A stunning tarot deck created by Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, was recently discovered and may prove to be one of the most beautiful decks I have seen.
Carrington’s tarot cards are populated by her characteristically fey figures, often androgynes or human-animal hybrids, set against backdrops in deep, full hues: cobalt, lapis, mulberry, gold. She drew upon archetypal decks including gilded examples from 15th century Italy, the Tarot of Marseilles beloved by many Surrealists, and the popular Rider-Waite deck from 1909. The book puzzles over the artist’s additions and omissions in relation to these predecessors, using biographical cues and a knowledge of visual symbolism to “read” her cards — not so unlike a tarot card reader. In Carrington’s Chariot card, two female creatures who normally face away from one another face toward one another, bound by a heart; the authors suggest that choices like this one reflect the artist’s belief in feminized collaboration, which was tied up with her contributions to the feminist movement and her love of goddess lore alike.
The book’s analysis of drawings and paintings spanning Carrington’s career elucidates that tarot iconography was likewise an animating force in her artwork. Some references are overt, as in her 1995 drawing of people at a table with tarot cards. Others are more coded: two self-portraits from 1949 and 1973 riff on the Hermit card, which traditionally depicts a lone figure with a lantern to denote — among other things, tarot cards being endlessly interpretable — the frequently isolating work of introspection. In one self-portrait, Carrington paints herself as a poncho draped over a coat rack; in the other, her lantern contains a parrot instead of a flame. A sense of play and imagination, a fundamental openness to alternative ways of being, was always Carrington’s guiding light.
The Tarot of Leonora Carrington (Fulgur Press, 2021), by Susan Aberth and Tere Arcq, is now available.