Surrealism and food


Grandmother Moorhead’s Kitchen, image from the Telegraph article ‘Leonora Carrington: last of the great Surrealists’.

Today being the anniversary of the birthday of Leonora Carrington, one of my favourite British artists from the 20th century, I thought I might have another look at one of the first paintings of hers that I saw, at a 2010 exhibition entitled ‘Surreal Friends’, at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. Here are some points of contemplation:

  • Leonora’s paintings show “the transformation the feminine domestic sphere into a site of magical power”, and “the transit of food from the kitchen to the table to consumption was…likened to alchemical processes of distillation and transformation” (Susan L. Aberth, Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art).
  • The redness of the room suggests activity, heat, and passion.
  • Three witches stand within a magic circle drawn on the floor, preparing ingredients. Three heads of garlic are positioned at various points on the circle, as if to drive home the aroma and potency of the magic.
  • The open door on the right reveals a full moon. The two figures on the left wear sunglasses, perhaps as protection against the moonlight.
  • The ingredients, griddle, cooking pot and mortar are Mexican, but the stove and spirit of the work is Irish. In 1994 Leonora said:

    “The Mexican traditions of magic and witchcraft are fascinating, but they are not the same as mine, do you understand? I think every country has a magical tradition, but our approach to the unknown is peculiar to our ancestry. It is something that has to do with birth, your blood, flesh and bones.”

  • The white goose stepping into the magic circle symbolises the Celtic mother goddess Epona. This goddess was the only Celtic goddess known to have been honoured in Rome, as a horse goddess; in Brigantia in the North of Britain she was depicted riding a goose. From her may have originated Mother Goose of fairy tale fame.
  • Grandmother Moorhead refers to Leonora’s Irish grandmother, whose surname was Moorhead. Leonora said in 1974:

    “My love for the soil, nature, the gods was given to me by my mother’s mother who was Irish from Westmeath, where there is a myth about men who lived underground inside the mountains, called the ‘little people’ who belong to the race of the ‘Sidhe’. My grandmother used to tell me we were descendants of that ancient race that magically started to live underground when their land was taken by invaders with different political and religious ideas. They preferred to retire underground where they are dedicated to magic and alchemy, knowing how to change gold. The stories my grandmother told me were fixed in my mind and they gave me mental pictures that I would later sketch on paper.”

  • The inscriptions in the magic circle are mirror-writing in English and Celtic, referring to the legends of the Sidhe.
  • The area in which Leonora grew up also fed her imagination. Lancashire was home to neolithic stone circles from the ancient pagan religion and also of the Pendle witches, who were found guilty of witchcraft in 1612 and hanged.

If you are interested and in the UK, there is currently an exhibition of Leonora Carrington’s works at Tate Liverpool.


One thought on “Surrealism and food

  1. Reblogged this on Joanna K Neilson and commented:
    Because I can’t believe I’ve only just heard about Leonora’s work over the last couple of months, and this is a fabulous article contrasting her approach (which feels contemporary with Frida Kahlo meets Chagall) compared with the more ‘macho’ surrealists.


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