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Leonora

by The Mynabirds

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about

From Radio Silence: (read.maintainradiosilence.com/radiosilence#issue/7540/article/~53c)

There’s a photo of the artist Max Ernst that has always intrigued me. I can’t remember where I first saw it, but to me, it is the perfect portrait of old love. He sits shirtless and rumpled, his spider-thread hair pitching out electrically, arm outstretched to grip a picture frame atop a well-worn table, placing him squarely, eternally, across from a raven-haired beauty. Between them is a chessboard, her arm suspended above it. He leans in: It is her move.

I adore them frozen there like that. And I want that for myself, that same kind of love, weathered and still playing it through with someone to the end of my days. I dug around a little and discovered that the chessboard was one Max carved up himself.

Max might’ve been lauded as a Surrealist, but really he could never sit still. He jumped between mediums, swapped styles, and became obsessed with birds, painting and scrawling them everywhere. In one painting, they are caged into oiled landscapes; in another work they appear as Miró-like squiggles that seem part of a prehistoric broth—two birds over a horizon with the white of an egg suspended between. Perhaps his most famous bird is the one Max painted as himself, the green of his alter ego ushering forth a shrouded red bride in Attirement of the Bride. The woman in that painting is suspected to be Leonora Carrington, a Surrealist artist herself. I wondered if Leonora was the woman in the old-love-chessboard photo, but it turns out she is not. The woman in the photo is the artist Dorothea Tanning, Max’s later wife. But if he ended up with Dorothea, why did Max paint Leonora as his bride? And what happened to Leonora? Where did she go?

So many romances aren’t written in the history books. Even when they are, we can be sure they’re only part-truths. Love stories are full of holes and misremembrances, and the two people wrapped up in the affair are writing their own separate histories side by side. We’ll never really know. But what we do know about Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington’s fascinating story rings true in a surprisingly commonplace way.

It was Europe in the 1930s, just before World War II. Max Ernst was becoming famous, renowned for experimenting in art and also in his relationships. He married, fathered a son with his first wife, left her to live in a ménage à trois with a couple of his friends, married a second time, and eventually left his second wife for Leonora, an artist and much younger woman. They ran off and made a home together in France, filling their garden with sculptures of animals they created together, figures that were meant to protect them from the growing threat of Hitler and Nazi Germany. But nothing could stop the war, and Max, a Jewish man, was no longer safe, no matter how many totems they made.

Max was finally arrested by the Gestapo but somehow escaped. American art collector and socialite Peggy Guggenheim couldn’t bear the thought of losing one of her favorite artists to the war, so she made a plan to help Max: He would fly to New York in the middle of the night, and they would marry, securing him inside the U.S. borders. So he did, and they did. Leonora was left behind. And she absolutely lost it. She was admitted to a mental hospital and given shock treatments.

Eventually Leonora pulled through, the war ended, and Max and Peggy divorced. But as far as the history books tell it, Max and Leonora had no more contact. She settled in Mexico and made a name for herself as a painter. He married artist Dorothea Tanning and they spent the rest of their days together. They were happy; you can see it in their pictures.

As I discovered this story, I couldn’t help but wonder what really happened between Max and Leonora. I read somewhere that all of the birds that made their way into his art were either representations of himself or possibly of Leonora, alighting as ghosts among the oils. Of course he and Leonora were part of the same art world, so surely they would have read about each other and heard each other’s names whispered at parties. And don’t we all have loves like that, the star-crossed ones that fall apart in the wake of a war or an unseen tear in the universe that couldn’t be avoided and can never be explained? I know I do. And I know that I still think of some of them in the same way that Leonard Cohen does and claims he doesn’t. In “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” Cohen sings to his former real-life lover Janis Joplin, “I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best / I can’t keep track of each fallen robin / But I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,” ending abruptly with an outright lie: “That’s all, I don’t think of you that often.” Anyone who’s lived a love like that knows the haunting truth.

I like to think that Leonora crossed Max’s mind through the years with resignation and a little regret—even as he sat across his chessboard from Dorothea Tanning, the love of his life. I like to think that he wrote Leonora a letter, like we sometimes do, to say he was sorry, to try and undo the hurt he caused and remember the good they shared—the love that was theirs and theirs alone. But even if he did, I’m sure he never sent it. I know I never sent mine. Some loves are better left in the frame where they are painted white, hanging mid-flight, forever.

lyrics

Oh Leonora,
How I loved you,
But the war, it tore us apart
You made love to a madman
So I married a baroness,
Oh the things we do for art


I may have called
Another woman my wife
Got swept up in black tie affairs
But oh, Leonora,
Your raven hair haunts me
And I suspect it always will

Oh Leonora,
Your Cardiazol era
Weighs heavy on my mind
Was it really my fault?
I swear I felt every shock,
Sometimes lovers are live wires

Don’t you know I carry your ghost?
Paint it everywhere
A bird white as bone
I tell ’em it’s me
They’ll never know
How much heartache is good
For the show

I ran away with a factory girl
Sailed off like a silver balloon
When nights are lonely
I still think of you fondly
The way that lovers often do

Oh Leonora,
When I’m out in the garden
Under Leo and Capricorn
Those star-crossed lovers
Remind me of you
You were a lion
I never could hold

credits

released October 2, 2015
2015 Saddle Creek

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about

The Mynabirds Los Angeles, California

American singer-songwriter Laura Burhenn is a shape-shifter who can’t sit still. Since 2010 she’s worked under the moniker The Mynabirds, releasing three critically acclaimed and stylistically different albums on Saddle Creek: What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood (2010) and GENERALS (2012), both produced by Richard Swift, and Lovers Know (2015). ... more

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