NEW YORK, NY.- The cradle, the ship, the sails, and the journeys they recall, transport me to my earliest memories. These archetypes of travel enabled our childhood to move much like a pendulum oscillating between states of grace and an affectionate, ludic, and quotidian atmosphere that permeated our family home, surrounded with all the protective and magical objects that filled our house in the Roma district including La cuna (The Cradle) among other marvels.
Undoubtedly for cultured and expert eyes devoted to the study of Leonora Carrington's oeuvre, this work--painted on the best possible "canvas," constructed by my father in wood, and which simultaneously functions as a rocking chair, a cradle and a ship--represents one of the most important works of twentieth century art, particularly in the context of modernism and surrealism. Similarly for those that know and admire the talent, the work, and the remarkable craft behind Leonora's paintings, it appears equally evident that her finest work was produced from the mid-1940s through the 60s. La cuna, therefore, is a clear example of her best work--the egg, the princess in her carriage, the suns, the moons, the magical tree, etc. are all motifs that would serve as inspiration and reappear in subsequent paintings.
That being said, as I remember La cuna, my father, my mother and in particular Leonora, what comes to mind more so than its intellectual analysis is a phrase often employed by my parents and Leonora herself when outsiders would ask them how to determine the value or significance of a work of art. They would say that ultimately what makes works of art relevant is the life experiences embedded in them. Thus to quantify their worth they would always assert, that "only that which has the ability to become unforgettable is truly important and valuable."
For me, La cuna and my childhood memories spent around this object surrounded by the loving affection of my family--my father, my mother, Leonora, Chiki, Gabriel, Pablo, Claudia, Ricardo, and my dog, cats, pigeons, and the fountain on Tabasco Street are what are most unforgettable. La cuna has also allowed me to share these lasting memories with my own family and children, Katy and Iván.
I remember when I would ask my parents why they had named me Norah and they would always respond, 'because it had the same letters as my last name,' but above all 'because it was part of Leonora's name.'
Another element reflected in the cradle/ship was my father's special gift and his talent which, despite his brief life, was always visible in his work. Also evident is Leonora's magic, her great gift, and impeccable talent. In this sense, I feel that one of the qualities that most informed their extraordinary work has a lot to do with their collaborative mode of working within the home.
I also remember with a soulful smile how difficult it was at times to focus on my homework amidst the swirling smells of my father's wood and sawdust, the chemicals wafting from my mother's dark room, the coffee, Leonora's savory pastries, the penetrating scent of turpentine, gesso, and the oil paint Leonora would bring to our home for use on her shared creations with my father.
I want to reiterate again the incredible gift and magic that is so pervasive in Leonora's work. It is virtually unparalleled, particularly today, when it would seem that ethics, effort, tenacity, and craft are no longer considered important or de rigueur. It's also important to note that Leonora's immense talent was buttressed by years of study, commitment to her vocation, constant work, ethics, culture, congruence, and a great joy for life and for daily survival. --Norah Horna, Mexico City, 2012
Well known for her paintings, drawings, and literary output, the British-born Mexican surrealist Leonora Carrington, was also proficient in a wide variety of other media. During her prolific career she created jewelry, ceramics, tapestries, masks, costume designs, theatrical backdrops, sculpture in a variety of materials, and on rare occasion, furniture. Other surrealists were also involved in creating furniture, for example in 1939 the inaugural exhibition for René Drouin and Leo Castelli's Galerie d'Art Décoratif in Paris featured Meret Oppenheim's bronze table with bird legs, a painted wardrobe and corset chair by Leonor Fini, and Salvador Dalí's now infamous Lobster Telephone (1938). La cuna (Cradle) c. 1949 is a stunning and unique example of Carrington's foray into this arena and is a rare instance within the history of surrealism of an object made for a child. Beds held a particularly elevated status within the iconography of surrealism as the locus for their explorations into sexuality, dreams, and the unconscious. Carrington's cradle, however, reflects her long fascination with the magical potential of childhood, something that would have been on her mind at this time as a new mother of two sons. Like the fairy tales she was so fond of reading, here was a bed, shaped like a boat, that could metaphorically sail a child into the wondrous land of dreams.
