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No more heroes

Alongside the icons we lost in 2016, we're mourning for a world that felt like it was changing for the better.

This has been a spiteful fucker of a year. The terrorist atrocities, the refugee crisis and the fall of Western Democracy would have been enough by themselves, but really - Carrie Fisher? George Michael, on Christmas Day? That was a bit much. De trop. Unnecessary. And yet, somehow, it also seemed inevitable. The deaths of the icons of the sixties, seventies and eighties has ceased to be a set of tragic occurrences and become a sort of rolling crisis, an insistent, awful drumbeat under a change in the cultural theme music to a cruel march in a minor key.

None of this is sensible, of course. If we were being sensible, if we were to break with recent tradition and speak rationally, we know that there have been worse years. Rationally speaking, we know that death and disaster do not respect deadlines, that calendar years are semi-arbitrary human constructions - although, for that matter, so are democracy and the nation-state.

That’s a comforting thought, isn’t it? I’m sure you’ll be equally cheered by a smug little reminder that correlation does not equal causation, that many of these stars are simply reaching an age when human bodies more frequently fail.

It helps to be reminded that bodies which have, over the years, been crammed with booze and fags and other exciting recreational substances, bodies which have spent decades carting about the mercurial souls of hard-working, obsessive artists and weirdoes, such bodies tend to be slightly less durable than average. It helps to be reminded, just as it always helps people who have just lost a beloved relative to hear that they lived to a ripe old age, especially given how much they smoked, and really you shouldn't be surprised. There now.

I'm sure hearing it set out rationally like that makes you feel loads better. After all, if 2016 has taught us anything, it's that serious facts soberly stated will always trump a profound emotion felt by millions, right? Stop sniveling and gender up. Look at me, I'm not crying, just like I didn't cry last night when someone sent me a photo of Carrie Fisher's loll-tongued bulldog Gary. Just like I definitely didn't lie on the sofa, sobbing 'what's going to happen to Gary?', in a way I have not been able to weep for the entire future of the species. That didn't remotely happen. Quit your moaning. You didn’t know these people, so they couldn’t possibly have touched your heart or taught you to take your strangeness in both hands and make it shine.

Irony has also died in the year 2016, which is a mercy, as it had been suffering for years, and at any rate I can’t keep this up any longer. So let me be clear: it’s okay to be a bit of a mess right now. It’s okay to have feelings about the constant, horribly symbolic loss of people you never met and only half believed in anyway. It’s okay to be angry that these people are gone just at a time when it felt like we needed them most, and needed what they represented more. It’s okay to have a sense of savage unfairness, salt rubbed into the wound of vast and dreadful change in the human condition. No amount of smug rationalising can make mourning easier, or death less unfair.

Bowie, Fisher, Ali, Michael, Prince, Cohen - all of them died too young. Everyone dies too young. There are very few individuals of whom it ought never to be said that they died too young. Many of these individuals are still living, and fact to which the observation that there is little justice in the world is both cause and consequence.

At the beginning of the year, when David Bowie returned portentously to his home planet days after dropping a final album, I wrote this:

“This is going to keep happening. The great artists and iconoclasts of the 20th century will keep on suffering the inconveniences of mortality, leaving us to reflect on the legacy they left and what it means for us. Part of a the shock when an icon dies is the reminder that there was a real person under all that makeup, behind the lights and the vice-tight press operation, a real person who had to get up in the morning and go to the bathroom like the rest of us. Our icons always let us down by being human. Too often, they let us down further by being men of a certain generation. We have still not come to terms with the fact that even starmen can sometimes be monstrous.

When a celebrity dies, fans are often castigated for engaging in 'performative grief'. In this case, performative grief is the only kind of grief that's at all appropriate. Today, they are lighting candles in Brixton and painting lightning bolts on their faces in Berlin. The news is scattered with ten thousand hagiographies, drifting like confetti onto an empty stage. And that’s alright. It’s alright to feel that you have lost something irreplaceable.

