One of Surrealism’s most important patrons, Edward James, was a willing collaborator whose sense of play initiated commissions for his homes from such artists as Salvador Dali and Leonora Carrington. James was impressed with the work of Rene Magritte, which was displayed in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, so he invited the artist to paint three decorative canvases for the ballroom of his London home. Magritte painted On The Threshold of Liberty during his stay there in 1937, as the centerpiece of the three works. Originally set behind two-way mirrors, the works would become visible when James changed the lighting, provoking what he called “a profound sensation.”
Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) was born and educated in England but lived most of her adult life in Mexico City. She was one of the last surviving participants in the Surrealist movement of the 1930s. At one point, Carrington was involved in a relationship with fellow surrealist Max Ernst, but the couple never married.
Sporting white jodhpurs and a wild mane of hair, Carrington is perched on the edge of a chair in this curious, dreamlike scene, with her hand outstretched toward the prancing hyena and her back to the tailless rocking horse flying behind her. The daughter of an English industrialist, Carrington spent her childhood on a country estate surrounded by animals and reading fairy tales and legends. She revisited these memories in her adulthood, creating paintings populated with real and imagined creatures. Here, the white horse, which Carrington used as her symbolic surrogate, gallops freely into the verdant landscape beyond the curtained window.
Leonora Carrington’s Self-Portait (1937) is part of the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.
Max Ernst (born in Germany on April 2, 1891) was a prolific artist and a primary pioneer of both Dada and Surrealism. Seriously, his life and career are so mind-blowing they almost take too long to talk about. In Ernst’s painting Napoleon in the Wilderness (1941), a semi-nude female figure (representing his mistress at the time, Leonora Carrington) holds a strange, whimsical trumpet while almost encased inside one of several organic rock and coral formations amide a decaying fantasy landscape. Like many of Ernst’s rather eerie landscapes, Napoleon in the Wilderness is loaded with symbolism including the artist’s own sense of loss and grief, and the promise of decay and renewal. It was around the time of this painting that Ernst, who was a bit of a Ladies Man (to put it politely) abandoned Carrington to marry American socialite and art patron, Peggy Guggenheim (known for having an uncle who lent their surname to a number of large Art Museums).
Napoleon in the Wilderness is part of the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art, where it resides on the 4th floor. For anyone interested in learning more about the wildly fascinating life and career of Max Ernst, I recommend the excellent documentary, Max Ernst, which is available through Netflix.