Armed with Madness: The Surreal Leonora Carrington

Armed with Madness: The Surreal Leonora Carrington cover, with image of the artist painting and her face screaming in the backgroundWriter: Mary M. Talbot
Artist: Bryan Talbot
Publisher: SelfMadeHero
Publication Date: April 25, 2023

Armed with Madness: The Surreal Leonora Carrington by writer Mary M. Talbot and artist Bryan Talbot, released this spring from SelfMadeHero, is an immersive introduction to a fascinating woman and artist. Leonora Carrington was a British surrealist painter who, through numerous twists of fate, ended up living in Mexico for much of her life.

The book follows in the rich vein of women’s graphic history by the Talbots, a husband-wife team. Their previous collaborations Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes and Sally Heathcote: Suffragette (with Kate Charlesworth inking) covered Lucia Joyce, the daughter of James Joyce, and a fictional suffragette, respectively. The former book also earned them a Costa Award

A resilient and strong-willed protagonist

In this latest offering, the Talbots are back in fine form. Armed with Madness is by no means light reading. From a hostile father relationship to wartime trauma, Leonora Carrington lived through difficult times. But it is Carrington’s resilience and singular vision that shines through in the end.

I think both those unfamiliar with Carrington (as I was) and those who know her will find Armed with Madness rewarding. Naturalistic dialogue that reveals context without becoming stilted, well-chosen moments of insight, and artistic “Easter eggs” tucked away on many pages make this tale a ride well worth taking. 

Armed with Madness page 32. Leonora Carrington's father, who looks like a robot, denounces her lover, Max Ernst, privately. Elsewhere, Leonora Carrington goes to his exhibition to warn him that her father is sending the police after him.

The Talbots’ respect for their subject matter is clear. Carrington’s defiance of rules seems to be her trademark. The thorny path her life takes, from a long-standing affair with the already-married artist Max Ernst and widening artistic influence, to fleeing France during World War II, to a psychotic break, subsequent recovery, and marriage of convenience, are shown to us with empathy, as a logical progression, rather than with any moralizing tones. 

Bryan Talbot’s skillful motifs of people as animals and other mystical symbols—drawn from Carrington’s own surrealist artwork—enhance the story’s emotional power, and the sense that we are witnessing Carrington’s life through her own eyes. The print version of this book is worth consideration. The rich inks and subtle, textured washes shine on the paper.

Armed with Madness, page 68. Max Ernst returns from an imprisonment. Wordlessly, he stands in the doorway where Leonora Carrington is waiting. She cries to see him again. Then they couple, with her turning into a horse woman and him turning into a bird man.

The creative team also navigated a balancing act between showcasing insider details and providing basics for the uninitiated. As I read, I decided to accept that I wasn’t going to recognize most artists in Carrington’s circle. Many were name-dropped and cameoed, with Pablo Picasso the most famous. I think someone who did know more of this 1930s art history would have been enriched by another layer, but I appreciated the atmosphere and was always able to follow the main storyline. The Talbots also provide thoughtful footnotes to expand on some of the context.

A thought-provoking journey

What’s also admirable here is how the Talbots weave together vivid threads from a long life, and yet the book never drags. I felt as though I had gone through some of Carrington’s peak dramatic moments with her. Every scene has a freshness to it that kept me reading. 

A word of warning: some people may find aspects of the book disturbing. Particularly, the psychotic visions Carrington experienced and the less-than-modern “therapy” she received are not glossed over, and are given a fair amount of focus in the book. However, Carrington has a lot more life left in her after this experience. If you can manage these parts, they are also rendered beautifully. The visuals sweep us along in Carrington’s delusions of bloody wastelands, secret symbols, conspiracies, and animal people.

Armed with Madness page 84. Leonora Carrington is alone in a city at night and then a hand on her shoulder surprises her. "Hotel Roma," she says to the security guard whose hand it is. In the hotel, she holds a telephone. "Mr. Van Ghent?" she asks. The voice on the phone replies, "What? You? It's three in the morning, you crazy bitch!" CLICK. She imagines Van Ghent as a giant frog man in a business suit, surrounded by Nazi symbols. She thinks, I see. He's... he's controlling everything!

My favorite parts of the book were Carrington’s experiences with the people she met in her artistic circles. Their discussions of art and philosophy are interwoven with images of the art in discussion. Even though I can’t follow every reference, the interactions are rich and provide a lot of food for thought. 

Armed with Madness, page 61. Leonora Carrington, Max Ernst and their artist friends sit outside at a gathering with wine, admiring a surrealist cow sculpture. It is one of Carrington's creations. They discuss how their animal "totems" ward off unwanted people. One artist asks if they ward off Nazis.

One of the great gifts of this book is that it has made me curious to learn more about Carrington, her work, and the network of artists she interacted with. Yet I also feel I have grounding in her passionate nature, her challenging life, and some hallmarks of her art. 

If I had been writing this article about women’s history comics today, Armed with Madness would have been a strong contender for inclusion. The world needs more comics about strong, real-life women like this. Pick up this book and look at the world through new eyes with the surreal Leonora Carrington.

Armed with Madness: The Surreal Leonora Carrington is out now in both print and digital from SelfMadeHero.

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