Because whilst the family mourns the man, the rest of us are mourning an idea. We are mourning our younger selves, individually and as a society. We are mourning a time that is now past, and considering how we will live up to its ideals and rectify its mistakes…..There is still time for heroes, as long as we have the courage to become them. After all, we’ve got to think about what sort of world we’re leaving for Keith Richards.”

Twelve months on, something larger seems to have been lost. Not just the people, but the age that made them. The sixties. The seventies. The early eighties. A time when the world was, in small, defiant ways and against all reason, changing for the better. A specific sort of confrontational celebrity, as iconoclastic as it was iconic, is dying with these people. Who have we got to replace them in public consciousness? Most of those who come close are politicians, AND more and more politicians are failed celebrities themselves. It was once thought that politics is showbusiness for ugly people; now our culture is oozing with precisely the people for ugly politics. 

There is a real and frightening sense of waste washing about what remains of mass culture. It is a grief that goes beyond mourning for any single artist or celebrity, but is revisited with every fresh shock, a wound which keeps being ripped open just at the point of acceptance, with no time to scab over and start to heal. It is more than coincidence that these losses are occurring at the exact historical moment when the culture that created these unique individuals is being destroyed everywhere we look.

Let the people mourn, please. Let them make gifs and badly-photoshopped memes of remembrance and scatter them across the internet like earth on the grave of a kinder culture. Something bigger is passing away, and everyone can sense it - not just Bowie and Cohen and Prince and George Michael and Muhammad Ali and Carrie Fisher, but the particular moment they inhabited, a freer time where weird and queer and mad and poor people could actually make art that moved the world. A time of excess and adventure and experimentation.

The mid-to-late twentieth century was certainly not an easy time for any and every outsider - the sixties, too, were unevenly distributed, and nostalgia is consistently conservative. But there's an innocence to that time that feels over now. Moral austerity, fiscal austerity, rising authoritarianism, the slamming shut of a brief window of social mobility and welfare provision that really did make it easier for a certain kind of artist to make it big, for people like, say, George Michael, to be both 'a soul boy and a dole boy', to live for pleasure in the face of prejudice. Let the people grieve. Something enormous is dying, and that's enormously sad. Something is starting, too, and right now that's scary as hell.

“We never did enough,” one of my baby boomer friends told me last night. “We worked hard, but it was never enough,because we thought we could relax. Our relaxations killed us. We made deals rather than be unreasonable. We lost, because we settled for too little. Now it’s all gone to shit and everything we won is about to be torn down.”

I don’t believe that’s true, not quite. I think the people we’re losing right now did as much as they could, as much as could ever be expected, and they did change the world, but they forgot - as all of us, always forget - that the world doesn’t stay changed, that there are always new battles, new stages, new challenges to be equal to, that the baddies always return for the sequels, and the Imperial Death March starts up again.

A lot of heroes died this year. We can only hope that a lot of heroes were also born. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain

THE PIERRE AND MARIA-GAETANA MATISSE COLLECTION, 2002/© 2017 ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK
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How Leonora Carrington fled privilege and the Nazis to live the surrealist dream

In this centenary year of her birth, Carrington is at last receiving the attention she deserves.

“When France sneezes,” the 19th-century Austrian chancellor Klemens von Metter­nich once said, “Europe catches cold.” France was no less contagious in the first decades of the 20th century, when Paris became the cultural capital of the Western world. Cubism, fauvism, Dada and surrealism were incubated in its galleries and cafés, where artists of various nationalities dreamed up new ways to blast away the past, among them Gertrude Stein, Marie Laurencin, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. But when the Nazis arrived, the City of Light went dark, and expats in Paris – as well as those such as the German surrealist Max Ernst, holed up in the French countryside and branded “degenerate” in his homeland – needed to escape, and fast. This was a European war, many decided, and salvation lay in the United States.

Portugal, facing the Atlantic and officially neutral in the conflict, offered the surest way to the Americas. And so Lisbon became “the great embarkation point”, as the film Casablanca described it in 1942. The British journalist Hugh Muir observed that the churn of diplomats, spies and refugees passing through left the local population “much as they were”; they inhabited not the Portuguese capital but a Lisbon of their own making that happened to share its geography.
Those with the means filled the best hotels. Those without scraped by in boarding houses, doing what they could to survive.

