Leanora Carrington: Surrealism and it’s Portrayal and Criticism of the Everyday

When exploring the everyday, our first thought may be to turn to the works of a realist nature, the ‘day-in-the-life’ novels. It is easy to see said works as the pinnacle of representation of the everyday, with their ability to accurately depict the simultaneous monotony and grandiosity of the everyday human existence. However, while the works of Williams, Woolf and Joyce all engage in the temporality of the everyday in a realistic and yet hyperbolic manner, the surrealist works of the Modern era have as much relevance to our understanding of the everyday.

When engaging with surrealism in the discipline of the everyday, we need to be able to engage with the iconography of the text, and as such, I intend to do so with the work of Leanora Carrington. In her work, Carrington uses bestial imagery to engage with the patriarchal and classist world she finds herself in, not only on a global scale, but within her own field. In her essay; Surrealism and Esoteric Feminism in the Paintings of Leonora Carrington, Janice Herald touches on the misogynistic nature of Surrealist art at the time; 

‘Surrealists were noted for a very precise iconography, and most artists and writers in the movement displayed a strong interest in erotic violence, misogyny, and woman as object or muse’

And so Carrington used her own perspective on surrealism to criticize the misogynistic nature of the everyday, in both her writings and her artistry.

This is reflected in Carrington’s short story ‘The Debutante’, through the aforementioned bestial iconography and a subversion of expectations in both tone and content. This is apparent in the choice of animal for the debutante’s friend, in the hyena. The hyena acts as a recurring feature in the work of Carrington, such as her 1936-7 painting, Self Portrait, seen below. The hyena in The Debutante works in a multifaceted manner, playing into Carrington’s parody of the bourgeois and their everyday traditions. I’d like to think of the hyena as a scavenger animal here, a creature that rarely hunts live animals, as when connected to the act of killing the maid, this highlights the feminist and Marxist angle of the creature. The ‘maid’ has no identity and is by all reasonable measures, already ‘dead’ in a sense of the word. 

I’d like to highlight Herald’s analysis of the hyena; 

‘The hyena, in Carrington’s work, expresses a contemptuous attitude towards a rite of passage, the debutante’s ball. The conspiracy between female and beast in the story is a rebellion against established traditions and, as such, fits well into the Surrealist mode of rebellion that was so vehemently directed against society and its mores.’

This fits into our look at the text, as using the medium of Surrealism to exaggerate aspects of the ordinary everyday existence to criticize said concept. The hyena’s declaration before they flee the ball, ‘ “So I smell a bit strong, what? Well, I don’t eat cakes!” ‘ acts as a final denouement towards the tradionality of the European bourgeois, perhaps acting as reference in the (now known to be false) quote from Marie Antoinette: ‘Let them eat cake’, purportedly said in response to being told that those in France are starving. This allows the hyena to not only act as a reference to the consumptive nature of the bourgeois in the killing of the maid, but also the desire to mock and deride the egotism and falseness present in everyday life within the upper class. In doing so, the hyena represents the protagonist’s desire to break free from the constraints of the society she has been forced into.

Carrington’s work shows us how surrealism is able to use the unreal and unrecognisable to make comment on the everyday of daily life. The Debutante plays with what should be a banal, traditional event and highlights what is wrong with the everyday existence that the upper class enforces upon itself.

References:

Helland, Janice, Surrealism and Esoteric Feminism in the Paintings of Leonora Carrington, RACAR: revue d’art canadienne / Canadian Art Review , 1989, Vol. 16, No. 1 (1989), pp. 53-61, https://www.jstor.org/stable/42630417

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