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I recently watched a documentary about Leonora Carrington called The Lost Surrealist (BBC iPlayer, 2017). One particular self portrait of hers resonated with me in its symbolism. It is called “Self Portrait (Inn of the Dawn Horse)” and I find it quite connective. The horse, behind the sitters head, a rocking horse, with its shadow cast on the wall behind, confined to its restrictive rockers, the shadow trapped in the wall’s surface is to me representative of a mind going nowhere, plagued instead by a rocking repetitive motion, never going forward and there’s no going back, simply stuck between one and the other in a mesmerizing cradle of despair. Each plunge forward is pulled back and then forced forward again and again and again and again. It’s as if this motion is not just behind the head of Leonora in this painting but inside of it. Through the window, outside in the landscape, is another white horse, but this one free of its restraints and suggestively lunging forwards into the field beyond, a horse free from it’s cradling motion, it’s sickness, stretching forward albeit with a somewhat frozen gesture of suggested freedom. In front of Leonora sits a primeval horse-like creature, described in documentation as a hyena, (yet it has hooves like a horse), clearly female, emerging from a strange mist. The darkness of this primeval beast and the darkness of Leonora’s hair to me seem connected as they are they darkest parts of this picture. The darkness of her mind linked to some beast within perhaps. Each stage of animal is like an alter-ego of the sitter (Leonora) as they represent her feelings, and so may be seen as a projection of the human self. This picture is like a journey from darkness and enslavement to light and freedom channelled through the sitter’s mind. This painting reminds me of my own fragility in the past and one particular moment in time where I stepped off of my psychological train at the platform of oblivion and had to decide whether it was worth getting back on again to continue my journey.
When I was sixteen, I moved far away from home to work in a horse racing yard. I lived and breathed horses, and all I wanted to do at that time was to race. I wanted to ride a powerful horse sharing a moment of speed and freedom, albeit momentary as it lasted only as long as the expanse of the restricted gallop ahead. While I achieved that small ambition, it did not last long. I actually loved horses too much to stay there. Within a few weeks I was headed back home, disillusioned, broken and lost. I heard echoes of the head lad saying to me “If you was my daughter, I wouldn’t let you work here!” and the eye-opening facts of the racing industry, what happened behind the scenes was stark, and I wanted to get away. Horses died. When they were no longer needed they were removed from the scene. I was sensitive and responsive to every horse I encountered. I would communicate with them through the breath of their muzzles, hoping to be accepted as part of the herd. I treated them as friends, and I could not work in an industry where my friends were shot at the end of their useful life. My opinion of the racing industry may have altered radically but my love for those wonderful sensitive creatures never did. Years later, that devotion I once had to my equine friends repaid me by saving my life.
A few years on, I remember a dark time. I wasn’t coping, emotionally, with anything. I had just ended a relationship, my boss at my new job was being a complete horror with everyone, and I hit a low. I felt so alone. In despair, I drove to my nearest racecourse and parked down the side of it. I was the only one parked there, the world was my own even if it did appear to be desolate and dying. I took a bottle of medicine with me and intended to drink it all, and die, there, next to the racecourse where I had mixed memories, both happy and sad, but mainly happy. That moment, all around was so quiet. Silent tears drenched my cheeks and all my screams were internalized and muted to the outside world in which I felt I had no place. The noise in my head though was chopping and changing, one thought to the next, pictures flashing, imagination allowing me to visualize horses on the course in this to-be-or-not-to-be moment. Eventually my imagination delivered me. My mental state became calmer at the thought of those horses, those friends, and I realized that it was not my time to go, not just yet. I put the bottle away, and I drove. I drove all the way back to the horse-riding stables that I frequented as a child and where I kept my own horse when I was lucky enough to own one. This was the place that I escaped to talk with animals rather than humans, as humans often felt alien to me. So, I forced myself to chat with the horsey people there, and they let me borrow a horse to look after. I adopted a new friend, and, for a few months, we rescued one another. My new friend needed someone to care for her, food, shelter and love, and, in turn she gave me a reason to live and a way to escape the outside world that was causing me so much pain. I’m not going to take you on a tour of all my historical, emotional dark places. Some remain blurry and shaded, others resulted in purposeful illumination, this being one of the latter. We all have our own interesting stories to reflect upon and share at will.
