Chloe Wyma on The Tarot of Leonora Carrington
The Tarot of Leonora Carrington, by Susan Aberth and Tere Arcq with an introduction by Gabriel Weisz Carrington. Lopen, UK: Fulgur Press, 2020. 120 pages.
THE VOICE OF ART EDUCATOR Jackie Armstrong emanates from my MacBook, guiding me through the vaulted chamber of Leonora Carrington’s painting And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur, 1953, acquired by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in advance of their 2019 expansion. The track is part of the museum’s Covid-era playlist “Artful Practices for Well-Being,” a series of audio tours that forgo didactic synopsis in favor of visualization and mindfulness exercises intended to nurture “connectedness and healing through art.” We move within the depicted space, pausing to touch the wispy clouds floating near the ceiling and to pet the silvery dogs in the foreground, approaching the table arrayed with glass orbs on the left. We say hello to the curious group—cloaked children, the mythic beast of the title—gathered around it.
When you’re ready, walk over to the last figure at the table. The most central one in the pink flowing gown. Who is this magical creature? . . . Examine the thin, almost translucent hand extending out from the sleeve. As the figure reaches out their hand to you, picture yourself placing your hand in theirs. How does this feel? How do you communicate with this being, and what would you like to ask?
Carrington, who loathed “intellectual games” of interpretation and who matter-of-factly likened painting to “making strawberry jam,” would probably have been happy to keep this ethereal creature’s identity a mystery. But Susan Aberth and Tere Arcq hazard a guess in The Tarot of Leonora Carrington, which brings reflections on the artist’s esoteric practice together with a lavish facsimile of Carrington’s private illustrated tarot deck, unearthed by the authors while researching their 2018 exhibition, “Leonora Carrington: Magical Tales,” at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City. Flanked by tapered columns and enfolded in a diaphanous mantle, the figure in pink “appears to be a prototype” for Carrington’s schematic interpretation of the High Priestess, shown enthroned against an ankh-spangled magenta ground in the third of her twenty-two illustrated Major Arcana.
Carrington made The High Priestess, one of only two cards to have been dated, in 1955, around the same time she and her friend Remedios Varo were haunting the metaphysical clubs established by the disciples of Russian mystics P. D. Ouspensky and G. I. Gurdjieff. Esoterica had long been fashionable in Mexico City. Diego Rivera, when called on by the Communist Party in 1954 to justify his membership in the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, said the group was “essentially materialist.” But Carrington and Varo’s occultism was especially committed, prodigious, and syncretic, encompassing tarot, alchemy, witchcraft, Kabbalah, and indigenous Mexican magic and healing practices. Carrington’s library included at least thirteen titles on cartomancy by authors including Ouspensky, A. E. Waite, Joseph Oswald Wirth, and her friend Kurt Seligmann (who reportedly fell out with André Breton after correcting his interpretation of a tarot card). A March 1943 issue of the Surrealist journal VVV records, alongside Carrington’s recipe for stuffed beef in sherry wine, her aborted attempt with Roberto Matta to invent a new divinatory system that would be to tarot “what non-Euclidian geometry is to Euclidian geometry.”
For Carrington, the tarot wasn’t just a fortune-telling device, but an aleatory method for accessing a “poetics of the unconscious,” as the artist’s son Gabriel Weisz Carrington writes in his introduction to the book. The discovery of her deck enriches our knowledge of the coded symbolism of Carrington’s work, calling our attention away from her notoriety as a Bretonian femme-enfant and orienting us toward the intellectual and spiritual passions of her artistic maturity in Mexico City, where she lived most of her adult life. Ignited by her early reading of Lewis Carroll, W. B. Yeats, and Irish fairy tales, her interest in magic survived and, Aberth and Arcq contend, predated her association with organized Surrealism. Years before the movement’s “Second Manifesto” called for “the veritable occultation of surrealism,” a young Carrington had been expelled from convent school for the diabolical habit of writing backward.
Carrington’s cards are, as the authors note, oddly squarish in composition (measuring roughly 6 1⁄4 by 5 1⁄2″) and, for viewers familiar with the Boschian intricacy of her paintings, almost shockingly hieratic and reductive. Ten are sumptuously ornamented with gold and silver leaf, including the zeppelinesque Hermit and the hallucinatory Wheel of Fortune, where a Sphinx couchant, a fanged canid, and a jackal-headed figure derived from Hermanubis—a composite of the Greek psychopomp Hermes and Anubis, the Egyptian god of death—writhe around a gleaming disk inscribed with a six-pointed star.
