6.2M and for Leonor Fini with Autoportrait au scorpion, which achieved $2.3M in 2022. Leonora Carrington’s current auction record was set by The Garden of Paracelsus which achieved $3.3 million at Sotheby’s in May 2022.

The New York Sales

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