Leonora Carrington: Surrealist painter and sculptor who found her artistic and spiritual home in Mexico

Rebellion was a way of life for the painter, sculptor and writer Leonora Carrington long before she found her intuitive home within the subversive surrealist movement.

Born into an upper class, reactionary Lancashire family in 1917, she soon discovered the restrictive and mentally stifling penalties that go with the privileges of bourgeois existence. But conformity was not an option. When she was eight her Catholic parents sent her to the Holy Sepulchre convent in Chelmsford, where she refused to do any schoolwork and was duly expelled. The convent of St Mary in Ascot could not cope with her, either, and her parents were asked to take her back from there, too. Carrington had become an incorrigible enfant terrible: "My Mother would scold me, in her quest to find a manner in which to civilize her daughter."

In despair her furious parents sent the by then teenage Carrington to Florence, to the disciplinarian "College of Miss Penrose" in the Piazza Donatello. But even the tranquil Tuscan air could not tame this feral inglesina. So she was packed off to a stern Parisian finishing school, where further unruly behaviour resulted in swift expulsion. "I only lasted there for a few months and, once again I was sent home."

Then Carrington's father decided to resort to extreme measures – "I was to be sent to a very strict place". She found herself under the harsh regime of a Miss Simpson, who ran a no-nonsense boarding school in Paris. Carrington loathed the place and found a simple solution to her predicament – "I hated it, and one night I escaped". On her return to England, she announced to her family that she was going to be an artist and convinced her parents to let her study at the Chelsea School of Art.

That was when life changed. In her late teens in 1936 she suddenly found inspiration in the classes of Amédée Ozenfant, who happened to be teaching in London during the mid-1930s. Under the grand title of The Ozenfant Academy, his instruction was conducted in a converted garage in West Kensington. Ozenfant was an exacting taskmaster and, for the first time in her life, Carrington discovered hard work. But, she had found her vocation – the pursuit of a mysterious inner meaning and logic of an otherwise banal reality – and she thrived on anything that touched on it, even the rigours of post-Cubist methodical essentialism. "You had to understand the chemistry of everything you used, including the paper and the pencils."

Ozenfant forced her into an exacting and clinical purism – "He said he did not want to see the shell of an apple, it was an apple which had to be done with one single outline. I spent six months drawing the same apple."

Among her fellow students was Ursula Goldfinger, whose husband Erno was a Hungarian revolutionary architect. Ursula invited the 20-year-old Carrington to a dinner party at which she met Max Ernst, who was exhibiting in London. It was love at first sight and the two immediately started a relationship. One of Carrington's treasured memories was spending a day in the country with Max learning to make frottage with leaves. Without a second thought for his wife, Marie-Berthe Aurenche, Ernst returned to Paris with his new "bride" from Chorley.

Despite protests from her guardian, Serge Chermayeff, that she was behaving like a "cheap slut", all that Carrington cared about was painting among the surrealists and joining their meetings in cafés in St Germain-des-Prés. In 1939 she painted a fantastic portrait of Max sporting a fish tail and strolling across a frozen landscape. The couple lived together until the outbreak of the Second World when Ernst, a German citizen, was interned by the French authorities as an enemy alien. He was released for a short time, but again, in 1940, he was taken into a concentration camp in Aix-en-Provence. Carrington was allowed to see him once, but only for two minutes.

As the Germans were getting closer she decided to escape with Michel Lukacs and his girlfriend Catherine. They went south to Perpignan and then to Andorra, where Carrington's father had arranged for a mysterious Jesuit to get them through to Spain. It was all too much – in constant fear of her life and incessantly worried about the unspeakable dangers faced by Max, she had a nervous breakdown and ended up in an asylum. She later recounted the experience in her book Down Below (1943).

The emotional crutch she desperately needed came in the form of a chance meeting. In 1941 in Madrid she ran into the Mexican poet Renato Leduc, a friend from Paris who had been close to Picasso. There was no spark of love for Carrington, but on one impetuous occasion, she gave her ever-present nurse/minder the slip – "I told her I was going to the toilet and left her sitting in a coffee shop". Carrington caught a taxi to the Mexican Embassy, where she and Renato were married. The newlyweds immediately embarked to America. Carrington spent some time in New York before settling in Mexico in 1942 and devoting herself to painting.

There, she and a fellow female artist, Remedios Varo, developed an illusionistic surrealism that was both autobiographical and occult. Mexico was a place of close contact with the surrealists for Carrington: in particular, she saw a lot of Breton, Buñuel and Masson. Also there were Pierre Mabille, who had encouraged her to write Down Below, Benjamin Peret and Octavio Paz, as well as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Carrington's own relationship with Renato was soon to be on the rocks and in 1946 Carrington filed for divorce and married the Hungarian immigrant photographer Emerico (Chiqui) Weisz, who was to be her lifelong companion. The couple had two sons, Gabriel, who became a writer and university lecturer in Mexico and Pablo, a pathologist and artist who settled in Virginia.