The hitherto sleepy seaport was transformed. By October 1941, the Irish Times was declaring Lisbon “the hub of the Western universe”. On the city’s news-stands, vendors sold the British Daily Mail alongside the New York Times, the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung and the Falangist Arriba, free from censorship and without segregation on the shelves by language. The newspapers were a welcome distraction for their readers, who had plenty of time to read. It could take months for the necessary travel documents to come through, and most people seeking safe passage to the US had little choice but to wait, and wait, and wait.

One of those waiting was a Mexican called Renato Leduc, who as a teenager had fought for Pancho Villa’s forces in his country’s calamitous civil war. Since then, Leduc had studied law and become a poet, before drifting into a job at the Mexican embassy in Paris, where he struck up friendships with the surrealists André Breton and Paul ­Éluard. At a dinner party in the spring of 1938, he met – and was charmed by – a young Englishwoman called Leonora Carrington, then Max Ernst’s lover. Three years had passed since that fleeting encounter in France and now Leduc was living with Carrington in the Alfama district of Lisbon, pressing administrators to confirm the date when they could be married at the British embassy.

Yet it wasn’t love that bound Carrington to Leduc. Born into new money on 6 April 1917, Carrington spent her childhood at Crookhey Hall, a mansion in Lancashire standing in 17 acres of gardens and woodland. Her father, Harold, was an ambitious textile manufacturer who, to the young Leonora, resembled “a mafioso” in his disciplinarian manner. When her mother, Maurie, gave her a copy of Herbert Read’s book Surrealism, published to coincide with the movement’s landmark London exhibition in summer 1936, Carrington was intrigued and visited the show. There she was exhilarated by the work of one artist in particular – Max Ernst – and, through connections at the art school where she was studying, she arranged an ­introduction to him at the Highgate home of the architect Ernö Goldfinger.

Carrington, an instinctive rebel who had been forced by her parents to “come out” as a debutante at Buckingham Palace not long before, instantly fell for the German artist, despite their age gap of 26 years. “From the second they set eyes on one another,” writes Carrington’s cousin Joanna Moorhead in her new biography, “the electricity is palpable between the beautiful, sparky young woman with her dark eyes, crimson lips and cascade of raven curls, and the white-haired, slim, middle-aged man with his lined forehead and kind-looking eyes.” That almost obscenely cliché-ridden description seems to have strayed on to the pages from a bad romance novel, but what is love but a big cliché we can believe in, and can’t help but do so?

Perhaps “cliché” isn’t quite the right word for anything to do with Carrington, however, because her life was an extended refutation of convention. The love between her and Ernst was more correctly of a mythic order, or, at least, it is presented as such in Moorhead’s account (“Max Ernst has met his bride of the wind, and Leonora Carrington has met her saviour . . .”). And mythic is the register that she explored as a painter and writer, first among the surrealists in France and then as one of a small group of like-minded artists in Mexico, where she moved towards the end of the Second World War. In striking works such as The Giantess (c.1947), with its towering woman tenderly guarding a small egg, she invented a kind of symbolic code that channelled the occult and the Renaissance masters to suggest a subliminal life larger than what tasteful language could reasonably convey.

Despite their obvious attraction, Ernst and Carrington seemed mismatched to her father. Ernst was twice married, German and, worse, an artist – one who delighted in flouting the social hierarchies that Harold had so studiously climbed. So, like the “old gentleman” in Carrington’s short story “The Oval Lady” who burns his daughter’s favourite wooden horse (“What I’m going to do is purely for your own good,” he says), Harold attempted to have Ernst deported to Hitler’s Germany on bogus pornography charges, hoping to end the relationship.

What followed was a family bust-up that left Carrington an exile for the rest of her life. The couple fled to Cornwall and then Paris to live among the surrealists, ignoring Harold’s warnings that they would “die without money”. He would stop her allowance, he said, but she didn’t care. She was leaving home – not just for Ernst, not just for the thrills and wonders of a new artistic milieu, but for “a whole new beginning” (another of Moorhead’s romance novel phrases but, again, perfectly true).

