Painting by surrealist painter Leonora Carrington fetches $28m at auction

<span>Leonora Carrington’s Les Distractions de Dagobert, from 1945, on display at Sotheby's auction house in New York this month.</span><span>Photograph: Sarah Yenesel/EPA</span>
Leonora Carrington’s Les Distractions de Dagobert, from 1945, on display at Sotheby's auction house in New York this month.Photograph: Sarah Yenesel/EPA

The auction record for British surrealist Leonora Carrington was smashed at Sotheby’s in New York on Wednesday night, marking a new high point for the artist, who lived in Mexico for most of her life and was until her death in 2011 one of the last surviving participants of the surrealist movement of the 1930s.

Carrington’s 1945 painting Les Distractions de Dagobert was auctioned for $28m with fees, soaring over a presale estimate of $12m-$18m after 10 minutes of bidding. The sum fetched is nine times Carrington’s previous auction record of $3.2m.

Winning bidder Eduardo F Costantini said in a statement after the sale that the painting was “one the most admired works in the history of surrealism and an unparalleled masterpiece of Latin American art”.

But the triumph is really in the recognition of the artist and of a resurgent interest in surrealism. The artistic movement is celebrating the 100th anniversary of two foundational publications, the Surrealist Manifesto by Yvan Goll and the better-known First Manifesto of Surrealism by André Breton, who coined the term as a way to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality”.

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Surrealism attracted a significant cohort of female artists to a group that included Jean Arp, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, René Magritte and Joan Miró, of whom Carrington is perhaps the most well-known after Frida Kahlo.

“The recent surge of interest in previously overlooked women artists connected with the Surrealist movement marks a profoundly significant cultural shift,” Allegra Bettini, the head of Sotheby’s modern art evening sale in New York, said in a statement before the sale.

Bettini said the painting, which was inspired by the fantastical scenes depicted by Hieronymus Bosch, was “the apotheosis of Carrington’s oeuvre, to take its place as a masterpiece of 20th-century art”.

The artist’s son, Gabriel Weisz Carrington, said his mother’s painting was “an extraordinary exploration of objects and textures, conjuring chromatic fire and illuminating our inner space in a fiery meditation”.

But Carrington herself is perhaps the more fascinating story.

She was born in Clayton Green near Manchester in 1917 to a wealthy textile manufacturer. Because of her rebellious behavior, she was sent to study art in Florence. She met the surrealists in Paris and was championed by the surrealist poet and patron Edward James and later worked with her lover Max Ernst.

After Ernst was interned in Paris for being German as the second world war broke out, Carrington went to Madrid, where she had a nervous breakdown. En route to a sanatorium in South Africa, she ended up in Mexico City, where she lived and worked, on and off, for the rest of her life.

She frequently spoke about women’s “legendary powers” and the need for women to take back “the rights that belonged to them”. She believed that women could not achieve “psychic freedom” until political freedom was achieved.

“I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse,” she once said of her career. “I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.”