How a 20-year-old Leonora Carrington told off one of Surrealism’s leading lights, and embarked on a career which has just seen her masterpiece go for $22 million

A densely-packed masterpiece by the brilliant Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington has just set a record at auction. We take a look at the life and emergence of the feisty young Lancastrian behind the $22 million sale of 'Les Distractions de Dagobert.

The Surrealists might have been trailblazers in the world of art, but that doesn’t mean they were ahead of the game when it game to sexual politics. Women were invariably cast in the supporting role of muse, not that of creator.

Enter Leonora Carrington, a fiercely independent artist who, at the age of 20, had left her life in Lancashire behind and found herself in Paris at the epicentre of the new movement. She was there with Max Ernst, who she met at a dinner party after an exhibition in London in 1937; the two had fallen violently in love despite a 28-year age gap, and Carrington had crossed the channel to join the inner circle of Surrealism, rubbing shoulders with the likes of André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. And also Joan Miró.

Miró clearly underestimated the young Carrington, giving her some money one day and asking her to go and buy him some cigarettes. She ‘gave it back and said if he wanted cigarettes, he could bloody well get them himself.’

Carrington embarked on a career which would quickly take her to Spain, New York and eventually Mexico, where she worked with a string of displaced artists alongside Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. She would spend much of her life in the country, developing what the experts at Sotheby’s call ‘an unprecedented level of mastery and freedom in her painting.’

The key painting in this part of her career has just gone under the hammer at Sotheby’s, fetching $22 million. Les Distractions de Dagobert is a relatively early work from her time in Mexico, described in the auction notes as ‘the crowning achievement of this critical period, the most significant milestone in her artistic career, and a major landmark in Surrealism.’ The sale price, achieved in New York this week, is a record for a British-born female artist.

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The British-Mexican artist Leonora Carrington’s (1917-2011) portrait at her house and studio in Mexico City, where she lived on and off for six decades. In  2021 it opened its doors to the public as museum to show some of her works and personal objects. (Photo by CLAUDIO CRUZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Julian Dawes, the auction house’s Head of Impressionist and Modern Art, has no doubts about the importance of the piece.

Les Distractions de Dagobert is the definitive masterpiece of Leonora Carrington’s long and storied career,’ he wrote, ‘bearing all the hallmarks of the artist at her absolute height. The painting pioneers the visionary style that we associate with surrealism today, while equally evocative of Hieronymus Bosch’s anarchic tableaus, bridging artistic boundaries to achieve an entirely new language.

‘Like Carrington herself, the painting defies easy categorisation, existing on an astral plane of its own unique being.’

An ‘astral plane of its own unique being’ is a hell of a phrase (and kudos to Mr Dawes for that), but it doesn’t feel over the top for a densely-packed creation that is full of literary and allegorical references, and (again, in the phrase of the auctioneer’s notes) a ‘tapestry of meticulously crafted vignettes, each offset by unique and intricate landscapes…. As would become Carrington’s hallmark, the imagery here draws from a diverse network of influences, ranging from the Irish mythology she learned as a child to alchemy, the Kabbalah, and indigenous Mexican cosmology. Each section is rendered in exquisite detail; from the radiant tonality she achieves through thin glazes to the exceptionally fine draftsmanship, it is a testament to Carrington’s technical brilliance.’

Plenty of paintings are technically brilliant and bursting with imagery, though. But what makes this one stand out, and what made it demolish the previous record for a Carrington of $3.3 million, is the recent focus on the women who were so crucial in the emergence of Surrealism.

‘The recent surge of interest in previously overlooked women artists connected with the Surrealist movement marks a profoundly significant cultural shift,’ says Sotheby’s Allegra Bettini, who headed up the sale. ‘Leonora Carrington has proved to be a lightning rod of attention, setting the stage for Les Distractions de Dagobert, the apotheosis of Carrington’s oeuvre, to take its place as a masterpiece of 20th century art.’

Or, to put it another way, this is a painting which has just told Joan Miró to go and buy his own bloody cigarettes.

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