In the summer of 1952 Leonora Carrington traveled from Mexico to Paris to attend her one-person exhibition at the prestigious Galerie Pierre. It was the first time that such a large grouping of her paintings had been seen in France since her departure from that country in 1940. The idea for the exhibition came from Marie Cuttoli, a patron of the arts best known for her revival of the Aubusson tradition of tapestry by using original designs by twentieth-century artists such as Braque, Léger, Lurçat, Miró, and Picasso, among others, which she sold in her Paris boutique, Maison Myrbor.
Stepsister's Hen, a new work, was among the works Carrington exhibited with Pierre Loeb. It had been a complicated, if not a difficult time, for Surrealist art in Europe since Le Surrealisme, at the Galerie Maeght in 1947, the first international surrealist exhibition after the War. Although curated by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp, and including all the great names (Carrington among them), the show was received with trepidation. An art that was once meant to shock the bourgeoisie had been comfortably welcomed by those it meant to insult; it was the last thing that André Breton wanted to see.
Just a few years later, however, Leonora Carrington's show at Loeb's gallery was received with a mixture of admiration and surprise. Why was that? The question can be answered by going back to the original meaning of the word 'surrealism,' used simply to mean 'beyond reality.' The term was coined originally by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire to describe his 1903 play Les Mamelles de Tirésias, which played--transformed into a two-act opera by Francis Poulenc--to the Parisian public in 1917, the year of Carrington's birth.
As often happens, a word's meaning changes over time, which is what happened with 'surrealism.' In this case, Breton used it to label the Surrealist Movement of which he'd become the leader, under the influence of Freud's theory of the fusion of sexual and aggressive impulses. Thereafter, surrealism was understood as referring to imagery that arose from the unconscious rather than from a reality apart. In a way, this broadening of the definition allowed a great many artists and writers to form an art movement that would be appreciative of works generated not only out of another reality but also by the unconscious. Shortly after Leonora Carrington was admitted into the movement, she produced The Meals of Lord Candlestick, 1938, which impacted Breton because of its irreverence: in the painting, the master of the house is eating children! The idea came to Carrington from Jonathan Swift's proposed theory for birth-control in 17th-century Ireland-that parents eat their children. But what Carrington was alluding to was to be found in the title and not in the picture.
In establishing her iconography, Carrington had arrived at a visual context where her particular imagery made a parallel with the world of appearances. Although this newfound context could be described as arising from the unconscious, it actually came from a personal place beyond reality, populated by opposites that fused as one, such as twilight, generated by night meeting day; mist, generated by water combining with air; or a candlestick to convey a meaning apart from the independent words candle and stick. Stepsister's Hen may be understood as arising from Carrington's personal context in which she blends forms and words to provide a para-logical meaning to the work. It is an image that we are able to recognize despite knowing that we have never seen it before.
Standing on the floor in a vertical room, equally dark as lit by an undefined light, are the two hybrid personages that give the painting its title. The Stepsister, half human-half flower, stands beside a collared, dog-faced, long-haired red hen, which looks up at her. The hen has lost some feathers, which lie spilled on the floor. Another presence, a third hybrid, formed by human and animal features, appears to be solid yet defies gravity by rising to the ceiling. A fourth hybrid, a sphinx, partially emerges from the solid wall on the left. The window on the back wall allows a view of four animals within a forest where the light is hued somewhere between red and white.
The mystery of Stepsister's Hen has affected enough persons that an apocryphal title it once received has since followed the work. It speaks of the effect it has had on them and of their wish for its mystery to be solved: "Marigold, Marigold, tell me your answer do...."
Salomon Grimberg, Dallas, Texas, 14 March, 2008.