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.
released October 2, 2015
2015 Saddle Creek