Surrealism…with a small speck of Moate

Moate meets modern art at IMMA.  Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Moate meets modern art at IMMA.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler


Think Andre Breton.

Think Salvador Dali.

Think Max Ernst.

Think slicing up eyeballs.

Think buttery clocks and mechanical elephants.

Think a million unread art history theses.

Think Moate.

Yes, Moate. I wouldn’t have thought so either.

Then I attended an exhibition currently running at the Irish Museum of Modern Art on ‘The Celtic Surrealist’, painter Leonora Carrington.

The citizens of Mexico, where Carrington lived for most of her adult life, might disagree with the title. And, to be honest, the few Celtic influences in the paintings are overshadowed by multiple flying horses and scores of small stoat-like creatures.

Nonetheless. A surrealist legend with a connection to Moate, Co Westmeath, population 3,000 and heretofore unheralded on the map of modern art?

This was a surprise to someone who grew up in nearby Athlone and later covered Moate on the beat as a local reporter.

Carrington did not hail from the town herself, alas. But her mother, Marie Moorhead, did. The other main female figure in her early life was her Irish nanny, who reportedly fed her full of Irish mythology.

Carrington is later explained: “My love for the soil, nature, the gods given to me by my mother’s mother who was Irish from Westmeath, where there is a myth about men who lived underground inside the mountains, called the ‘little people’ who belong to the race of the ‘Sidhe’.

“The stories my grandmother told me were fixed in my mind and they gave me mental pictures that I would later sketch on paper.”

'Ulu's Pants' Leonora Carrington (1952). © Estate of Leonora Carrington/ARS

‘Ulu’s Pants’
Leonora Carrington (1952).
© Estate of Leonora Carrington/ARS

After childhood, the Moate and Ireland connection appears to end. There’s no record of Carrington visiting Westmeath. One of her works, not on display at IMMA alas, is an imaging of her mother’s family home there: Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen (1975). 

Carrington went on to live in Paris in the 1930s, becoming a figure in the nascent Surrealist movement there, and Max Ernst’s lover. She later lived in Spain, was committed to a mental institution, before moving to the United States and eventually Mexico.

She achieved considerable fame in that country, becoming second only in national affection to Frida Kahlo. Her home countries were slower to recognise her. Carrington had her first major exhibition in London in 1991 and ‘The Celtic Surrealist’ is the first Irish exhibition devoted solely to her work.

There are traces of Ireland in paintings displayed at IMMA. But citizens of Moate will have to look long and hard at the paintings to decipher a connection to the town.

Celtic mythology is elsewhere though: a flaming red-haired Fionn mac Cumhaill facing his salmon of knowledge; a depiction of St Patrick with snakes; and a work, ‘The Red Steeds of the Sidhe’, which depicts the 1st century Irish high king Conaire and his encounter with three Sidhe horsemen.

If not Co Westmeath itself, the flatlands of the Irish Midlands form the background to the latter work, with Conaire seen approaching the Hill of Tara in Co Meath.

Just about enough of a local connection to justify the exhibition’s title.

Elsewhere ‘The Celtic Surrealist’ contains 90-odd works including paintings, sculpture, film, writings, curios like childhood notebooks and even bank documents.

Mother goddesses mix with NYPD cops and Edwardian breakfast guests. And there are many, many flying horses.


‘The Celtic Surrealist’ runs at IMMA until January 26, 2014.

Here are curator Sean Kissane’s comments on Irish mythology in three of the paintings on display:

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