What you see: The Ship of Cranes, a 2010 Leonora Carrington bronze, produced in a limited edition of six plus four more marked as P/A. Bonhams estimates it at £50,000 to £70,000, or about $69,000 to $97,000.
The expert: Ruth Woodbridge, specialist at Bonhams.
Who was Leonora Carrington? She was a British-born artist who ended up in Mexico and split her life between there and New York City. She met Max Ernst in 1937 and moved with him to Paris and met all the Surrealist artists. When World War II broke out, Ernst left her, and she had to try to get back to England by herself. The journey through Spain led to a breakdown, and she was in an asylum for a bit. She was released into the care of a minder, from whom she escaped. She made a marriage of convenience with Renato Leduc, an ambassador to Mexico, and that’s how she ended up there.
What influences shape Carrington’s work? From a very young age, she was interested in the stories told by her mother, who was Irish–she liked the folklore. When she moved to Mexico, she absorbed its folklore as well. She embroidered new worlds, based on different sources.
How prolific was Leonora Carrington? Is there a catalog raisonné of her work? It’s in preparation at the moment, not yet published, but it’s just her oils. Her sculptures are much more rare.
Yeah, it seems like she’s better known as a painter. She only started to sculpt later in life. She took it up in the 1990s, making the last sculptures between 2008 and 2011. She created around 40.
Do we know anything about how The Ship of Cranes came to be? Did she leave behind any letters or documents that explain it? I notice that the Museo Leonora Carrington in Mexico has a monumental sculpture on display on the grounds that looks similar to The Ship of Cranes... I haven’t seen any writings, but there’s a similar Carrington sculpture in Mexico City, Cocodrillo, which she donated to the city in 2000. It’s five crocodiles riding in a boat, and the sixth has an oar. It’s a monumental bronze, huge in scale.
In what ways is this Leonora Carrington bronze typical of her work, and in what ways is it atypical? It’s apart from her work in terms of it being a bronze. I can find only 30 bronzes by her at auction. The white patina is unusual, too. We don’t see it on any other bronzes of hers at auction. What’s typical is the air to it–it creates a whole new world. The figure steering the boat has a human hand gripping the oar–he has metamorphosized.
She made and cast this bronze in 2010, the year before she died. Given her interest in folklore and fairy tales, is there any chance she was playing with the image of a ferryman sailing the souls of the dead across the River Styx to the next world? We had a discussion about this in the department yesterday. The standing figure is very noble. He does feel like a guide. The others in the boat seem smaller and younger by comparison. There’s also an idea in Asian myths that cranes represent longevity, and that they live for a thousand years. This could be her facing her mortality, or, equally, facing the idea of everlasting life.
But this Leonora Carrington bronze–it’s not as if she left behind any notes or quotes that hint at what she was thinking when she made it? It’s hard to ascribe meaning to her work. It was a mystery to herself. She wanted viewers to find their own meaning in it, reading it for themselves.
How involved was she in the casting of the limited edition bronze? Did she design it and hand it off, or was she more hands-on than that? We know she was hands-on. She was very much there and present. Alejandro Velasco, the operator of the foundry, worked with her. I have a photo of her at the foundry, casting the work.
Do we know why this Leonora Carrington bronze has a bone white patina? We don’t, actually, but it gives it a silvery air that creates a shimmering effect. It’s lovely.
Does this sale represent the first time a bronze from this limited edition of The Ship of Cranes has gone to auction? It is the first we’re able to find in our research.
What is this Leonora Carrington bronze like in person? What aspects elude the camera? It’s surprisingly delicate. The oar is delicately wrought. And there are incised patterns around the eyes of all the figures, but particularly the standing figure. You’ve got to really zoom in to see them.
Is it solid or hollow? I think the standing figure and the head at the front of the boat are hollow. It is heavy.
What’s your favorite detail of the Leonora Carrington bronze? The standing figure at the back. He has a real air of nobility, and he looks like the figure in one of her other works, The Palmist.
What’s the world auction record for any Leonora Carrington bronze, and for any work by the artist? The bronze record is not that much. It was set by a leopard figure in 2012 that was 750,000 in Mexican pesos, or about £35,000. The artist’s world auction record is The Temptation of St. Anthony, an oil that sold at Sotheby’s in 2014 for $2.6 million.
Both of those numbers are surprisingly low. That’s the thing. Carrington works were offered quite a lot in Latin American art sales. Now her work is becoming recognized for what it is. Offering it in a Surrealist setting is exactly the thing to do.
To what do you attribute the shift? The growing interest in the work of female artists? I think so. We’re finding there’s a lot of interest in the female Surrealists. In this sale, we have Carrington, Leonor Fini, Alice Rahon–there’s definitely new interest.
Why will this Leonora Carrington bronze stick in your memory? This is the first time I’ve seen in person a three-dimensional work by the artist. To be able to move around it, and to link to the fantastical worlds she created–it brings it to life, I think.
Image is courtesy of Bonhams.
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