Escaping a war-torn Europe, Carrington moved to the United States in 1941 and then to Mexico in 1943. She soon became immersed in the European émigré surrealist community consisting of Benjamin Péret, Remedios Varo, Kati and José Horna and the Hungarian photographer Chiki Weisz, whom she married in 1946. Carrington had her first son Gabriel in 1946 and her second, Pablo, in 1948 and was finding motherhood to be an unanticipated joyous adventure. It was during this period that she and other members of this group would experiment with designing furniture, toys, and puppets to sell. Perhaps as a design prototype José Horna, created this elaborate piece of furniture, replete with a canvas sail and a wave-like curved base that rocked the cradle, for his infant daughter Norah. On the outer surface of the bed Carrington painted a lively procession of fantastical creatures and, to the far right, an egg (her favorite alchemical symbol) with a tree on top.
As a young woman Carrington had been sent to a boarding school in Florence where she was deeply impressed by quattrocento Italian painting, spending much time in museums looking at panel paintings by Pisanello, Uccello, Sassetta, Giovani de Paolo and others. There she undoubtedly became familiar with Italian Renaissance marriage chests known as cassone, given to women at their weddings and which held a bride's personal possessions. La cuna, similar to a cassone, is a wooden receptacle covered in gesso and painted. To stress perhaps its connection to women, tides and the sea in general, Carrington included along the top edge of the vessel a sequence of moons passing through their waxing and waning stages. It is interesting to note that amidst the painted figures is a cart very similar to this cradle rolling along on two wheels that look like the large and smaller logs it rests on. Its blue and red sails are unfurled and atop it stands a pale standing figure, hair streaming in the wind, while a star directly above seems to be guiding it. It is related to her other paintings of the mid-to-late 1940s, such as Tuesday (1946) where a pale woman stands beneath a full moon while floating on a small vessel.
In the early 1950s Carrington continued experimenting with painting on wooden objects fashioned by José Horna. In 1952 she made a puppet (I Want to Be an Insect) and in 1954 she painted a series of horses on a disc that was meant to be spun like a top. As late as 1964 she painted animals on a three-paneled wooden screen for her children. Perhaps most closely aligned with La cuna (and perhaps directly inspired by it), is one of Carrington's most spectacular sculptures, Cat Woman of 1951. This over life-size, cat-woman hybrid figure is covered with delicately rendered landscapes, animals and strange figures engaged in arcane transactions. This points to the fact that for Carrington there was no division between categories of objects, such as furniture vs. fine art sculpture (her first one-woman exhibition in Mexico in 1950 was held at Clardecor, an interior design showroom). For a woman so dedicated to elevating the status of women by reclaiming the magical powers of domesticity, La cuna can be seen as directly related to her painting from 1947, Night Nursery Everything, which shows a child, in a ark-like cradle suspended magically in the air, watching mysterious figures cavorting in the nursery.
Carrington loved children's literature and book illustrations and remembered those read and seen during her own childhood fondly. They nourished her earliest flights of fancy and from them, as she matured, grew her interest in magic, mythology, and the occult. Likewise, due to the many forced dislocations of her youth, from various boarding schools, to the tragic events of World War II that led to various close and traumatic escapes, Carrington often included vehicles of transport in her artwork. In her masterwork from 1945 Les Distractions de Dagobert, for example, a woman lies in an ark with a sail eerily similar to La cuna, as she navigates through the unknown, much as Carrington did before her arrival in Mexico. Perhaps her good friend, the surrealist artist Remedios Varo, was influenced by Carrington's interest in boats as symbols of inner voyages when she painted Exploration of the Source of the Orinoco River (1959) and also in the uncanny life of furniture as in her painting Mimesis (1960). Like other pieces of surrealist furniture, La cuna is meant to transcend the merely functional, and instead transport both the viewer and the fortunate child into the fertile realm of dreams.
Susan L. Aberth, Associate Professor of Art History, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson
1) There has been renewed scholarly interest in furniture and other design elements created by the surrealists, as evidenced by the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition in 2007, Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design.
2) As early as 1938, Carrington was experimenting with furniture and the uncanny as can been seen in her well-known Self-Portrait (Inn of the Dawn Horse) where she sits on a large blue armchair whose armrests and feet seem to be alive, mimicking her own hands and feet.