Carrington’s tarot imagery draws on classic decks by Waite and Pamela Colman Smith (1909) and Wirth (1889), as well as on the earlier Tarot de Marseille, but with significant formal and iconographic changes. Her Judgment and Tower cards, for example, adhere to conventional symbology but are uncannily transformed by throbbing phosphorescent color and the artist’s almost alien treatment of the depicted nude figures—shown plummeting from a burning castle in the latter and resurrected, pleading for deliverance, in the former. The authors identify the Waite-Smith deck as the source for Carrington’s Devil, though to my novice eyes it resembles Wirth’s feminized, Baphometesque rendition, with its bare breasts, shaggy haunches, bat-like wings, and goat’s head. The fiery torch between Satan’s horns, in the tradition of occultist Éliphas Lévi, denotes human intellect and prompts us to read the card as a representation of gnostic equilibrium rather than evil.
Carrington’s Lovers follows the iconography of Wirth’s and Marseille’s, both of which feature an image of a young swain standing beneath Cupid’s arrow, flanked on either side by a maiden vying for his attentions. Carrington shifts the theme from the pedestrian matter of male sexual choice to the alchemical principle of coniunctio oppositorum, replacing the indecisive courtier with an androgynous figure embodying the synthesis of masculine and feminine energies. Depicted in contrasting black and white, the two women reappear, somewhat altered, as the “Double Eve” in Mujeres conciencia, 1973, Carrington’s poster for the women’s liberation movement in Mexico.The central figure is now a winged serpent, an allusion to forbidden knowledge and to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl; a note on the back of the original gouache reads, in part, “Women take back the original wisdom.”
In 1948, Carrington encountered Robert Graves’s The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948)—a book she called “the greatest revelation of my life.” Graves’s hypothesis (much criticized by scholars) that an ancient female deity had once been worshipped across Europe, only to be deposed by patriarchy, tremendously influenced the feminist “Goddess” movement of the 1970s and shaped Carrington’s belief in the lost “Mysteries” of womankind. The discovery of her tarot coincides with another revival of feminist mysticism (albeit one that sits uncomfortably beside the atavistic essentialism and Eurocentrism of Grave’s “White Goddess”), and the use of her painting as a meditative object in “Artful Practices for Well-Being” demonstrates how the institutional validation of her work is subtended by the mainstreaming of mindfulness, spirituality, and other embodied and feminized forms of knowledge in bourgeois culture. But the Instagenic image of Carrington and Varo “surrounded by cats, crystals and talismans” risks smoothing over more hard-core, less assimilable edges of Carrington’s witchcraft (which purportedly involved exorcisms and blood magic), not to mention her Mephistophelian sense of humor (which, according to one account, “extended to cutting her guests’ hair while they slept, then cooking it in their breakfast omelettes”).
“Of all the tarot cards,” Aberth and Arcq write, “Carrington most identified with the Hanged Man and its image is pervasive, appearing in every decade of her working life.” The symbol shimmers in the firmament of Garden of Paracelsus, 1957; marks the threshold to her analyst’s office in Transference, 1963; dangles from a ship’s mast in Sanctuary for Furies, 1974; and balances on the back of a black horse in Labyrinth, 1991. It illuminates a wall, flashing like a red neon sign, in the undated work T-Test, where it presides over a coven of hooded female figures ceremoniously feeding a tiny doll to an enormous fish—domestic labor occulted as Delphic ritual. In Carrington’s deck, the Hanged Man is portrayed as an epicene figure clad in black and white and crowned in gold leaf, suggestive of both a Bauhaus automaton and a medieval jester. In keeping with tradition, he dangles upside down by one foot from a wooden gallows, his right knee bent to form a cross. His dancerly pose and gnomic expression betray no suffering.
The meaning of the Hanged Man has long bedeviled cartomancers. As Waite wrote in 1910, with some exasperation, “It is a card of profound significance, but all the significance is veiled. . . . It has been called falsely a card of martyrdom, a card of prudence, a card of the Great Work, a card of duty; but we may exhaust all published interpretations and find only vanity.” It has been identified with surrender and oblivion, with the death of the ego and the transcendence of matter, but also with liminality, alterity, and suspension. It’s fitting, given the teeming hybridity and polymorphism of her art, unremittingly in excess of any hermeneutic that would decipher it, that the card Carrington liked best was among the tarot’s most enigmatic. As she herself once said, “Each Arcana is a mirror and not a truth in itself.”
Chloe Wyma is an associate editor of Artforum.
Some scholars have claimed that Carrington cofounded the women’s liberation movement in Mexico; others say she was “marginally involved.” Her friend Gloria Orenstein remembers Carrington asking “if we could work a little devil worship” into the National Organization of Women’s agenda.