We are grateful to Dr. Salomon Grimberg for his assistance cataloguing this work.
The British-born surrealist Leonora Carrington arrived in Mexico in 1943 from France via New York City seeking refuge from her traumatic wartime experiences. Settling into the European émigré group surrounding the Spanish artist Remedios Varo in Mexico City, she found a welcoming community of supportive and like-minded surrealist painters and poets. In 1946 when Cockcrow was painted, the artist had just married the Hungarian photographer Emerico “Chikki” Weiss and the first of their two sons, Gabriel, was born that following year in 1947. Free from the confines of European surrealism and inspired by her friendship with Varo, Carrington explored the myths and religious traditions of many cultures, synthesizing them into a unique and highly personal vision.
Cockcrow is an early example of a more experimental and mysterious strain within Carrington’s pictorial world. Although it shares some of the characteristics of such paintings as her 1945 House Opposite –delicate hybrid animal/human figures busily engaged in enigmatic activities, there are also some startling differences. Color is muted and reduced to black, white and rich tones of umber. The paint application is masterful and the work flickers and glows as if lit by an internal flame. The absence of her usual jewel-tone colors allows the viewer to concentrate instead on Carrington’s skill in building up layers of washes in order to play with transparency, texture and the depiction of shifting time and space.
The title is an apt one for the magical world of Leonora Carrington, indicating that we are in the shadowy realms of sleep, dream and the subconscious. A door opens up in a vague architectural structure reminiscent of the artist’s beloved Florence and now also of Mexico’s thick colonial walls. A tall dog-headed figure stands in the doorway ready to let in a fluttering black entity fleeing from three white apparitions pursuing it from behind. High above on top of the wall are two strange and rather comical “birds” – are they producing the cockcrow? For this is the liminal time when night begins to melt away into the light of dawn, and when the frightening apparitions of the dream world vanish into darkness. It is compelling to think of this work in relationship to the artist’s life – is Carrington banishing the bad memories of her wartime experiences so that she can embark upon her new life in Mexico? Poised at the junction of romantic happiness, motherhood, and artistic freedom, is the artist portraying, in a psychologically fanciful way, her new found emotional stability?
In the choice of title perhaps Carrington was alluding to the scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet “…the morning cock crew loud, and at the sound it [the ghost] shrunk in haste away, and vanished from our sight.”1 This would have attracted the literary British collector Edward James, who soon acquired the piece for his surrealist art collection. A life-long friend, the eccentric James always appreciated Carrington’s whimsical vision and perhaps understood it best. Another work from 1946, Car of Silence, employs a similar monochrome and nebulous style in grey tones, and the artist continued to work in this vein throughout her career. Recently displayed in a 2013 retrospective exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Composition from 1950 bears some striking similarities to Cockcrow, particularly in the use of gold leaf. Fascinated by both the processes and symbolism of alchemy, particularly as it relates to art making, Carrington’s use of gold leaf had metaphoric allusions to luminosity and esoteric stages of transformation. Gold leaf’s subtle but highly effective use in Cockcrow as a reflection of the rising sun, is now placed in the actual sun in Composition.
Susan L. Aberth
1 Shakespeare, Hamlet, act 1, scene 2.