Leonora Carrington: the marriage between two cultures

Through her artwork and her storytelling, Leonora Carrington has been able to merge two vastly different cultures and create a world in which both countries are equally represented and present. In the many pieces of art- both painting and sculpting- she has created, Carrington was able to create a clear bond between Ireland and Mexico, a link between her ancestry and the new place that she called home. Keep reading to discover the way Carrington was able to interweave Irish folktales and mythical stories, and the culture that surrounded her in Mexico City.

Who is Leonora Carrington?

Mary Leonora Carrington, or more widely known as Leonora Carrington, was a Surrealist painter, artist and novelist who, although born in the United Kingdom, lived most of her adult life in Mexico City. She was born in 1917 to her father Harold Wylde Carrington and her mother Marie Carrington. 

Her mother was born in County Westmeath, in Ireland, and the Celtic myths that both Carrington’s Irish mother and grandmother would tell her growing up impacted her and stayed with her long after she became an adult. Throughout her work as an artist, Carrington revisited these myths and fairytales she grew up hearing, and they inevitably made their way into her work. Carrington is even at times referred to as The Celtic Surrealist

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Artist Leonora Carrington. Image via lithub.com.


Carrington was part of a larger movement that was known as Surrealism. Before the art movement came a literary movement at the end of the 1910s and the beginning of the 1920s whereby writers experimented with new methods of expression. This was called automatic writing. The writers who were part of this new way of writing “sought to release the unbridled imagination of the subconscious”, explains James Voorhies, curator and historian of modern and contemporary art.

The Surrealist Movement therefore began around the 1920s as a continuation of automatic writing, and developed in Europe in the aftermath of World War I. Surrealism was one of the first experimental movements in which female artists actively took part. Most famously known for this movement are artists such as Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, and René Magritte.

There are many different characteristics that are easily identifiable within Surrealist art. The biggest, and most prominent are dream-like visuals, the use of symbolism, and collage images. This is not an extensive list of how someone can identify a surrealist piece of artwork, however these three characteristics are clearly visible throughout Carrington’s art.

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The Persistence of Memory (1913), by Salvador Dalí. Dalí is one of the Surrealist movement’s most recognisable artists. He perfectly showcases the Surrealist ideal of presenting dream-like visuals throughout his paintings. Image via moma.org.

Mexico and the Surreal

In 1936, when she was just nineteen years old, the young Carrington moved to Paris, where she met Max Ernst, a German painter, sculptor, and poet who was a primary pioneer of the Dada art movement. Here, in Paris, is where Carrington became a central figure within this new Surrealist art movement. Shortly after the beginning of the Second World War, many European Surrealist artists fled to America, and a number of European Surrealist artists found refuge in Mexico. Carrington was among these artists. After the arrival of artists such as Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) in 1936 and André Breton (1896-1966) in 1938, Mexico became the most important place in Latin America for the Surrealist movement.

Ireland and Mexico: beautifully interwoven

During her lifetime creating art, Carrington made direct reference in her art and her stories to the history of Ireland, and the Irish tradition of storytelling. As a child, Carrington was told that she was a descendant of the fabled Irish race known as the Tuatha Dé Danann, a supernatural race who reside in the Otherworld and often interact with humans and the human world. She felt a connection with these Irish fairy folk, and later in her artistic life, celebrated the connection through her paintings. 

Carrington also loved the stories told to her about the Sidhe, the fairy folk in Irish fairy tales. In the painting below, Carrington depicts these Irish folk tales with pride and a sense of assurance.

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Sidhe: The White people of Tuatha dé Danann (1954), painted by Leonor Carrington. Image via biblioklept.org.

Although she comes from a line of Irish ancestry, Leonora Carrington is relatively unknown in Ireland and she is rarely represented in public collections. In 2014, the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) had a collection of some of her works, however, it was not a permanent collection of the museum. In 2011, the sculpture pictured below was presented to the IMMA as a diplomatic gift of the Federal Government of Mexico. This statue remains in the museum as part of its permanent collection.

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Vulture (Dragon) (2010), a bronze statue measuring 15.2cm x 26cm x 11cm, that is a permanent part of the IMMA collection. Image via IMMA.

Carrington did not only portray Irish myths and legends in her artwork. She also took inspiration from the country that she would call home for many years, and the country in which she would become one of the most celebrated artists: Mexico.

Carrington did not begin sculpting until much later in her career, around the 1990s. However, she was no less a master in sculpting as she was with painting, and her unique style is no less recognisable. Her sculpture The Ship of Cranes (2010), which she completed a year before her death in 2011, represents the Mayan belief that all humans have a specific animal guide or companion. The sculpture depicts a ship that resembles a crane that carries four other bird-like creatures in what may be a spiritual journey.

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The Ship of Cranes (2010), sculpture by Leonora Carrington, Museo de Leonora Carrington, San Luis Potosí, Mexico. Image via Fern Mendoza.

During her 94 years, Leonora Carrington created more than two hundred pieces of art, including paintings and sculptures. She was one of the twentieth century’s greatest artists and has become increasingly more recognised for her immense talent in the years following her death. She was careful to incorporate elements of her Irish heritage and ancestry and combine it with the Mexican culture and influences she was experiencing during her life in Mexico City.

Upon exploring her various collections, viewers will notice the way she interweaves and connects two cultures she lived and loved.

Fern Mendoza
Fern Mendoza

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