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Quería ser pájaro

Quería ser pájaro
signed and dated 'Leonora Carrington April 1960' (lower left); signed, dated and inscribed 'Enrique Alvarez Felix 1960 LEONORRA CARRINGTON.' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
47 1/4 x 35 1/2 in. (120 x 90.2 cm.)
Painted in 1960
María Félix, Mexico City; her sale, Christie's, New York, 18 July 2007, lot 386.
Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.
Acquired from the above by the present owners in 2007.
M. Carson, 'Leonora Carrington: The Story of the Last Egg', in Review: Literature and Art of the Americas, vol. 53, no. 1, June 2020 (illustrated on the cover).
G. Subelyte & D. Zamani, Surrealism and Magic, Enchanted Modernity, exh. cat., Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 2022, p. 239 (illustrated).
San Francisco, Frey Norris Gallery, Talismanic Lens: Leonora Carrington, February - March 2008, no. 9, p. 33 (illustrated on the cover and p. 32).
Mexico City, Museo de Arte Moderno, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Leonora Carrington: Magical Tales, April - September 2018, no. 96, pp. 266-269 and 471 (illustrated p. 268); this exhibition later travelled to Monterrey, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, October - February 2019.
New York, Gallery Wendi Norris, Leonora Carrington: The Story of the Last Egg, May - June 2019.
Special notice
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent. This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.
Further details
We are grateful to Dr. Salomon Grimberg for his assistance cataloguing this work.

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Ottavia Marchitelli
Ottavia Marchitelli Senior Specialist, Head of The Art of The Surreal Sale

