At the opening of our most recent exhibition The Celtic Surrealist, the first retrospective in Ireland of the works of Leonora Carrington, artist Alice Maher delighted visitors with her opening address. It received such a positive response, we thought we should share her speech on the IMMA Blog. We hope you enjoy as much as we did on the night!
My first sight of the wonderful name of Leonora Carrington was in 1984. I was a student of painting in this country and searching for images made by women painters who had gone before me and my colleagues. This was not an easy task – there was no Google and the official art history books, while they often mentioned women as being on the margins of art movements, they very seldom illustrated their work. So we pored over the one or two international art magazines in our library looking for evidence that we did, actually, have antecedents.
And there one day I came upon a postage stamp size reproduction of a painting of what looked to me to be a contemporary woman in her white leggings, ankle boots, bomber jacket and stand-out punky hair. I knew it immediately to be a self-portrait of the artist who had painted it. She is sitting in a room that looks like a stage set, the horse has bolted, and she is in conversation with…a hyena. A hyena was, like, the worst thing you could be called at that time of gender politics, – shrill, ugly, wild, running in packs, scavengers, grave robbers, OUTSIDERS. For anyone, but particularly for a woman, to take this animal as her shield and familiar was quite a feat. For us students of painting, it was saying, “Right so, bring it on, I become that which you use to revile me; let me be wild, be murderous, be hysterical, a nighthawk, a scavenger, a survivor.”
Leonora Carrington scavenges amongst the iconography, cultures and beliefs of the whole human race it seems. Egypt and Abyssinia, Mexico, England and Ireland, France, Greece, Italy, Art History, Alchemy, Astrology, Occultism, Religion; the World story and Her story.
And like the other great women painters and their shield images which we managed to squirrel out of unofficial art history in the eighties – Dorothea Tanning with her giant sunflowers; Paula Modersohn Becher with her amber beads; Remedios Varo with her turning wheels; and Frida Kahlo with her tears – Leonora Carrington with her hyena has at last come to the Grand Table of Art History in this country with this museum show. And it is with absolute joy that we come to gorge upon this glut of images, this feast of the imagination of one too long flowering in the desert air.
And though I was unaware of her blood relation to this country, I am not surprised as a practising artist myself, to find many mutual friends amongst her lexicon of creatureliness. I was also unaware of the breadth of her practice, such as bronze, tapestry, stage design, writing, etching. So, here, at last we get to explore the rich embroidered cloth of her lifetime’s work.
And I get to go into all those other rooms that lead off that painted chamber where the girl and hyena first laid eyes upon each other. We all look forward to the Museum’s full re-opening in October but in the meantime …a house never held such treasures as that house over there! It is my privilege and pleasure to welcome you all to the wild and powerful, unheimlich und obscuro, étrange y uncanny, many-roomed mansion of the Giantess, Leonora Carrington.