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Personal stories of coronavirus

'We are all Surrealists now': how life with Leonora Carrington prepared me for coronavirus lockdown

Joanna Moorhead, the biographer and relative of the rediscovered Surrealist woman artist, talks about learning to adventure creatively from the confines of home

Leonora Carrington in 1975 with her work Lepidoptera (1969) Photo: Jerry Engel/New York Post Archives /© NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images

"Safety, under any circumstances, is an illusion."

It’s more than a decade since the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington said those words to me. Since then I’ve considered them my motto and my mantra; and never have they rung so clearly in my ears as now, during the coronavirus (Covid-19) lockdown.

Strangely enough, my only previous experience of being at the heart of a pandemic was with Leonora in 2009, two years before her death I was in Mexico City visiting her when swine flu shut it down. The scenes in La Ciudad were similar to what I can see now from my window in Glasgow.  Streets almost empty, roads quiet, the occasional passer-by wearing a face mask.  

Leonora—who was my father’s cousin, and who I got to know during the last five years of her tumultuous life—was one of the few people not to be surprised by that pandemic; and she wouldn’t be surprised by what’s happening now. Because for Surrealists, the expected is the unexpected. Life is not as we think. There are other realms, narratives that lie dormant below the surface ready to erupt. Leonora’s art is strewn with them: worlds within worlds, landscapes and creatures and animals that take us by surprise. What is that giant badger doing with a village on its back?  Why is a one-eyed tiger lurking below a Mayan village? Is that figure a human form—or is it a tree?  Nothing is quite as we believe it to be; nothing is safe, or certain, or secure.

For Surrealists, the expected is the unexpected. Life is not as we think. 

Learning that from Leonora changed my life, and helps me now. Because she was right: nothing in the world she painted was as it seems, and nothing in our world now is as it seemed, either.  We cannot control what happens beyond ourselves; and we hardly know anything even about that.  All I know, Leonora used to say, is that I am a female animal who will one day die.  Nothing more.

Leonora Carrington and Joanna Moorhead together at the artist's home Courtesy of Joanna Moorhead

By the time I knew her, Leonora was in her eighties, and increasingly confined, as we all currently are, to the house. When I was with her I spent most of every day at her kitchen table or on the sofa, chatting with her or reading or watching TV or listening to music. But if her world was reduced in size, it was boundless creatively, imaginatively, intellectually, and comically. Leonora taught me that we decide how we live, and the choices we make are more to do with what’s on the inside than the outside. Every day I spent with her, right up to my final visit when she was 93, was an adventure. Sometimes we had sad adventures and sometimes we had hilarious ones; sometimes we travelled back in time and sometimes we were in the present. We tended not to have adventures in the future; now, and what we had in our survival packs from the past, was enough. 

Leonora taught me that we decide how we live, and the choices we make are more to do with what’s on the inside than the outside.

And so, in these lockdown days, I think often of Leonora; and I muse on how interesting it is that hers is the art movement we hear constantly invoked to explain the inexplicable. Leonora, wherever you are, how about this? Your world has become universal. We are all Surrealists now.

• The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorhead is published by Virago and is currently available from Amazon on Kindle at £3.99