The Paris interlude was a blessed one. The couple took up residence in Saint Germain a few metres down the road from Picasso; he would drop by to dine and dance in their kitchen, a bottle of wine in his hand. Dalí was another friend, as were Man Ray, Elsa Schiaparelli and Marcel Duchamp. While in the city, the surrealists held an exhibition at the Galerie Beaux Arts featuring mannequins in a darkened room that visitors had to navigate using torches – one of the earliest examples of installation art.

Throughout this time, Carrington was developing her own work. She painted, she drew and she wrote, publishing a beguiling story called “The House of Fear” in 1938 in a limited edition with illustrations by Ernst – her first published writing and also, as Moorhead writes, “a kind of public acknowledgement of her relationship with Max”. His estranged second wife, Marie-Berthe, was understandably mortified by their romance;
to escape her scorn (and also that of the surrealists’ leader Breton, who had fallen out with Ernst over his friend Paul Éluard’s rejection of ­Trotskyism), the lovers moved south to the remote Ardèche region.

Their farmhouse was inhospitable and lacking in comfort, so they worked on the building, installing a terrace – but they also made an artwork of the building, adorning its surfaces with images of unicorns, winged creatures, lovers and horses. It was an idyllic and productive retreat but it came to an abrupt end. In 1939, Ernst was arrested as an enemy alien after France declared war on Germany. He was sent to an internment camp and released three months later; but in May 1940, after the Germans crossed the Maginot Line, he was arrested again. Unable to secure his freedom, Carrington fell into a deep depression and, by the time she was persuaded by friends to depart for Lisbon to escape the Nazis, she was beginning to lose all sense of reality.

Carrington later documented the decline of her mental health in Down Below, an extraordinary account of her life in a sanatorium in Madrid, to which she was committed after suffering paranoid delusions on her way to Portugal. Insanity, for her, took the form of a powerful “identification with the external world”, which somehow involved the hypnotic control of Europe by a Dutchman called Van Ghent (who was also “my father, my enemy, and the enemy of mankind”). In her introduction, Marina Warner notes that Carrington “had realised one of the most desirable ambitions of surrealism, the voyage down into madness”; yet, stripped of the playful intellectualism of the art movement, the “absolute disorientation” that Breton idealised is difficult to experience as a reader with much pleasure.

Carrington regained her freedom after reacquainting herself with Renato Leduc, who offered to marry her to facilitate her escape to New York: travel was easy for him because he was an embassy employee. In Lisbon, her mind slowly recovered and she prepared for a new life in the US. But, in that hub of the Western universe, it was hard to leave the past behind. One day, she glanced across a market and saw Max Ernst, who had been released by the French at last.

Carrington once said that she had only joined the surrealist group because she was in love with Ernst. However, being with him was never the sum total of her life. They travelled to New York together, but when Leduc returned to Mexico, she went with him, cutting ties with Ernst. Then she found a new love, a Hungarian expat called Csizi (“Chiki”) Weisz; they had two children (for whom she wrote stories, soon to be published by New York Review Books as The Milk of Dreams); she painted; she made new friends, most notably the Spanish-Mexican artist Remedios Varo. She lived, and on her own terms.

In this centenary year of her birth, Carrington, who died in 2011, is at last receiving the attention she deserves. Her shorter fiction, compiled in The Debutante and Other Stories, reveals an imagination that could transfigure horror into enchantment, and the human into the bestial. Yet her most significant achievement is her paintings. In Self-Portrait (1937-38), a wild-haired Carrington sits on a chair in front of a rocking horse, communing with a hyena. We see in the window behind her a real white horse, running free; our eyes are drawn to it by the room’s outlines. Surrealism prided itself in defying logic, but there is a logic here – one of emotional sense, if not literal meaning. Her life was made of multiple escapes. With that galloping horse, how vividly she evokes a longing for freedom. 

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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