Writing this down now brings me back to the Leonora Carrington painting. Apart from the obvious equine association I made with this painting, the subject also says to me that there is always a free mind set to gallop away without restraint, in a good way, leaving darkness in its wake to challenge at some other time. The artist herself also felt compelled to write about her feelings and memories of her darkest time. Carrington spent a forced period in a sanitarium in Spain. Her family put her there against her will after she suffered a breakdown of sorts, after her lover, Max Ernst, was taken out of her life and placed for some time into a concentration camp by the Nazis during the war. When writing about her experience of the tragic time she spent in the sanitarium, she noted, in her book that:
“A new era began with the most terrible and blackest day in my life. How can I write this when I’m afraid to think about it? I am in terrible anguish, yet I cannot continue living alone with such a memory…I know that once I have written it down, I shall be delivered. But, shall I be able to express with words the horror of that day?” (Carrington, p.39, Weds.25thAug.1943)
Now, we may not all have such an epically tragic tale to tell such as Carrington did, and, thank goodness, as what she endured was harrowing and horrific, but, we can empathize in one way or another with her anguish: the inexplicable frustration, stomach sickness, hollowness, sorrow, panic and grief over the sudden departure of a lover, her pain and suffering at the hands of others, feeling a loss of independent control over life and choice, all those feelings that are likely common to all of us at some point in our lives. Sometimes they linger, sometimes they are fleeting, and although living with lively fluctuations in mental wellbeing does not always lead to institutionalization or spells in hospital, often living on the edge does mean in some way living in one’s own self-prescribed institutionalized space from time to time. Leonora Carrington found some solace in writing about her experience. When I was a teenager my doctor suggested that I write down what was in my head: anger, frustration, sadness, bad experiences and then rip them up and throw away the pieces of paper. Although he was misguided in thinking that this would simply cure whatever ailed me and make it go away, he did have a point in that it helps to release those anxious nervous words that buzz around within. I wrote a lot, sporadically over time – a diary with most of the pages skipped because some days were just empty, others full of angst, poems, stories, feelings. I drew pictures, painted expressive splashes, all destroyed now, and, yes, it helped at the time. Releasing that inner asylum is liberating. To scribble, slosh, rip, tear, scream, scrapbook it, lock it away, bury it in the garden, destroy it, all feels good and reminds us of ourselves and that everything we do is part of who we are, and that is well worth preserving, and loving and nurturing. There may be bad experiences in our lives that cause lasting mental damage and leave us with emotional baggage, but, we can try to use those experiences to lead us to something more positive and worthwhile. Pausing, absorbing, thinking, re-thinking, linking to something new, perhaps alone, perhaps with the help of another if you’re lucky, whichever it is, never be afraid to reach into yourself or reach out to others. It hurts. Yes, is does. Life really hurts sometimes. People hurt us, but remember, we also hurt other people at times, even when we don’t mean to do so, and, at least that pain reminds us that we are alive and lucky to be here still and that there is reason and purpose enough for all of us, if we want to find it, however small. Success is not about recognition, social status or monetary gain, it is about getting out of bed every morning, embracing a new day and just living and doing. No matter how small and seemingly insignificant each action may feel, it’s the small things that matter most.
Detoxing doesn’t have to be solely for the body, we need to detox our thoughts too, and, that means allowing the grunge to sludge its way through, letting it ooze out, however sticky, so we can begin to turn it into something better, cleaner and more fluid. Every thought we face is real to us, no matter how unpleasant, it’s how quickly we respond to those thoughts and how we digest them that affects us the most. Leonora Carrington felt “delivered” as she expunged her darkest hours in her written work. She detoxed her thoughts by facing them. Maybe we all can, at least, some of the time.
BBC iPlayer. (2017). Leonora Carrington: The Lost Surrealist. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b09j0lp9/leonora-carrington-the-lost-surrealist
[Accessed 14 Dec. 2017].
Carrington, L., Warner,M,. Down Below, The New York Review of Books Inc., April 2017
Picture credit and further information on the painting:
Leonora Carrington Self-Portrait The Met. [online] Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/492697 [Accessed 14 Dec. 2017].
Lulu The Green Fairy is a writer and poet living in Northern England; she is the UK correspondent for Painted Brain News.