In 1974, Leonora Carrington created 11 lithographs depicting her costume designs for a theatrical production of S. Ansky’s play The Dybbuk. This suite of prints forms the core of the exhibition Leonora Carrington: El Mundo Mágico now on view at Mixografia in Los Angeles along with several other prints showcasing Carrington’s enigmatic form of Surrealism, which blends various visual and mythological strands from her European background with those of her adopted home of Mexico.
The Dybbuk or Between Two Worlds, the best-known work of S. Ansky, pen name of Belarus-born Jewish writer Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport, made its debut in a 1920 Yiddish-language performance in Warsaw and has been adapted several times over the last century, including for a 1937 Polish film. The play is based on the mythological Dybbuk, a spirit that must wander until it finds a human body to inhabit, whose origins date back to 16th-century Eastern European Jewish folklore. Ansky’s play tells the tragic tale of Chanan, a follower of mystical Kabbalah, who is kept from his true love Leah by her wealthy father Sender, who forbids her to see the poor Yeshiva student. Upon learning that she is betrothed to another man, Chanan dies from grief, but returns as a Dybbuk and possesses Leah on her wedding day. The Dybbuk is exorcized from Leah’s body, who then professes her love for Chanan and joins him in death. Carrington’s designs were intended for a stage production of The Dybbuk in New York, and although several versions of the play took place there in the early ’70s, none of them have Carrington’s name attached, so it is possible that they were never used.
Carrington’s costume designs incorporate the sense of otherworldly enchantment she is known for and the traditional garments of the shtetl, the villages where Eastern European Jews were allowed to live in the Pale of Settlement.
“She’s bringing it to a place that deals somewhat with mysticism, a Surrealist touch, where the characters may be more magical,” Shaye Remba, director of Mixografia, told Hyperallergic. Located in Los Angeles since the mid-1980s, Mixografia is a print house that was founded by Remba’s parents in Mexico City as Taller de Gráfica Mexicana, where Carrington created these prints. The show is on view through September 2.
“Leye Returns Transformed into the Dybbuk” depicts a towering monster in a diaphanous shroud, her head resembling a pre-Columbian carving. “The Messenger” is a spectral figure with a flaming head who bears a slight similarity to the Catholic Saint Judas Tadeo. Carrington’s portrait of “Janan” (Chanan) consists of a disembodied head with a long beard, recalling the Shroud of Turin. Superimposed onto his face are the sefirot, the ten divine emanations central to Kabbalist thought.
Remba notes that Carrington’s work with the Taller marked a turning point for the workshop, which got its start working with artists associated with Mexican Muralism such as Pablo O’Higgins and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
“Working with Leonora was branching into another realm,” Remba said, nothing that Carrington was the first artist outside of the politically focused Muralists whose prints the Taller would produce, paving a more experimental path for the workshop.
For Carrington, Remba posits that the tragic tale of The Dybbuk may have had a personal resonance given her history of love and loss. Born into a well-off British family, Carrington began a relationship with Max Ernst when she was a young artist, cut short by World War II. While living in France, Ernst was arrested by the Gestapo, escaped, and fled to New York, leaving a devastated Carrington behind. She was institutionalized and given shock therapy before making her way to Mexico, where she eventually married photographer Emerico “Chiki” Weisz, a Hungarian Jewish refugee. (Remba’s Jewish grandparents themselves moved to Mexico from Lithuania and Poland in the 1920s, fleeing a previous wave of persecution and uncertainty.)
Carrington is beloved in Mexico, and while she is well-known by art professionals and workers in the United States, she is not quite a household name. This year’s Venice Biennale, The Milk of Dreams, takes its title from a book by Carrington, framing her as a foundational figure for subsequent generations of artists who have been influenced by her transformational surrealism. Given her renewed profile on the global art stage, El Mundo Mágico offers insights into a relatively unexplored part of her oeuvre.