A male figure – the Fool – almost floats in space, etched in white against a shimmering blue background, a dog pawing at his leg. In a second painting, Death strides across a field brandishing her scythe, two heads seated on the ground.
The striking and vivid images are part of a series of tarot cards painted by British-born Mexican surrealist painter Leonora Carrington.
Publicly exhibited for the first time in Mexico City in 2018 after being discovered just a year earlier, Carrington’s Major Arcana – as the main deck is known – will finally be placed within the context of his other art in a publication reproducing the cards for the first time together with other paintings, some of which are inspired by themes from the tarot deck.
While the circumstances of who owns the deck, and even when they were painted by Carrington, remain shrouded in mystery, the emergence of the deck of cards has opened the door to new insights into the artist’s work and life.
This week, a vastly expanded edition of Leonora Carrington’s Tarot will be published which will place his tarot in the context of his wider career.
Another book by Carrington biographer Joanna Moorhead, examining the places Carrington was most strongly associated with, will be released next spring, amid growing interest in the artist’s work and her ideas as a pioneering feminist figure with an interest in the ecology.
“They were completely unknown and belonged to a private collection,” says Susan Aberth, one of the authors of the book that examines the tarot deck. “When we found them, we nearly swooned over such a discovery.”
Although those images were included in an earlier edition, publication in the midst of the Covid pandemic meant key archives of Carrington’s work were closed to authors and unavailable for that book, copies of which now change secondhand by the hundreds. of pounds. “The thing is, he never showed anyone his cards. They were private to her,” Aberth adds. “I spent 30 years studying her art, so I was shocked.”
Aberth believes that the opportunity to study Carrington’s tarot has finally given meaning to elements of his wider art that have long puzzled those who tended to place his fantastical figures in the sole context of surrealism.
The famous 1939 Portrait of Max Ernst – lover of the young Carrington – showing the artist in a frozen landscape and holding a lamp-like object is related to the traditional figure of the Hermit in the tarot.
“When you see the cards, you realize they were central to his entire output, including the question of what the nature of the esoteric is. What makes the cards so unique is that they were his tools for exploring his personal consciousness.
Among the very few who were aware of the deck was his son, Gabriel Weisz Carrington, who in the book describes its genesis, recalling a long-ago conversation with his mother: “From one of the shelves in his room he takes The tarot of the Moyen Age imaginaries by the Swiss occultist Oswald Wirth. Leonora dreamily enumerates the cards or tarots: “The Magician, The Priestess, The Empress, The Hierophant, The Lovers…”
“You know, I could design my own deck” [she says] … The next morning, we go to a nearby artist supply store, buy a couple of thick sheets of cardboard.”
Carrington’s artistic interest in the esoteric and the occult was not unique. Irish poet WB Yeats and abstract artists Wassily Kandinsky and Hilma af Klint had been similarly inspired.
A key figure in the Surrealist movement and noted writer as well as painter, Carrington was highly regarded by peers such as André Breton, though long overlooked by the artistic establishment.
Born in Lancashire in 1917 to a family of wealthy mill owners, Carrington rebelled at school, later attending art school. Meeting Ernst in the late 1930s, who left his wife for Carrington, the couple moved to France where Carrington became part of the Surrealist circle around Breton. Ernst, a German national, was interned twice after the outbreak of World War II, resulting in Carrington suffering a nervous breakdown in Spain – where she had fled – and was hospitalised.
Escape from Europe was offered by a marriage of convenience to a Mexican diplomat and poet, and she moved first to New York and then to Mexico City, where she settled, marrying Emerico Weisz, a Hungarian photographer.
Only in recent decades has she been recognized on a par with her male peers from the Surrealist movement, with her painting The juggler (1954) fetching the highest price ($713,000) for a living Surrealist painter in 2005, while more recently his The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1945), inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s painting of the same subject from the 1500s, fetched $2,629,000 in 2014.
Although she grew up in a traditional Catholic family in Northern England, it was an examination of other spiritual traditions including magic and later Buddhism that most influenced her craft.
For the first it was inspired by that of Robert Graves The White Goddessthe poet’s 1948 study of poetic myth-making and divinity, a subject to which she was drawn throughout her adult life.
A feminist and environmentalist, Carrington was less interested in Freudianism as a gateway to the unconscious than were other Surrealists, relying instead on her own ideas about other worlds and magical transformations. All of this is present in her tarot deck. “They were meant for divination, as a meditative device for shifts in consciousness,” Aberth says. “I think he associated the very act of making art as a kind of practical magic that has the ability to inform people and transform. What’s interesting about her tarot cards is that they are a personal statement. She borrows canonical images but makes personal choices.
Moorhead is a relative of the artist who approached her at the end of her life. “She was a very spiritual person. We both grew up in the Catholic tradition, but she became very critical of her and she broke away from formal Catholicism, even though that still permeated her thinking about her,” she says.
“Spirituality was fundamental to her. She has been a seeker all her life and she Leonora has always searched for her, always stepping out of her comfort zone, seeking where the mystery of life could be revealed. You have gone through periods of intense interest in Buddhism, Kabbalah, tarot. All these worlds around that seemed closer when she carried you with her, including the worlds of plants and insects.
“I think he was way ahead of his time in terms of interests. If you look back at her paintings of her from the 1940s, she’s very, very attuned to ecological issues.
Moorhead sees the Carrington Tarot deck less as a divining tool than a compass. Only a handful of papers date their painting as 1955, and there is evidence to suggest that he may have been working on the project for decades. “There is a suggestion that he finished the deck in the 1990s with the intention of making 15 decks, a project he never did.”
Like Gabriel Weisz Carrington, who also describes the deck as a “compass”, Moorhead sees the cards as something other than what is traditionally conceived. “He didn’t see it as a game, or for divination, but as a model of the universe.”
Leonora Carrington’s Tarot is published by RM Verlag on November 29th. Surreal Spaces: The Life and Art of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorhead to be published by Thames and Hudson next year