Savant of Mysticism Leonora Carrington and Her Lost Tarot Deck
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Savant of Mysticism Leonora Carrington and Her Lost Tarot Deck

Aug 10, 2023

Leonora Carrington, The Sun, c.1955.

In June, Surreal Spaces: The Life and Art of Leonora Carrington, an illustrated biography of the groundbreaking British-born artist was published by Thames & Hudson. In celebration, we take a look back at the hand-painted tarot deck she created.

The tarot deck is an attractive subject matter for artistic interpretation. Inviting an intuitive understanding of life, shaved down to one moment, its standard 78 cards frame illustrations that carry protean symbolism.

In 1955, the British artist Leonora Carrington created her own tarot, hand painting archetypes of the 22 major arcana, from a blue-and-white portrait of the Fool to a green Empress, pregnant and wild-haired. Little known to the public, they have reemerged with increased interest in the painter and writer since her death in 2011, at age 94.

Leonora Carrington, The Star, c.1955.

In 2021, Fulgur Press published The Tarot of Leonora Carrington, a book that presents facsimiles of the unique deck and serves as yet another portal into the artist’s enigmatic imagination.

Devotees of Carrington will hardly be surprised to learn of her tarot. Her oeuvre—composed of paintings, fiction, theatrical costumes, and more—paraded strange, indelible marvels and embodied her interests in mythology, alchemy, and the occult. These interests stemmed from a lifelong following of mystical traditions, which art historian Susan Aberth and curator Tere Arcq (who encountered the deck during research for a 2018 Carrington retrospective) diligently trace in an essay featured in the new book.

Leonora Carrington, The Fool, c.1955.

Hers was, as her son Gabriel Weisz Carrington puts it, “a permanent inquiring mind” shaped by a range of influences including Golden Dawn literature, Egyptian mythology, Surrealist rejection of logic, and indigenous witchcraft in Mexico, where she lived for most of her life. And, of course, she was a devout student of tarot. She not only read spreads but also incorporated icons such as The Magician, The Hanged Man, and The Chariot into her paradoxical visuals that refused intellectualization.

For Carrington, tarot symbolism was “deep and interchangeable,” Aberth and Arcq write. It “permeated most of her work and just kept recombining in new ways to suit her esoteric thinking and development.”

Born 1917 in Lancashire to an aristocratic family, Carrington flouted real-world orders and obligations from a young age. She tried to learn to levitate, absorbed Celtic folklore, identified deeply with horses, scorned the debutante tradition, and was kicked out of convent school—twice. As an art student in London, she met Max Ernst, became his lover, and moved to Paris. There, she entered Surrealist circles.

Leonora Carrington, The Moon, c.1955.

Between 1937 and 1939, the couple lived in Saint Martin d’Ardèche, filling their renovated farmhouse with paintings and sculptures of mythical creatures. Carrington began creatively engaging with tarot during this period, and she painted a portrait of Ernst that nods to the Hermit card: Walking in the body of a furry fish, Ernst holds a lantern—the Hermit’s eternal guide—that encapsulates a rearing horse.

In 1942, Carrington moved to Mexico City after a series of harrowing events, including a traumatic confinement at a Spanish sanatorium that she described in her memoir, Down Below. In Mexico, she painted luminous worlds within worlds, cooked fantastical meals, and became a mother.

Leonora Carrington, Unknown, 1969, Gouache on parchment.

The idea to make a tarot deck seemed impulsive yet inevitable for someone on a never-ending quest for greater self-knowledge. As Weisz Carrington writes in The Tarot of Leonora Carrington, his mother pulled Oswald Wirth’s Le tarot des imagiers du Moyen Age from her bookshelf one day. She “dreamily enumerates the cards,” he recalls, and decides that designing her own cards would be “a splendid idea.”

The pair bought thick paperboard sheets the following day, and Carrington spent months cutting and painting them, gluing gold or silver leaf to several. The results are nearly square, measuring about 6 by 5 ½ inches.

Leonora Carrington in Mexico City, 1998.

Carrington’s major arcana draw inspiration from designs in Papus’ The Tarot of the Bohemians, the Tarot de Marseille, and the Rider-Waite tarot deck (reprinted for the masses in 1959, four years after Carrington’s project). But the pictorial language remains hers alone, presenting unconventional colors and details. Aberth and Arcq, for instance, note that figures such as The Hanged Man and The Devil are androgynous, perhaps to upset a male dominance or represent a surrogate for the artist.

Red, they add, which anchors cards like The High Priestess and The Emperor, “appears to be linked to feminine magic in Carrington’s cosmology.” The cryptic figures could easily be characters in her sensuous, meandering fiction, where fantasies and anxieties mingle.

For Carrington, tarot was more than a divination tool; it was a stimulus to the unconscious mind, “a guide for the exploration of the psyche,” as Aberth and Arcq write. She was a tireless conjurer of subliminal domains. In envisioning tarot, she only continued to transcend the bounds of sense.

Claire Voon is a Chicago-based art writer. Her work has appeared in publications such as ARTnews, Artsy, Chicago Magazine, Atlas Obscura, and Hyperallergic, where she was previously a staff writer.

Claire Voon