( DANIEL AGUILAR / REUTERS ) – British painter Leonora Carrington sits at her house in the bohemian Roma district of Mexico City in 2000.
Ms. Carrington was born in England to an upper-crust family that stifled her artistic impulses. She went through the motions of being a debutante before managing, at 19, to broker her independence and study painting.
Smitten with surrealism — and its use of art to explore the psyche — she became in 1937 the lover of one of its masters, the German-born Ernst, who was 46 and married.
They retreated to a farmhouse in southern France, where they put on plays and tended vineyards. Guests were welcome, to a point. When surrealist visitors overstayed their welcome, the interlopers were treated to an omelet — of their own hair, which Ernst and Ms. Carrington had secretly cut the night before.
Their idyll in the French countryside was interrupted by the German occupation during World War II. Ernst eventually found sanctuary in the United States — and, once there, married arts patron Peggy Guggenheim.
In Ernst’s absence, Ms. Carrington fled the Nazis and suffered a mental breakdown in Spain. When her parents sent an emissary to find her, she escaped to Mexico, a haven for European emigres during the war, through a marriage of convenience with a diplomat.
In the 1940s, her work was shown in important New York galleries. Her paintings were “heavy with sex and horror,” an art critic at Time magazine wrote, noting a body of images freighted with melancholy: “Feathery, hairy, horny, half-luminous creatures merged imperceptibly into birds, animals and plants. Painted with cobweb delicacy, they conspired and paraded before misty landscapes and night skies thick with floating islands.”
Her artistic reputation was initially handicapped by her relationship with Ernst, said Susan Fisher Sterling, director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington. She was seen more as a muse than an artist in her own right.
But Ms. Carrington remained a vital figure in the art world long after the surrealist movement dimmed in the late 1940s. She bridged the psychological aspects of surrealism with her growing interest in the roles of women as muses, mothers, goddesses and foes of patriarchal oppression.
Her paintings, murals and sculptures, which featured dreamlike images of animals, sibyls, animals and deities, reflected her study of alchemy, Mayan magical traditions, Buddhism and the Jewish mystical writings known as the Kabbalah.