Surreal Conversations: Susan L. Aberth on working with Leonora Carrington

With the arrival of the hugely popular exhibition Surrealism Beyond Borders at Tate Modern this month, and the start of Women's History Month in March, we're taking a look back at Susan L. Aberth's definitive survey of the life and work of Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), which has been a Lund Humphries bestseller since its publication in 2010. 

In this blogpost Susan reflects on the friendship that developed between them during her time researching and writing Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art, and reveals the lasting personal connection - and the laughter - that springs from the close working relationship between artist and writer...


Leonora Carrington, Norah Horna (Kati Horna’s daughter) and Susan L. Aberth. Courtesy of Susan L. Aberth.


Working with the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington was a life-changing experience for me, one that I am perpetually grateful for. Brewster Gallery on 57th Street in Manhattan represented her in the 1990s and they were kind enough to introduce me and let me know when she would appear at her exhibition openings. Leonora and I got along well from the start and we would sit in the back stairwell of the gallery smoking and laughing nonstop. She was not only wise, bitingly insightful, and shrewd judge of character, but also hilariously funny. In spite of this, she was very reluctant to agree to working with me, as my Ph.D. dissertation was on her work. She mistrusted art historians and indeed, anyone who tried to overly analyze her work. From the research I had already done, I could understand her reservations, as it seemed that few critics could appreciate the multivalent nature of her oeuvre, nor could they separate it from her relationship with Max Ernst. Still, I remained stubbornly hopeful that one day we would work together.


Susan L. Aberth, Leonora Carrington and Alan Glass, in Leonora’s magical kitchen! Courtesy of Susan L. Aberth. 


That day did come finally and miraculously. It was Carrington’s greatest wish to have a book dedicated to her work in English, so when Lund Humphries gave me the opportunity to publish a monograph on her I flew to Mexico City to ask her permission. That it was a British publisher made her very happy, especially when she saw the quality of their art books, but she had to decide about me still. This took many bottles of Tequila drinking and cigarette smoking into the night, countless conversations not about her art but about feminism, meeting special friends for approval, in particular the artist Alan Glass and countless other tests. I understood this to be my initiation into her world and into her trust, so I felt honored to be put through such a rigorous vetting. Luckily I passed and spent the next two years flying back and forth from New York City to Mexico City and spent many hours listening to the stories of this fascinating and inspiring human being. We took walks, went shopping at the markets, and ate often at her favorite restaurant, Sanborn’s. She enjoyed a good fight and there were always verbal tussles with cab drivers, curators, and shopkeepers – all done with good humor. There was always much laughing, Leonora could tell a wicked dirty joke and loved to recite Lewis Carroll poems verbatim, her favorite being The Walrus and the Carpenter. I always brought her presents: English tea, biscuits, warm sweaters and a few detective novels. When I was done writing she asked me to sit on a stool in her living room and read the entire book to her out loud, which I did with enormous trepidation. I will always remember the brief and matter-of-fact two sentences she said to me when I was done, they have gotten me through some hard times: “I think you are very intelligent. You are the only person who has really understood my work, so far.” This was 2004 and now, of course, many brilliant scholars have written many wonderful things about Leonora Carrington. Nothing could make me happier as I was acutely aware then that I was only scratching the surface of all her work had to communicate. I think she will continue to keep us all very busy for the next few decades, at least. Although I miss her terribly, I always feel her presence near me - laughing, joking, admonishing, but more than anything prodding me to be more curious about everything magical taking place around me.


- Susan L. Aberth, February 2022


Discover the book by clicking HERE.

Susan L. Aberth is Edith C. Blum Professor of Art History and Visual Culture Coordinator of Theology Program at Bard College.