Down Below: The onset of war and the female body as alchemical vessel

We meet these forces, perhaps, in Carrington’s painting, Down Below, which visually expresses aspects of the trauma the artist also chronicled in a prose memoir, also titled Down Below, first published in VW, an American journal devoted to Surrealism, in 1944 (Suleiman, 1990:171). In her memoir

Down Below, Carrington chronicled a bizarre and frightening imprisonment: involuntary commitment in an asylum for the insane in Franco’s Spain after fleeing across the border of Nazi-occupied France (1944719 8 8a).

Carrington was young at the time, just 23 years old and alone, “disowned by her family,” and feeling “powerless against a terrifying and swiftly approaching war” (Aberth, 2010: 46). The memoir Down Below opens with Carrington in terror. It was the summer of 1940. The French police had captured and imprisoned her lover, surrealist artist Max Ernst (Carrington, 1944/1988b, 164). To the French, who were at war with Germany, Ernst was an “enemy alien” (Chadwick, 1991: 9). With Hitler’s Third Reich on the move, Carrington made a gut-wrenching decision: with Ernst in a French prison, she sold the farmhouse the two artists had been living in near Avignon and fled for Spain (Moorhead, 2017: 110-1). What followed was a surrealist nightmare: Carrington and two friends set out by car from Andorra, a small independent principality tucked into the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain. Driving all night for Spain, they got trapped at the border. Eventually, Carrington’s father pulled strings that allowed the three refugees to enter a country ripped open by the violence and conflict of the Spanish Civil War. Nearly seven decades later, the artist could still call up the fear she felt as the three friends “drove all day, and then on through the night, passing trucks from which dangled arms and legs, and along roads lined with coffins. It all stank of death, Leonora remembered” (115).

At the time, Spain was in the process of recovering from the atrocities of the civil war fought between anarchists and Republicans loyal to the elected, left-leaning Second Spanish Republic and Nationalists aligned with monarchists, conservatives, and Catholics, factions defended by the army of General Francisco Franco. Having just abandoned her intense relationship with Ernst, and now caught in a cultural cauldron boiling over with violence, Carrington wrote that she found herself feeling terrified and overwhelmed. “I was choked by the dead, by their thick presence in that lacerated countryside” (194471988b: 170). By the time she and her friend, Catherine, reached Barcelona, Carrington found herself in “a great state of exaltation” (170).

Things were shifting quickly: impending world war, the end of her love affair with Max Ernst, the lethal political conflict swirling in Spain. With life in upheaval all around her, and before the destructive nigredo that led to her imprisonment in an asylum, Carrington responded by trying to gain some control in a situation in which she was powerless. She convinced Catherine to ditch their car and take the train to Madrid. Why Madrid? Carrington explained:

I convinced myself that Madrid was the world’s stomach and that I had been chosen for the task of restoring this digestive organ to health. I believed that all anguish had accumulated in me and would dissolve in the end, and this explained to me the force of my emotions. I believed that I was capable of bearing this dreadful weight and of drawing from it a solution for the world. The dysentery I suffered from later was nothing but the illness of Madrid taking shape in my intestinal tract. (1944/1988b: 170-1, emphasis in original)

In this passage, Carrington describes her instinctive turn to alchemical practice. In a moment of terror, the young artist makes her own body into an alchemical vessel in a bid to digest the hatred, oppression, and violence occurring in the world. The aim of this mini opus: to embody and metabolize lethal aspects of war and violence, reconstituting these distressing experiences into safety, freedom, and love.

During this time of her life, between 1937 and 1941, Carrington wrote short stories replete with the motifs of food, appetite, and eating. In an essay, “Gardens of Delight, or What’s Cookin’? Leonora Carrington in the Kitchen,” Sonia Assa described Carrington’s Down Below as an “exceptionally clear, tense and pitiless account of her experience” in Spain (1991: 223). “Carrington’s characters,” Assa wrote, “speak and cook too much, too fast, delight in hunting and tearing, but fill their mouths with words more often than with food, trying to cover up or quench a want through their dizzying skill” (215). Assa suggested that through the female characters in Carrington’s short stories, a culinary alchemy was at work as the artist processed unresolved inner conflicts and identity issues arising from the stifling options offered within a patriarchal culture:

Her female characters are divided into the flesh-eaters, who eat ravenously, outrageously, and the cookies-and-greens eaters, the delicate eaters, who may offer food, may not eat at all, or may well become food. They play out, in food terms, as Carrington must have fantasized them, the two optional role-models presented to the young girl at the threshold of the adult world: on the one hand, the unladylike, powerful and lustful ogress, on the other, the subdued, observant, passive and hostile anorexic. (218)

In a short story in The Seventh Horse and Other Tales, Carrington imagined herself as Virginia Fur, a feral girl with “a mane of hair yards long and enormous hands with dirty nails” (1988: 3).

