Down Below by Leonora Carrington

2017 is shaping up to be quite a year of anniversaries so far. The obvious one, and the one which has been gaining quite a bit of attention from my neck of the woods, is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. However, 2017 is also the centenary of the birth of the artist and writer Leonora Carrington and there have been a number of significant releases to mark the event. I’ve recently read and reviewed for Shiny New Books a biography of Carrington by her cousin, Joanna Moorhead, and you can read about that here. However, NYRB are leading the field with a reissue of her seminal work “Down Below”, an autobiographical piece which explores a nervous breakdown she had in the 1940s, and it’s a stunning piece of work.

Carrington is usually labelled as a surrealist and bracketed with that group of artists, owing to her association with them and her affair with Max Ernst, one of the movement’s leading practitioners. But to restrict her by that label seems unfair; she wrote as well, and a number of her books have been published over the years by Virago, keeping her work in the public eye – and in fact they are the publishers of the Moorhead book.

Carrington and Ernst

Carrington was born into a privileged background; her father was a successful, self-made businessman, and Carrington herself was presented at the court of King George V as a debutante in the season of 1935, along with her mother. However, she railed against conventionality and after several failed educational attempts, she was allowed to study art in London. It was here that she met Ernst, and despite the 23 year gap in their ages there was an instant attraction and the pair ran off together, initially to Cornwall. The partnership was a fruitful one and the couple ended up in France at the start of WW2. It was here that things began to go wrong: Max, as a German national was sent to a concentration camp, leaving the young Leonora on her own. Unable to cope, she had a nervous breakdown which led to her incarceration in a most nightmarish asylum, and this experience forms the basis of the book “Down Below”. It’s a slim volume with a chequered publication history, and it’s perhaps a little surprising initially that a work of this length (63 pages) has been published separately, as it could well have been slotted into a collection of her works. But I can understand the logic of wanting the piece to stand on its own, and its augmented by a wonderful and erudite introduction by Marina Warner, who draws heavily on her own meetings with Carrington in the 1970s – which makes it even more interesting.

In some ways, I find “Down Below” a hard book to review – what can you say a book that is nakedly honest about someone’s disturbed mental state without risking sounding trite? Carrington relates her story in an almost detached tone, telling of her inability to cope with Max’s imprisonment, her long periods of not eating and the attempts of friends to help her. She sees symbols everywhere, and as the War situation deteriorates, she is driven off to Spain by two friends. The car freezes up and will go no further; Carrington identifies herself with the car and considers herself frozen too. Her family become involved and she is institutionalised, where she slips between fantasy and lucidity and receives some truly horrific treatment. The drugs used on her induce fits and her dream is to reach the habitation ‘down below’ where all is calm and well. Eventually, she escapes the doctors and her family by making a marriage of convenience and fleeing to America, but the treatment she has endured is simply brutal.

Carrington’s map of ‘down below’, featured in the book

“Down Below” is a disconcerting book; the detached tone makes what’s happening even more shocking, and the lines between what’s real and what’s imagined are hard to find. Carrington relates shortly and in a calm tone that she was gang raped by soldiers; allowed to lie in her own filth for ages; stripped naked and tied down. It’s stark stuff, lifted by passages of beauty, and Carrington’s identification of her body in relation to the world is fascinating. Some of the passages are dizzying and dazzling, and the book is laced with symbolism – a kind of written equivalent to her visual art.

In the end, Carrington fought her way through the madness, made her escape, and eventually based herself in Mexico where she continued to paint and write, made a happy marriage and had two children. She produced an impressive body of work, and her books seem to reflect her art with their surreal stories and strange happenings. Certainly I can see the connections between her worldview in “Down Below” and the surreal landscapes and powerful women in “The Hearing Trumpet”. As a document of what it can feel like to go through a period of madness, this book is peerless; and as an account of a surreal view of life it’s unmatched. The excellent introduction puts all in context, and if you want to explore Leonora Carrington’s life and work, this book gives some valuable insights into the unique artist that she was.