Leonora Carrington on intellectualising art

It is sad to hear Leonora Carrington has died aged 94. Her recent sculpture (in the link, seen here in the exhibition which she lived long enough to see open), is seemingly interpreted from the imagery of her earlier paintings. For me, it does not have the power of her two-dimensional work or earliest sculpture. Nevertheless, for the British artist who lived in Mexico City for sixty years and was adopted as one of their own, there appears to have been a growing demand for it.

The Guardian journalist Joanna Moorhead is a relative of Carrington. She produced a touching film which was shown at the travelling exhibition at Pallant House Gallery and Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in 2010. Here is an excerpt from Carrington’s discussions with Moorhead:


Her admonishment of her great-niece about the intellectualisation of art is refreshing, and when I first saw this it made me question the similarities between true improvisational working and surrealism.

Surrealists set out to liberate the workings of the subconscious and disrupt conscious thought processes, by the use of irrationality and mystery. Paradoxically, perhaps that last ‘by the use of’ bring things back into the conscious, intellectual mind?

In a dialogue between Andre Breton and Andre Masson, the former referred to one of the precursors to the Surrealists:

A good question for an advanced examination for art critics would be ‘Does the painting of (Henri) Rousseau prove he knew the Tropics, or that he did not?’

Did the exotic paintings spring from the imagination, or from memory? It’s a nice quote, but actually irrelevant here as the imagery is still cerebral. It seems to have narrative rather than just feeling.

Sculptor Alan Thornhill has remarked that true improvisational working comes from instinct rather than intellect; form emerges ambiguously from an interplay with clay or paint, rather than being imagined and created as an entity. For the artist, keeping free from pre-planned ideas is difficult. Responding to form, mass or colour for its own sake must have an input from somewhere – but perhaps from another part of the brain that is free of ego and somehow more ‘honest’. Conceptual work survives on its idea, and for me often dies through its inability to survive on its visual appeal alone.

Intellectualisation springs up on the other side of the fence too. For the viewer and the art historian, there is a continual need to ‘get’ visual art, with the former often spotted – pursed lips; hand on chin – analysing the imagery in front of them.

Carrington standing up for purely visual values might suggest that the only two outcomes for the viewer of “art” could be summed up as: being moved by it… or not being moved by it.

The Guardian’s obituary on Leonora Carrington.