This was something to see: fifty black cats and as many yellow ones, and then her, and one couldn’t really be altogether sure that she was a human being. Her smell alone threw doubt on it—a mixture of spices and game, the stables, fur and grasses. (3)

Of Carrington’s short fiction, Assa wrote, “the delicate world of bourgeois home and garden is wrecked ... gardens are untidy and profuse, kitchens dirty and cluttered, ladies unlady-like beasts of prey, while men’s virility is unambiguously in question” (1991: 220). Carrington described one of her male characters as wearing “an enormous gold wig with rose-coloured shadows, like a cascade of honey. A variety of flowers, growing here and there in his wig, moved in the wind” (as cited in Assa, 1991: 226, fn. 12). Carrington often portrayed men in her short stories as

showy birds of paradise, clad in the bright attire of the males of the animal kingdom, but smelling feminine scents and with a weakness for “feminine” colors (pink, violet and purple: colours of the flesh, of the inside of the body). Delicate and androgynous, they give us the uneasy feeling that they could well end up in the stewpot, making a trifling “bouché” for their devouring females.

(Assa, 1991: 220)

From a Jungian perspective, in these images we can see patriarchal males and females exhibiting in themselves the qualities they have projected onto one another. Exposed is men’s fear of their feminine qualities, which if acknowledged would make them androgynous, but also, given a patriarchy that sees feminine qualities in a man as inferior and demasculinizing, vulnerable to being shamed and devoured.

Regarding Carrington’s somatic attempt to metabolize what she saw and felt as the sickness of Spain, Assa noticed that the first symptom of the artist’s “illness was an obsessive desire to control her appetite” (1991: 223). Feeling powerless, Carrington “indulged in voluntary vomitings and limited her diet, like so many of her ‘passive’ heroines, to salad and potatoes” (223). Carrington, in Down Under, said she wanted to get beyond the “brutal ineptitude” she saw around her in Spain as the violence of World War Two escalated (1944719 8 8b: 164). To do so, the artist responded with what Assa called “a self and body centered” process of purification (1991: 223). Carrington wept and repeatedly induced vomiting “by drinking orange blossom water” ( 194471988b: 164). “I had realized the injustice of society,” the artist wrote, adding that by throwing up she was hoping to cleanse herself and the world around her made sick by the machinery of war and the terror of the will to power (164).

Carrington’s experiences in Spain remind us of Varo’s transformative move in the dream of the executioner: using her own substance to weave an egg that harbors the embryo of loving relatedness, qualities that threaten the underlying vulnerability of the male-dominated status quo. In the dream, Varo, as the dream ego, is willing to suffer death at the hands of the patriarchal executioner. But in surrendering to her own beheading she is at peace, her sense of fulfillment created through engagement with archetypal forces. Like Varo, Carrington responded alchemically to the demands of her moment in history. The artist intended to bear the dreadful weight of war and trauma at both individual and archetypal levels, metabolizing the suffering into something new: a solution for the world. In this way, Carrington became a physical vessel for the transformation that was needed. In this process, Assa wrote, “the woman’s body is itself the cooking pot”—or in Varo’s symbolism, the egg—“the place of transformation” (1991: 224).

Alchemically, Carrington and Varo worked to ingest and then metabolize the aspects of patriarchal life that are menacing, and even murderous, to both men and women. In a patriarchy, wrote Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider, women are forced to “disavow or dissociate themselves from an honest voice—the voice that speaks from experience—thus disabling their ability to register and protest against experiences of violation or subordination” (2018: 90).

Men in patriarchy, Gilligan and Snider added, defend against vulnerability, and the loss of intimacy and love, by disconnecting “from their emotional radar, disabling their ability to empathize or care, and by doing so undermine their ability to register what is going on around them, or to repair the violations they suffer and inflict on others” (90). Patriarchy instills and enforces a “psychological pathology” in which “dysfunctional defenses against loss [of intimacy] not only stand in the way of love but undermine the ability to resist injustice” (90).

Later in her life, Carrington used writing and painting to infuse feminine values into what was cooking in the alchemical vessel of her life and in the world around her. In Spain, even amid the blunt impact of war and the disorientation of an impending mental breakdown, Carrington’s experiences can be seen as following an alchemical process of transformation, progressively balancing love and subjugation in order to find a new synthesis that fosters feminine agency. As upsetting as it was for Carrington to abandon Max Ernst and to flee the terror of the German invasion of France, the young artist’s ordeal was just beginning. For what happened to Carrington next in Spain clipped the last thread connecting her to the reality she thought she knew.

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