Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Armed with Madness: The Surreal Leonora Carrington’

“Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess”

The Talbots – Mary and Bryan – are back with their latest nifty graphic novel, Armed with Madness, with is published by SelfMadeHero. The Talbots make excellent comics, so this should be good, right?

Leonora Carrington was a surrealist painter who did a lot of unusual work, naturally, but is perhaps most famous for being Max Ernst’s lover in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The lack of recognition for women in arts is one of the themes of the book, as Carrington was leaning toward surrealism even before she met Ernst, and she worked with him as an equal, but people still seem to think of her as “Max Ernst’s lover.” The Talbots focus on the early part of her life, from her childhood until just after World War II, when she married a photographer and settled down in Mexico City after fleeing Europe during the war. She had issues with mental health early on in her life, and part of the book focuses on that, as it was not great to have mental issues and be a woman at the same time in that time period (it’s not great today, either, but it was really bad prior to the 1990s or so). She is incorrigible as a child, and her parents send her to various boarding schools from which she routinely gets expelled, until she’s finally old enough to go out on her own (of course, her father wants her to get married, but she walks out on him and, according to her – she’s narrating the book – never sees him again). She moves to Paris and meets up with a bunch of Surrealist painters, and she has the time of her life (she had already met and become lovers with Ernst at this point, and he introduces her around). Of course, Ernst is already married, so they move to the south of France to get away from his wife, but of course, trouble follows them when the war starts because Ernst was German (even though he had lived in France for decades). He’s taken away to an internment camp, and Leonora begins to have a mental breakdown. Some friends convince her to leave the country, and on the road to Spain, she begins to hallucinate, and while she’s in Madrid, she’s institutionalized for a time. Eventually she gets to Lisbon and then New York and Mexico City, where she finally settles down and becomes an icon that youngsters want to interview (like they’re doing in this very book!). All is well!

The story in this book is fine, but frustrating. It can’t be too long, so Talbot basically stops telling the story once Carrington gets married in Mexico and has children. Carrington got married to her second husband in 1946 and lived until 2011, but that part of her life is skimmed over, which is probably fine, but it is a bit frustrating. Her life in the 1930s and during the war is the crux of her story, anyway. Even that is maddening, as we never really get into her mental state except to say she has issues. I get that we’ll probably never know the root of them, but it’s strange that she seems to spring full-blown as a Surrealist as a child and there’s no reason for it (she imagines things as a kid, which is fine, because all kids do that, but why did it stick with her when almost everyone else moves on and “grows up”?). Similarly, her mental breakdown comes on very quickly and passes just as quickly. It’s horrific, yes, but it seems to leave no lasting scars and it never repeats itself, so what happened there? She experiences some awful things, but even while she’s living through them, it doesn’t seem to affect her on such an emotional level, and I suppose we can infer that it just built up until the dam broke, but again, she really goes down hard, so it’s strange that we never really see any indication of it and it never rears its head again after she gets out of the sanitarium. I don’t know if, in real life, Leonora ever experienced any mental problems after the early 1940s, but it seems strange that she had such a violent and horrific experience and then never had any problems ever again. Talbot does a good job showing us her life, but it feels like there’s a lot we don’t get, either, which is a bit frustrating.

Talbot does a nice job showing how conventional the Surrealists really were, and as I’m a cynical bastard, I always like seeing how utopian thinkers are just hiding their nasty humanity behind high-flying rhetoric. Men dominated the Surrealist movement, naturally, and they were, well, men. Carrington was 19/20 when she met Ernst (I don’t know if she met him after her birthday), and at that point Ernst was 45/46 and, as I mentioned, already married, but of course he started banging the impressionable young woman (not that Carrington didn’t want to become Ernst’s lover, but there’s still an obvious power imbalance). Ernst is never cruel to her and she does abandon him when he’s taken away, but he still wants the respectability of his marriage and the thrill of the affair, as there’s never any indication he’s going to leave his wife (they weren’t married by 1942, when Ernst married Peggy Guggenheim, but I can’t find out when their marriage ended, as his wife was still alive so it’s not like he was widowed). Later in life, Leonora can’t attend her own exhibition in New York because she’s pregnant, and she and her friend make the point that despite their painting, they’re still expected to be wives and mothers first. Meanwhile, the Surrealists split over dogma, which cracks me up, and whether it’s better to support Trotsky or Stalin, which, given what we now know about both of those dudes, also cracks me up. Perhaps most hilarious to me (again, because I’m a cynical bastard) is that the characters in the book are just as money-grubbing as anyone – Leonora can afford to do some of the things she does because her father is extremely rich and her mother indulges her (she provides the funds for their house in the south of France, for instance). Yes, she has to sell the house to pay off her debts, but she was able to live like a bohemian artist because her family was loaded. Nobody seems to like Peggy Guggenheim all that much, but they love the fact that she buys their paintings! I know I’m being cynical, but I always like to see esoteric artists talk about their magical societies but they still like to bang young girls and live crazy lifestyles that require a lot of (probably not their own) money. Talbot does a good job implying this without being too obvious about it, and it makes the book a bit more interesting.

Talbot’s art is spectacular, though, as you can probably expect. His lines are beautiful and detailed, and he’s excellent at laying the pages out, as the book is occasionally verbose and he needs to guide us through the scenes. His colors are wonderful – a lot of the book is in gray tones, but when he does use color, he tends to stick to a monochromatic palette that matches the tone of the book – when Leonora is hallucinating, we get lurid reds or sickly greens, for instance. He uses bright reds in some situations as markers for rage (not the most original thing, but it’s fine), and because he uses it judiciously, it stands out quite well. Occasionally he does full colors – usually when he’s recreating paintings or implying art scenes – and it’s a very cool contrast to the “real” world. Talbot really shines when he’s delving into the mind of Leonora, because he can cut loose. He often uses full-page spreads to either show time passing for Leonora (he shows a lot of different scenes from her life, in other words) or to show how she sees the world, with people transmuting into animals (Carrington was fascinated by animals) like horses or hyenas (which she turns into) or birds (which Ernst turns into) or into monstrous parodies of humans. Carrington’s stay at the sanitarium is terrifying, as Talbot uses symbolism from Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels (two books she read when she was a child) to show how her mental state is breaking down and how she perceives the world. He “hides” imagery from Carrington’s paintings in the background in some places, showing how her art reflected what was going on in the world despite its surrealism, and he uses exquisite brushstrokes on those images to contrast them with his finer lines of the “real” stuff. This is a gorgeous comic, and it just shows that Talbot is working at the top of his game.

I do wish the book had been a bit more incisive about Carrington’s mental health, but I also get that the information might not be forthcoming and Talbot might have done the best she could. I also think her post-1946 life sounds pretty fascinating, but again, the vagaries of comics publishing probably meant the book couldn’t be another 50-100 pages long. Armed with Madness is a beautiful book, and it tells a pretty good story, it just feels like there’s a bit more there. It’s definitely worth a look, though!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

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