In 1947 the Spanish artist Esteban Frances engineered a visit by Edward James, an English millionaire and collector of surrealist art. James was immediately taken by what he saw and became Carrington's patron, commissioning her to paint frescos for his "surrealist" house in Jilitlá. He also arranged an exhibition at Pierre Matisse's gallery in New York in 1948.

Recognition in Mexico took longer and Carrington had to wait until 1950 for her first exhibition, which was at Galería Clardecor. In 1952 she exhibited in Paris at Galerie Pierre Loeb and further Mexican solo shows followed in 1956 (Galleria de Arte Mexicano) and 1957 (Galería Antonio Souza). In 1965 she had no less than three solo Mexican exhibitions (Galería de Arte Mexicano, Instituto Cultural Anglo-Mexicano and Galería Clardecor).

From that point she had achieved international renown and had regular exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic: Paris (1969), Mexico (1969), New York (1987), Texas (1987), New York (1987), Tokyo (1987), Mexico (1989), Leeds (1990), New York (1990), Mexico (1991), London (1991), Norwich (1991), Bristol (1991), San Francisco (1991). More recently, she participated in group surrealist exhibitions at Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York (1999), Tate, London (2001) and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2002).

Alongside her painting and sculpture, Carrington was a prolific writer with many articles, novels, essays, and poems to her name. Apart from the autobiographical Down Below, her most celebrated piece was a dream fairy-tale of 1974, The Hearing Trumpet. Her other notable books were The House of Fear (1938), The Oval Lady (1939), The Stone Door (1976), Pigeon Flies (1986) and The Seventh Horse (1988). She also wrote the plays The Debutante (1937), A Flannel Night-Shirt (1951), Penelope (1957) and The Invention of the Mass (1969).

The student protests of 1968 revealed a further facet of Carrington's personality, her political militancy. In support of the left-wing activists and as a remonstration, she temporarily left Mexico. Even when she returned in 1969 she continued to make her views heard in a series of public appearances. In particular she championed the newly established women's movement: in the early 1970s she was responsible for co-founding the Women's Liberation Movement in Mexico; she frequently spoke about women's "legendary powers" and the need for women to take back "the rights that belonged to them".

These convictions did not, however, prevent Carrington from remaining devoted as a wife, and by 2007 she was spending more and more time attending to her nonagenarian husband. The importance that she placed on her family was highlighted in 2005 when she masterminded an exhibition in Mexico City combining her own work with her husband's and her two sons'.

To the end she was an international artist in demand. Her work was constantly sought by international corporations, mainly in Mexico and North America, who commissioned her to make massive sculptures. But her heart lay in painting and she was always itching to get back to the easel. Over the years, she sold most of her paintings and by the end of her life she was left with only two, which she guarded jealously in a locked room in her home in Mexico.

For Carrington, Mexico had been a home in a deep sense. She had never fitted in with the materialism and rationality of the Western culture into which she had been born. Mexico offered a mythology full of enigmas and horrors that coincided with her temperament and beliefs. As she once recounted, the myths of the Goddess of Death, Coatlicue, with her skirt of serpents and her son Huitzilopochtli, who demanded human sacrifice, gave her a sense of spiritual unease and excitement – "There was always a lot of blood and something pressing and threatening". Her work, particularly the 1963 mural The Magical World of the Mayas in the Mexico City Museum of Anthropology, shows the imprint of the esoteric and the occult.

But that is not the key to her paintings. An even more deep-seated influence had come earlier – "From a young age, I used to have very strange experiences with all sorts of ghosts, visions and other things that were generally condemned by Orthodox Christianity". These were certainly the reveries of a rebel against a strict Catholic education. But they also opened the book of Celtic mythology, with its "gentry", faeries, giants, ghosts, elves and gnomes. In Carrington's work, mystical forces and surging instincts overpower the reign of reason. This is rebellion and liberation in the true surrealist sense. It is not the angry, testosterone-driven smack in the face typical of the high-profile showmen of surrealism. Rather, it is a low-key mystic subversion powered by the intrigues of seductive sibyls, sorceresses, and priestesses.

In no uncertain terms, Leonora Carrington refused the role of surrealist muse and dolly-bird endured by many of her fellow-travellers. "I didn't have time to be anyone's muse... I was too busy rebelling and striving to be an artist." She died of pneumonia in Mexico City. She is survived by her two sons, Gabriel Weisz-Carrington and Pablo Weisz-Carrington, as well as four grandchildren.

Leonora Carrington, artist and writer: born Chorley, Lancashire 6 April 1917; OBE 2004; married 1941 Renato Leduc (divorced 1946), 1946 Emerico Weisz (deceased; two sons); died Mexico City 25 May 2011.

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