Lot Essay

‘Leonora has indeed not ceased to travel the long ascent of her artistic development: a sort of Mount Carmel of discipline, scaled with the help of exquisitely accomplished sorcery,’ wrote her friend and Surrealist patron Edward James. ‘The fact is that this painter’s inspiration is as timeless as it is ageless. She seems to recall scenery from incantations prior to this one…’ Carrington explored themes of magic and transformation across eight decades of painting, describing a reality at once animist and miraculous. ‘Leonora epitomizes the woman of our latter-day Renaissance,’ James continued. ‘She is, I firmly believe, a forerunner of the Age of Aquarius’ (E. James quoted in Leonora Carrington: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Center for Inter-American Relations, New York, 1976, p. 11, 13, and 20). Quería ser pájaro brims with proto-aquarian sensibilities, the creative flux of an enchanted universe spinning outward from egg-cum-globe to the infinite beyond. A rare portrait within Carrington’s oeuvre, Quería ser pájaro captures the young actor Enrique Álvarez Félix, the only son of the legendary screen star María Félix. Amid rumours about his sexual identity and repression, he appears here in a pregnant and dramatic moment, willing himself to freedom and liberation.
Carrington embraced the myriad wonders of Mexico – styled the ‘Surrealist place, par excellence’ by André Breton – upon her arrival in 1942, at the age of twenty-five, in the wake of a harrowing escape from war-torn France. Associated with the Surrealists since 1938, she found emotional asylum in Mexico City as she recovered from the internment of her lover Max Ernst, their separation and her subsequent flight to Spain, and the nervous breakdown that followed. Carrington found solace as well as creative synergies within the émigré community of artists and writers that gathered in Mexico, among them the poet Benjamin Péret, the photographer Kati Horna, and the photojournalist Emerico ‘Chiki’ Weisz, whom she married in 1946. A remarkable and unrivalled friendship developed between Carrington and fellow Surrealist Remedios Varo, nurtured by daily visits and shared creative projects, from writing and illustrating plays to studies of esoterica. Together, they pondered painting as an alchemical practice, merging Mexico’s ritual traditions and history – the Popol Vuh, pre-Hispanic archaeology, herbs and foodstuffs sourced from local markets – with a host of divinatory arts, from Tarot and astrology to the I Ching and the Cabbala.
‘Varo and Carrington presented personal interpretations of their often-joint research into alchemy, magic, the Tarot and astrology – disciplines where women clearly play a central role,’ explains scholar Tere Arcq: ‘Alchemists jealously guarded the secrets of their art and frequently codified them in allegory, symbolic language or enigmatic illustrations, using animals to represent different stages in the alchemical process. [Surrealist and occultist Kurt] Seligmann reproduces a series of illustrations from Abraham Lambspring’s book On the Philosopher’s Stone where birds taking flight symbolize the soul being elevated towards divinity: ‘The spirit strives toward God, but it is held down by the body. In the same way, mercury must be sublimated repeatedly, fly up and ‘return to the nest,’ until at length, fixation is attained…From a rhetor, [man has] become a consul.’ Birds represent the moment when the alchemist finally manages to separate the soul and the spirit from the body and thus liberate them (T. Arcq, ‘Mirrors of the Marvellous: Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo,’ in Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Kati Horna, exh. cat., Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, 2010, p. 102 and 106).
Álvarez Félix, the pensive subject of Quería ser pájaro, is a rare male alchemist within a corpus that generally privileged women in such scenes of transfiguration. ‘The representation of women’s metamorphosis into animals and fantastic creatures, often with magic potions or rituals, is common,’ Arcq notes, citing Carrington’s gracefully hybridized Ballerina (1954) and Song of Gomorreh (1963). In Three Women around the Table (1951), ‘one of [the women] already has a bird’s head and the others appear to be in the process of transforming into different creatures,’ Arcq observes. ‘They are surrounded by crows, which according to occult traditions have the ability to shapeshift and are associated with witches and sorceresses’ (in ibid., p. 107). A dark bird – suggestively crow-like – hovers opposite Álvarez Félix in Quería ser pájaro, its gaze fixed on the gleaming, copper-toned egg revolving between them.
Notwithstanding Carrington’s interests in occult traditions, the metaphysical dimensions of her work also have sources 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 years earlier as a boarding-school student in Florence. ‘Carrington was influenced by the Renaissance ideal of ut pictura poesis, or story-telling in pictures,’ Marina Warner has remarked, and she found a natural affinity with the artists of the early Renaissance, who were likewise ‘dealing in miracles and transformations’. Her teeming menagerie and hybrid bodies carry on the animistic tradition of Bosch and Brueghel, imparting glimpses of ‘the unseen, magico-mystical universe’ beyond the observed world through ‘paranormal incident and anthropomorphic animals’ (M. Warner, 'Leonora Carrington’s Spirit Bestiary; or the Art of Playing Make-Belief,’ Leonora Carrington: Paintings, Drawings and Sculptures, 1940-1990, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, London, 1991, pp. 16-17).
Art historian Susan Aberth emphasizes the ‘important symbolic role’ of animals in Quería ser pájaro. ‘Surrounded by animals – Mexican bobcats (with their distinctive tufted black ears), an armadillo, a black rooster and a large fluttering bird near the spinning egg –, an elegant young man is performing an operation much the same as a magician on stage,’ Aberth observes. ‘Is the magical operation succeeding? His tight trousers are taking on the appearance of feathers… Enrique Álvarez Félix was the son of the famous Mexican film actress María Félix, and perhaps he was trying to liberate himself (fly away) from her overwhelming influence’ (S. Aberth, ‘Animal Kingdom’, in Leonora Carrington: Magical Tales, exh. cat., Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, 2018, p. 266 & p. 269).
An actor in his own right, Álvarez Félix was known for roles in numerous telenovelas and in films including the thriller La casa del pelícano (1977) – a movie in which his character is ultimately castrated by his murderous mother. The Surrealist painter and designer Leonor Fini had earlier painted an adolescent Félix in dishabille, a feathery cape falling loosely around his shoulders and a pair of feline masks hovering above him (L’homme aux masques or Portrait de Enrique Álvarez Félix, 1949). Carrington adds greater complexity to the animist metaphor in this later portrait, here positing the metaphysical – rather than merely theatrical – transformation of the young man. In two related drawings, both titled Portrait of Enrique Álvarez Félix, Carrington portrays him with an animal, in one case cradling a long-eared bobcat and in the other appearing to shapeshift into a bird, whose elongated neck encircles his head. Yet Álvarez Félix’s longed-for transformation and escape remain thwarted, or at least incomplete in Quería ser pájaro. Against a lambent night sky and surrounded by a watchful, magical menagerie, he inhabits a suggestively liminal space – between inside and outside, human and animal, self and other – as he makes a supreme bid for freedom or, alternatively, releases the animal within. After all, Carrington once declared, there is ‘an inner bestiary’ in everybody (L. Carrington quoted in M. Warner, ‘Introduction’, in The House of Fear: Notes from Down Below, New York, 1988, p. 1).
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park

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