Art book recommendations #1. The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington, Tove Jansson: Work and Love, Unravelling Women’s Art.

As I am currently on a mission to add more books about women artists to my bookshelf, here are three art books I really enjoyed reading recently. Maybe you will enjoy them too.

The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorhead.

Tove Jansson: Work and Love by Tuula Karjalainen.

Unravelling Women’s Art by P.L. Henderson.

Book covers:
The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorhead.
Tove Jansson: Work and Love by Tuula Karjalainen.
Unravelling Women’s Art by P.L. Henderson.

The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorhead. (Published in 2017 by Virago Press)

Joanna Moorhead, a journalist, discovered one day that she was related to quite a famous artist. The infamous relative, who in her youth ‘abandoned the family’, turned out to be the Surrealist painter, Mexico’s national treasure Leonora Carrington (1917-2011). At the time of Moorhead’s personal discovery Carrington was not very well known in her native England. Luckily, the author managed to find her father’s long-lost cousin in Mexico, they became good friends and remained close until the artist’s death. The biography is based on the research into the artist’s archives, accounts of people who knew her at various stages of her life and Carrington’s personal accounts.

The Surreal Life… takes the reader on a wild ride through the twentieth century. Each chapter was titled after a work by Carrington. Chapter One ‘The Debutante’ begins in 1935 when young Leonora Carrington was presented as debutante at Buckingham Palace during the reign of King George V. She did not remember this old-fashioned ritual fondly. ‘I was wearing a tiara […] ‘And it was biting into my skull’ (p.21). This episode perhaps symbolises how unhappy she was in her expected societal role of a woman born into a well-off family, she wrote a fictional and very surreal short story ‘The Debutante’ loosely based on that night.

In 1937, against her family’s wishes, 20-years-old Carrington left England for France with her lover, much older and already established artist Max Ernst, where they both became active in the new and exciting art movement – Surrealism. Following Carrington’s career the reader gets to encounter such characters as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Lee Miller and Peggy Guggenheim. Then WWII began, and all sorts of things happened, leading to the next step in the artist’s big life journey. Carrington leaves Europe behind and travels across the ocean, first to New York and then to Mexico. In Mexico she met her future husband, the photographer Emerico ‘Chiki’ Weisz with whom she had two sons. While in Mexico she became friends with another art icon Frieda Kahlo. 

A lively account of Carrington’s extraordinary life, the book also brings together the connections between real-life events, subjects in her artworks as well as in her writings. It was truly a pleasure to read. 

Leonora Carrington – Transference (oil paint on board, 1963)

Tove Jansson: Work and Love by Tuula Karjalainen (first published in Finnish in 2013, English translation by David McDuff, published in 2016 by Penguin Books) 

Known internationally for the beloved series of Moomin books and comics, Tove Jansson (1914-2001) was also a very prolific painter. Due to the enormous amount of artworks and writings left behind by Jansson, every attempt at an account of her life and work must be selective. Tuula Karjalainen, Finnish art historian and art critic decided on a mixed chronological and thematic approach in her biography. ‘Work and Love’ was Jansson’s motto, which explains her strong work ethic, even though she believed that love and work were the main things in her life, work always had to come first. 

Tove Jansson was born in Helsinki on 9 August 1914 to a pair of artists. Both parents had an enormous influence on little Tove, her mother taught her to draw and her father wanted her to become a sculptor, like himself. Jansson had a love-hate relationship with her father throughout her life. However, she stayed incredibly close to her mother until the latter’s death. In the illustrated book series featuring the Moomins we can recognize Jansson’s father and mother as the Moominpappa and Moominmamma. In fact, many characters from the Moomins are based partially on family members and people close to Jansson, and the biography does a great job of bringing the real and fictional characters together. 

I am really a painter, but in the early 1940s, during the war, I felt so desperate that I began to write fairytales’ (Tove Jansson: Work and Love, p.121). 

Jansson began to write her first book featuring the Moomins ‘The Moomins and the Great Flood’ in 1939, it was published in 1945. When WWII broke out, Jansson was a young woman entering adulthood. She defied society standards of the time by never marrying and living openly with her lovers, male and later also female lovers. 

WWII impacted Jansson and everyone around her. Around that time she wrote: ‘When the men stop their killing, I will have children – but they’ll probably never give up.’ (Tove Jansson: Work and Love, p.62) Quite a big statement coming from the author beloved by generations of children, but who never had her own children. Jansson gave up on men altogether after she met her lifelong partner Tuulikki Pietilä in the late 1950s. Both women were artists, they spent many summers in their little house on a little island in the Gulf of Finland. They remained together for the rest of their lives. 

Tove Jansson: Work and Love is a captivating account of Jansson’s life. It was fascinating to learn about events and people behind the beloved Moomin characters. Karjalainen’s book is a beautiful homage to Tove Jansson the artist and the writer.

inside the book Tove Jansson: Work and Love by Tuula Karjalainen.

Unravelling Women’s Art by P.L. Henderson (published in 2021 by Supernova Books)

Textile art is one of the most ancient and skilful art forms, yet their predominantly female practitioners are rarely given the credit they deserve. The author provides the historical background and explains how textile art came to be associated with women, and how for many years it was (unjustly) considered a lesser form of art, or merely a ‘craft’. 

Unravelling Women’s Art offers a unique perspective as it presents the story of textile art with the emphasis on female artists. P.L. Henderson is an art historian and curator of WOMENSART blog and @womensart1 on Twitter dedicated to promoting art of women artists. 

One of the advantages of this book is its broad historical and geographical scope. In particular the chapter 2 – Textile Arts in Indigenous Cultures is worth singling out. Using numerous examples, the author shows continuation but also innovation when it comes to textile arts practised by Indigenous artists across the globe. In contrast to the general tendency of lumping Indigenous arts with the nebulous ‘art of the ancient cultures’, (I notice this quite a lot in art books and museums) it is refreshing to see so many works of contemporary Indigenous artists highlighted here, for example the Inuk artist Marion Tuu’luq from Canada, or Britta Marakatt-Labba, artist of Sámi heritage from Northern Sweden. 

Nature, politics and identity are some of the subjects covered in the publication. From the importance of pockets in women’s clothing, through anti-war textiles, to swearing embroiderers, this book brings together stories of resilience, perseverance and limitless creativity of women artists throughout the ages. Each chapter ends with a couple of mini-interviews with contemporary textile artists who talk about their practice and subjects in their artworks. 

From the interview with Alia Ali, Yemeni Bosnian-US artist: ‘ I believe that textile is significant to all of us. We are born into it, we sleep in it, we eat on it, we define ourselves by it, we shield ourselves with it, and eventually, we die in it.’ (Unravelling Women’s Art, p.174)

‘Unravelling Women’s Art’ would make an excellent coursebook, I wish it was around when I was studying art history. Very well-written with plenty of good quality images of artworks. I’ve learned a lot while reading it and I am sure I will be coming back to it in years to come. Essential for anyone who cares about art. 

inside the book Unravelling Women’s Art by P.L. Henderson

I have a few more books about women artists lined up so watch this space.

Part 2 of my Art Book Recommendations is available here

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