My mother entered, pale with rage. ‘We’d just sat down at table,’ she said, ‘when that thing, sitting in your place, got up and shouted: “So I smell a bit strong, what? Well I don’t eat cakes.” Whereupon it tore off its face and ate it, and with one great bound, disappeared through the window.’
The Debutante by Leonora Carrington (1939)
I’m the kind of person that watches a lot of art documentaries. My favourites are by the fantastic 10/10 human Waldemar Januszczak with Andrew Graham-Dixon’s in second place, but generally I’ll watch pretty much anything in the arts documentaries section of BBC Iplayer. I find them soothing. So though I’ve titled this post ‘Leonora Carrington’ it’s probably more realistically about the genre of art documentaries.
Anyway I was in bed watching a repeat of a 2017 documentary about 20th century Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, an artist I’ve quite liked for a long time. However, there were some very jarring and unpleasant-feeling things that the film-makers had done to her paintings and their representations of her life: these ranged from playing stupid spooky music, to having over-dramatic actresses with plummy voices reading out excerpts from her letters, voice cracks complete, and most disturbingly, animating her paintings so that the figures danced around like cartoon characters.
I also noticed these patterns when watching an art-doc about the writer Angela Carter: the film-makers did exactly the same childish things when representing her life and works: silly animated sections, over-the-top readings by a variety of actresses, ridiculous circus music. It gave the programme an air, like with the Leonora Carrington film, of not being that serious. While Angela Carter’s work is undoubtedly fantastical, sinister, sexual and theatrical, that doesn’t mean it’s not also sophisticated and deeply layered; and in fact her work needs these daft fancy frills even less than other people’s because it is already so richly visual and surreal in nature. Just because some of Carter’s work references fairy-tales doesn’t mean you have to have cartoon wolves cutting about, I mean we fucking get it. Also I wasn’t convinced by the quotes they used of her novels; they seemed to have picked very simplistic, short sections, only one or two sentences long, and instead interviewed people to explain why the work was great instead of letting you hear for yourself. This shows a fundamental lack of trust in the art.
I forgave the Angela Carter documentary because she is a writer, and so there probably has to be some visual explanation of her work for the audience who aren’t familiar, though why the animations had to be so infantile and kitsch is beyond me. And actually some of the actresses who represented her at different points in her life were good, and gave you a feel for her developing circumstances and attitudes. However, when the material is already so wonderful, why do you need all these gimmicks to persuade people it’s wonderful? Shouldn’t the work speak for itself? Surely by throwing bells and whistles on the art you’re trying to make a film about, you’re not only patronising the audience but you seem like you don’t really trust the artwork to hold its own, without your help?
I don’t forgive the film-makers of the Leonora Carrington documentary. I thought it was intrusive, rude, barbaric to actually cut up her paintings and make them dance around, like they were saying, ‘These paintings aren’t really good enough to hold their own, and we have to do something to them to make the audience believe us when we say they’re important.’ While I was watching the little ghosts and beasts chasing each other around, I was thinking, ‘They would never do this to the work of a male painter.’ And that is 100% true, and as Leonora Carrington fought all her adult life for her autonomy and respect for her art on a level with her male contemporaries, her right to be an artist and not a muse, it was especially unnerving to see how her work was taken apart and ‘made cute’ by filmmakers who were supposed to be on her side.
I especially couldn’t get over the actress reading an excerpt from a letter Carrington wrote after she had been forcibly separated from her lover Max Ernst (taken to a concentration camp), suffered a nervous breakdown, imprisoned against her will by her mother and brother in a sanatorium where she was subject to brutal treatments, and remained for years. The letter was speaking, after her release, of her mortality, her torment, the darkest days of her life, her despair. And during the voice-over, not only is there a creepy, horror movie soundtrack playing, but the actor’s voice cracks as though she’s starting to cry. I mean, for fuck’s sake. Do you think, filmmakers, that after absorbing all this heart-breaking information, that we as the audience just wouldn’t get that Carrington was sad after all these horrible, life-changing experiences? Do you think that Leonora Carrington’s story is so uninteresting, so unsympathetic, that you have to explicitly tell us what we should be feeling at every given opportunity?
The general ‘tarting-up’ of films about women artists seems to be pretty accepted, though it definitely rubs me up the wrong way. It’s as if the BBC or whoever makes these films is saying, ‘Okay, we know this film is about some dead woman who wrote or painted some weird stuff, but we think you should definitely care, and to convince you we’re going to create an easy-to-digest, pretty vacant, version of this woman that we think you’ll respond to better.’
However, on the theme of animations and documentaries, actually it’s not all bad. In the 2018 documentary film of Alexander McQueen, which was fabulous, psychologically rich, intimate and successfully showcased his art without compromise, the filmmakers had commissioned beautiful animations that served as chapter headings and featured McQueen’s trademark skull composed of the imagery (birds, snakes, sea-creatures) that represented each of his iconic collections. Therefore these animations are enhancing the symbols already present in his work, clarifying the timeline of his collections, and providing structure to the film’s narrative. But obviously there are budgetary and artistic differences to films made for cinema and films made for TV.
If you really want to make a great documentary about an artist, female or otherwise, a good place to start is Alice Neel, the 2007 film by the artist’s grandson Andrew Neel. As the filmmaker is interviewing his own family for the film, collecting their memories of Alice Neel, it automatically gives the film a hugely personal, nuanced, loving and compelling perspective of a complicated person, an artist pulled in many different directions, who made many mistakes, many sacrifices, many labours of love in her long life. I watched it after my tutor lent it to me in art school and I still think it’s up there with one of the best cinematic portrayals captured in a biographical documentary.
Returning to the Leonora Carrington film, there was a lovely thing that her son Gaby said about her which was basically that she was a person who had never really fitted in: not in England, not in London, not in France, not in Mexico, regardless of what circles she moved in. If she had a country, her country was art; the world of her own making that she had been building for herself since her earliest days. Sometimes a moment, a way of putting something can stop you in your tracks, and I definitely feel what Leonora’s son said very deep down, as something that’s formed my own life, and explains why I’ve ended up where I am now.
I get why she made these paintings, why she lived the way she did; I get the comfort and seduction of giving life to your interior landscapes; making dreams true. I, unlike Leonora, have never been exiled by my family, imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital, emigrated to another continent, lost my lover in a world war etc, so though I don’t pretend to ‘get’ her completely, I feel when I look at her work that we speak the same language; that maybe our instinctive, dark desires have some familiarity, as they both result in creating images that exist nowhere else. But perhaps there’s a limit to how interesting I find her paintings. Sometimes looking at a lot of Surrealism is like someone telling you about all their dreams over the past week. Perhaps I judge her too harshly because her work feels familiar to me.
Either way it seems that we live in the same country; and it’s a country that deserves a much more sophisticated and surprising cinematic treatment than it often receives.