A Surrealist Writes Her Madness

Book review: Down Below, by Leonora Carrington

A strange, surreal account of painter, sculptor and writer Leonora Carrington’s 1943 stay in a Spanish mental institution after descending into mental illness. An English transplant to France where the Surrealist movement had found fertile ground, Carrington wrote this short book, actually more like an extended essay, as a stream-of-consciousness style explanation of what she saw and felt, both the real and unreal.

Carrington’s partner, the famous Surrealist painter Max Ernst, had just been sent to a concentration camp, and in the uneasy, uncanny atmosphere of Europe during the Second World War, Carrington lost her grip on reality.

The book was originally dictated in French to a friend, Marina Warner, in New York. This new edition from the New York Review of Books Classics published in 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of Carrington’s birth. Despite writing several popular novels that remain in print and her paintings and drawings hanging today in some of the most important art museums, including the MoMA and the Met, Carrington isn’t as well known as some of her contemporaries in the Surrealist movement.

But as Warner writes in the introduction, Carrington had quite an interesting life and figured heavily in the lives and works of many active in the arts and literary scenes of such an artistically influential and historically memorable time. She had connections to big names in addition to Ernst, including fellow Surealist Andre Breton, photographer Lee Miller, Picasso, and through Ernst, patron of the arts Peggy Guggenheim.

Carrington doesn’t differentiate in Down Below between what was fact and what was fantasy in her breakdown experience, blending both seamlessly and without commentary in a dreamy, meandering narrative that reads like a Surrealist painting unspooling across a canvas. She recovered from the episode detailed, but it’s quite an interesting document in terms of a clear presentation of the thought process of someone suffering a psychotic break, especially that confusion between what’s reality and what isn’t.

She experiences religious visions and convictions, others that are nightmarish, confusion about where her own body ends and the rest of the world begins, and paranoia about those, including medical staff, around her. It ultimately feels brief and since her voice is so compelling while laced with strange, beautiful imagery and creative flares, it would have been nice to have more of her words or commentary.

The biographical writings included in this edition are intriguing and if readers were, like me, previously unfamiliar with her despite an interest in Surrealism, this serves as an excellent opening to her oeuvre. (I noticed a lovely painting of hers hanging in the Met and drawings at the Albertina in Vienna after reading this, I’m not sure if they would’ve stood out before!)

It’s sure to appeal to any lover of Surrealism; it could almost be a portrayal of the inspiration or working process behind the creation of Surrealist art.

Down Below
by Leonora Carrington, introduction by Marina Warner
originally published 1945, this edition published April 3, 2017 by New York Review Books Classics

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for review.

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