An ingenious fabulist and a humanist in the most universal sense, Carrington has for now over ninety years plumbed the mysteries of an intimate, hermetic universe of her own creation. As mysterious to herself as she is to others, she once acknowledged, her paintings explore themes of enchantment and transformation, describing a reality at once magical and miraculous. Nurtured on fairy tales and Celtic lore as a child by her Irish mother, Carrington has long plied a richly original and haunting imagination in her paintings, which intimate strange affinities between the visible and invisible worlds.
Carrington reached her artistic maturity in the first decade following her arrival in Mexico in 1942, at the age of twenty-five. The consummate femme-enfant of the Surrealist circle in Paris, with which she had been associated since 1938, Carrington suffered a nervous breakdown in 1940 following the wartime internment of her lover, the painter Max Ernst, in southern France. Later incarcerated and treated for a mild psychosis, Carrington eventually escaped and found asylum in Mexico following an expedient marriage to Renato Leduc, a Mexican diplomat and old friend. Her encounter with Mexico, once pronounced the "Surrealist place par excellence" by André Breton, would profoundly vitalize her artistic career. Finding a parallel between the hybrid Celtic Catholicism of her youth and the syncretic religious practice of Mexico, Carrington began to evolve a multivalent and pan-cultural religious symbolism in her paintings, enriched by her study of world religions from medieval Christianity to Gnosticism and the Kabbalah. Her occultism informs the major series of panels that she painted during a brief sojourn in New York, following the Mexico City earthquake in 1985, which render divine imagery within a polymorphous, animistic universe.
The present Nativity re-imagines one of the most sacred events within the Christian faith--the birth of Christ--through a continuous narrative that spans three panels and suggests a multiplicity of temporal and spiritual realities. The central panel portrays the birth itself, recreated in a shadowy nocturnal setting flocked by strangely amphibious Magi, levitating spirits, and watchful parents. The Christ Child takes the symbolic form of an uncanny, fish-like creature, his elliptical body emerging from a pool of rippling green water. The flanking panels appear to illustrate episodes from his later life; the black-caped figure on the left might be a Celtic personification of the Grim Reaper, a lurking presence even on the evening of Christ's birth, and the feet-washing ceremony depicted at the right suggests the ritual purification enacted on the eve of his death.
Carrington's imaginal space mostly eschews literal interpretation, however, and Nativity is presented as an allegory of spiritual metamorphosis and new life, reincarnated through kindred animal spirits. The imminence of death has weighed more and more on Carrington's mind in recent years, she has acknowledged, and the allusion to Jacob's ladder in the background of the central panel may also bear a personal significance. "Her favourite story from the Bible is that of Jacob wrestling with the angel," Marina Warner has noted. "There is a ladder there, in the background of the biblical account, waiting to be climbed to heaven, but for the moment, the here and now, demands struggle. 'We have to hang on,' she says. 'Even if the angel says, 'Let me go, let me go'; we don't listen. No. We have to hang on.'" (1)
The metaphysical aspect of Carrington's vision also has a source in art-historical tradition, from the phantasmagorical bestiaries of the northern Renaissance to the Trecento and Quattrocento cassoni paintings and predella panels that she knew as a student in Florence. "Carrington was influenced by the Renaissance ideal of ut pictura poesis, or story-telling in pictures," Warner has observed, and she found a natural affinity with the artists of the early Renaissance, who were likewise "dealing in miracles and transformations."(2) Her teeming menagerie and hybrid bodies carry on the animistic tradition of Bosch and Brueghel, and her revival of the medieval technique of egg-tempera painting gives her contemporary panels a refined Old Master sensibility. Applied in thin layers, the softly gleaming colors exhibit a brilliant semi-transparent finish, casting a radiant mystical aura over the biblical narrative, here fantastically transformed through Carrington's syncretic imagination.
1) M. Warner, "Leonora Carrington: New York," The Burlington Magazine 130, no. 1027, October 1988, 796-97.
2) Warner, "Leonora Carrington's Spirit Bestiary; or the Art of Playing Make-Believe," in Leonora Carrington: Paintings, Drawings and Sculptures, 1940-1990, London: Serpentine Gallery, 1991, 16.