Cover of book: Leonora

Elena Poniatowska

When the Surrealist artist Max Ernst painted a swimmer, he showed him not frolicking in blue waters but imprisoned behind vertical stripes made of electric cables. In Leonora, he scoffs, “Automatically, we all blindly follow the current.” 

Not Leonora Carrington. In this historical novel Mexican author and journalist Elena Poniatowska has penned an ode to the Surrealists, who proved there was another way to think, live and draw, free from convention. Of the group, Leonora, painter, feminist and Ernst’s one-time lover, was surely queen.

Born in 1917 to a wealthy textile family in Lancashire, Leonora’s life as a socialite was mapped out from birth. Instead she ran off to Paris to pursue art and to become Ernst’s mistress aged just 20. In her later years, Leonora settled in Mexico where her creativity flourished; it was there that she not only painted her most famous works but also became a founding member of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s.

For years Leonora was famous more for her private life than her art. Her passionate love affair with Ernst – 26 years her senior – scandalised her parents, and she rubbed shoulders with the likes of Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. Today, thankfully, she has achieved recognition in her own right with a large retrospective currently showing at the Tate Liverpool in Britain, and her painting The Giantess sold for more than $US1.5 million last year at Christie’s. 

It is little wonder, then, that Poniatowska has chosen to focus on this difficult but brilliant woman, who made her mark in an all-too-male world. Poniatowska, now in her 80s, was close friends with Leonora in real life and here – as in her other novels Dear Diego and Tinísima – she has dramatised true events, merging them with fiction. It is a fine line to walk and one on which Poniatowska (translated by Amanda Hopkinson) sometimes falters. In her hands Leonora Carrington is often little more than a walking, talking platitude of what an outsider might view as the rebellious “artist”. 

In the novel young Leonora grows up in an upper-class England where children ought to be seen and not heard. She scandalously writes backwards with her left hand, has as her only friends the mythical Sidhe, Irish fairies that live underground, and is possessed with the gift of second sight (or so says her nanny). At her grim and Gothic convent school Leonora has her ebony curls cut off as punishment for being vain – “Why do you insist upon being different?” the Mother Superior barks – and she is expelled. 

Leonora’s father believes that “a proper preparation for marriage is a woman’s salvation”, and he educates her accordingly. He is horrified when she disagrees, declaring that she wishes she could transform into a hyena at her coming-out ball at Buckingham Palace. Leonora is rich, accomplished and beautiful but also raw and animalistic. Her eyes “resemble two black billy goats – or black cats – or black bulls about to charge”. She is obsessed with horses, which crop up time and again in her works, and she neighs and gallops across the pages with gusto.

After Leonora meets Ernst at a dinner party, he leaves his wife for her and they set up home together in rural France, where they grow vines and sculpt weird and wonderful statues. When World War II breaks out, Ernst is first taken to a detention camp by the allies for being German, and then arrested again by the Nazis for his art. A broken Leonora travels to Spain where, in 1940, she is incarcerated in a psychiatric clinic at the behest of her parents and declared “incurably insane”. Escaping finally from the brutal electroshock therapy and cocktail of drugs (many now shunned as too dangerous to prescribe) she meets and marries a Mexican ambassador and sets up a new life in his home country.

Leonora was a brave and pioneering artist and woman. Yet in the hands of Poniatowska, who writes with awe and adoration, she comes across as infuriating company and a bit of a brat – surely not the intention. She despises her parents but uses their money, her lack of empathy for Ernst’s mentally fragile wife is chilling, and she is prone to running around the French countryside naked. Ultimately, Poniatowska does her heroine a disservice by replacing any true complexity with clichés.

This is most apparent in Leonora and her friends’ conversations and observations as recounted in the novel. The Surrealists, it seems, can never do anything as mundane as simply order a cup of tea. Every word is loaded with meaning and innuendo. The text is over-ripe with phrases such as “I refuse to submit to discipline”, “whatever happens, I still need to explore the limits of my mind”, and “when you launch yourself into the unknown is when you are saved”. It’s all a bit silly.

A hackneyed view of Britain does not help. Poniatowska gets a few key facts wrong – for example, her claim that Oscar Wilde was imprisoned at Chelmsford – but it is her emotional portrait that rings hollow. In contrast to the Surrealists and their emotive exclamations, no conversation the English have at their balls “exceeds the boundaries of discussing the weather, fox hunting, or the best place to holiday this summer”. As with her portrayal of artists, such sweeping characterisations reduce complex societies to stereotypes.

 Poniatowska has Leonora declaring, “I want to experience myself as enormous, powerful and beautiful”, and the author has done her best. But there is too much fawning for a story where the facts, unvarnished, are surely extraordinary enough to stand alone. Leonora Carrington died aged 94 in 2011 in Mexico. 

The book jacket boasts that Leonora the novel charms Leonora the person back to life “more truthfully than any biography could”. Yet as the story proceeds there is a creeping sensation that the latter might have served both author and subject better.  EA

Profile, 448pp, $27.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 18, 2015 as "Elena Poniatowska, Leonora".

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Reviewer: EA

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