"Safety, under any circumstances, is an illusion."
It’s more than a decade since the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington said those words to me. Since then I’ve considered them my motto and my mantra; and never have they rung so clearly in my ears as now, during the coronavirus (Covid-19) lockdown.
Strangely enough, my only previous experience of being at the heart of a pandemic was with Leonora in 2009, two years before her death I was in Mexico City visiting her when swine flu shut it down. The scenes in La Ciudad were similar to what I can see now from my window in Glasgow. Streets almost empty, roads quiet, the occasional passer-by wearing a face mask.
Leonora—who was my father’s cousin, and who I got to know during the last five years of her tumultuous life—was one of the few people not to be surprised by that pandemic; and she wouldn’t be surprised by what’s happening now. Because for Surrealists, the expected is the unexpected. Life is not as we think. There are other realms, narratives that lie dormant below the surface ready to erupt. Leonora’s art is strewn with them: worlds within worlds, landscapes and creatures and animals that take us by surprise. What is that giant badger doing with a village on its back? Why is a one-eyed tiger lurking below a Mayan village? Is that figure a human form—or is it a tree? Nothing is quite as we believe it to be; nothing is safe, or certain, or secure.
Learning that from Leonora changed my life, and helps me now. Because she was right: nothing in the world she painted was as it seems, and nothing in our world now is as it seemed, either. We cannot control what happens beyond ourselves; and we hardly know anything even about that. All I know, Leonora used to say, is that I am a female animal who will one day die. Nothing more.