Leonora Carrington (b. 1917)
- Leonora Carrington
- El árbol de la vida
- signed and dated 1960 lower left
- oil on canvas
- 36 1/4 by 25 3/4 in.
- 92 by 65.5 cm
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, Beyond Belief: Modern Art and other religious imagination, 24 April-26 July, 1998, illustrated in exhibition catalogue, p. 208
Paris, Maison de L'Amérique Latine, Leonora Carrington. La mariée du vent, May 30-July 18, 2008, illustrated in exhibition catalogue, p. 128
Manchester, Manchester City Art Gallery, Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism, September 29-January 10, 2010, illustrated in exhibition catalogue, p. 256
In 1960, when she painted this complex and intriguing piece, Leonora Carrington was 43 years old – not yet halfway through her long and eventful life (she is still alive, now aged 94, in Mexico City). Already behind her were a host of extraordinary adventures: she had grown up in a forbidding Gothic mansion in Lancashire, had been schooled in Florence and Paris as well as several British convents (she was, invariably, asked to leave), and – having acquiesced to her parents' wishes and taken part in the London 'season', complete with a ball at the Ritz and presentation to King George V at Buckingham Palace – had fallen madly in love with Max Ernst, 26 years her senior, having been introduced to him at a bohemian dinner party.
Her affair with Ernst sealed her fate – both personally and artistically. With him she left England in 1937, was exposed to all the creative genius of the Surrealist inner circle in Paris, and then moved with Ernst to the south of France for an idyllic summer of art and love – only to end up fleeing at the onset of the second world war to Spain (where she was for a while locked in a lunatic asylum) and then to Portugal, from where she and Ernstsailed to New York, and travelled on to Mexico.
From 1942, when she arrived in Mexico City, Carrington's life was far less adventurous from the outside than it had been in the tumultuous days in Europe – she became a wife and a mother, and had a far more settled existence, living in an area called Colonia Roma, surrounded by friends who had also escaped from war-torn Europe. But through these years her interior existence, her quest for meaning and connection and spiritual fulfilment, was as active and busy and adventure-filled as her earlier life had been: and this painting reflects that. The 'tree of life' is the puzzle Carrington has spent her entire adult life trying to understand: here, she gives us her visual description of the place where she is at with her search. Since arriving in Mexico, she had looked for her answers in many, disparate, quarters: she had been involved with the esoteric, with Kabbalah (the rabbis swirling around at the foot of the painting maybe reflect this part of her quest), and with Buddhism. Never one to forget the part animals play in the cycle of life on earth, this painting includes a horse (her favourite animal, for many years) and some of her famous hybrid creatures (the winged big cats glaring benignly at one another in the foreground).
As ever with her paintings, Carrington has not and will not discuss a 'coda' to unlock her imagery: it is up to us, the viewers, to look and to think for ourselves. The colour and movement in the work seem to focus on the circles that perhaps represent the 'fruits' of life's tree – fruits that seem to be eluding the characters who gather around it. At the top of the painting is a face that seems to represent the bigger force outside of ourselves that Carrington, though a rebel from childhood against her cradle Catholic faith, has never ruled out (as she says herself, why would you?). And below that face, the centre point that it perhaps the biggest key of all to her thinking: an enigmatic and open space, significant but not dominating, beyond which there is only darkness – but through which the bigger truth is, perhaps, ultimately contained.