To gain a sense for Leonora Carrington's art, one needs to understand the meaning of Transformation.
Nothing Carrington has created--ever--is one-dimensional or literal, despite appearing so. Her universe, multi-determined, layered, and polyvalent, is not readily accessible. The source of her creativity flows through her personal history, lifting fragments of ancestral information, documenting moments in time to transform them into permanent events. Carrington's complex mythology is made up of invented personages that express truths which otherwise might evade us or be lost. Her painting's intentional aesthetic beauty serves as a distraction for those unprepared to assimilate its message, those who settle for living with the beckoning of appearances. Its emotional content follows the proverb dating to the Renaissance to mean do not share precious information to those unable to use it, "Don't cast pearls before swine," as she conceals vital information gathered within the hermetic tradition--solely made available for the initiates--keeping it out of the hands of the shallow, the unappreciative, or the unaware, and, at all costs, from those who might use it wrongly, either for personal gain or for evil. This is what Carrington had in mind when she stated, "My work is wiser than I am."
Jugglers were popular at public celebrations, country fairs and markets in pre-Revolutionary France, where they reached the pinnacle of their social importance in the thirteenth century. They also performed in abbeys or in the castles of noblemen as acrobats or reciting fabliaux (short comic narratives), chansons de geste (epic chronicles, such as the Song of Roland), or their own compositions of lyric poetry. With their ambiguous story-telling and performances, jugglers mesmerized their audiences, causing them to question the boundaries of reality. Thus it has been for Carrington whose ambiguous art also reflects her personal belief system, entertaining on the surface while transmitting facets of the truth all the while.
It is often looked upon with uneasiness that the very card that opens and leads the way into the major arcana of the Tarot is that of a dangerous personage: a recipient of the essential teachings, and a trickster. He is known by many names: magician, magus, minstrel, sorcerer, mountebank, bagat, and juggler. Because of the precariousness of his balancing act, which can result in chaos or irreparable destruction, the Juggler is often feared. People are intimidated and mesmerized by this mysterious figure, not knowing what forces control his motives. They do not realize that his power lies in being the owner of his choices and that they can own their choices, too. Some see him as the representation of God. Skeptics, however, the learned and the philanthropists of society, perceive him as blasphemous and look upon him with contempt as one looks upon a deceiver or a fool. Perhaps their reaction also belies some envy: they, too, would like to wield such power and influence.
The Juggler's number is one. One existed before any other number, and it is considered constant because its value remains unchanged when multiplied by any number. The juggler's letter is Aleph, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet, which in the Kabbalah represents spirit and matter unified as power and stability. Traditionally, the physical posture of the Juggler mirrors the shape of this letter: aleph, his torso is turned, with one arm raised toward heaven the other lowered toward the underworld. This posture symbolizes the opposing forces integrated within him, the divine and the diabolic, ergo the magician's dictum: As above so below.
The Juggler also is represented by Keter, the first Sefira of the ten Sefirot (branches) of the Tree of Life, a complex symbol that represents the spiritual emanations that grew out of God's body at the time of creation and remained linked to Him, and which, like Him, are infinite. Keter, which means 'crown,' sits at the top of the tree and symbolizes Will/Selflessness. The word Sefira relates to the Hebrew verb meaning 'to express' and to the word for sapphire, the brilliant gemstone. Sefira defines light and reveals information, and everything that happens in the spiritual world takes place through the Sefirot. It is part of a reality greater than the tangible world around us, infiltrating other dimensions such as flowers, animals, even colors of the rainbow. Keter, or the spirit of God, teaches humility by recognizing that the world is bigger than us, that we are not what we imagine but rather a part of God; and in order to recognize this, we need to rid ourselves of poses or self-created images we have adopted that distract us from our essence. The Juggler holds within all the latent possibilities humans possess to accomplish their destinies, and attentive study of this figure can unlock ways of self-knowledge.
A golden hue bathes the landscape where Leonora Carrington's The Juggler, 1954, takes place. The trickster's show begins before it starts, warning us not to be seduced by ordinary logic: truth and what is true are not the same. He is set up to impede the surrounding glow to illuminate the red stage on which he stands, built upon a flat-top mound. By blurring the boundaries of what is real, he adds to the mystery of what can be expected by the spectators who arrive in the form of giant hybrids, human-animal-plant composites. At each step, he questions our assumptions and what we understand to be factual.
In the foreground, a lion-carriage conveys a menagerie of fantastic beasts. Close to the stage, opposite the public, stands a mirror image of the juggler, part human, part animal, and a larger-than-life goat buried up to its shoulders. In the back, on the right, behind four tents, a volcano releases indiscernible figures partially concealed by smoke. Are these illusions created to deceive us or to remind us to be cautious before we decide on what is the truth? Does the interplay of imagination and fact cause such illusions? Perhaps. To know, we must forget what we have learned and then remember what we knew before we became what we are.
The master of truth and illusion begins his performance by facing the spectators, horse riders, and strollers. Legs apart and arms raised, body mirroring the shape of the Aleph, he holds above his head not the wand of the mage but an elk-horned, white and black checkered snake. The juggler is machinating what we are seeing, feeling, and thinking, forcing us to question our assumptions, to stay aware that he is not being truthful and that truth is so complex that we may not recognize it. And for all its truth, even this is not true.
The original owner of The Juggler was the English eccentric, Edward James, Esq., known primarily for his involvement in the arts, especially as a patron. James was responsible for the promotion of modern music, the creation of Les Ballets (Balanchine's first company in the West), 1933; Salvador Dalí's ill-fated Dream of Venus extravaganza at the 1939 New York's World's Fair; and of course for his Surrealist construction, Las Pozas, Xilitla, where, hidden in the jungle, he built a staircase to heaven and giant footprints leading to pools in underground caves supported by columns. Over the years, James amassed works by many artists, from Picasso to Max Ernst to Leonor Fini, but he is best known for being the first patron of Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, and Leonora Carrington. About his admiration and respect for Carrington's creativity, James wrote that "almost immediately I knew that I was with a woman whose creative and executive powers made her a full equal to the twentieth century painters [Picasso, Tchelitchew and Braque...]."
James met Carrington in Acapulco in 1944, introduced by their common friend Esteban Frances, a Spanish Surrealist refugee from the War. James also befriended many of the Surrealists exiled in Mexico, Kati y José Horna, Benjamin Perét, Remedios Varo, etc. Carrington and James eventually became good friends, and their close friendship lasted until his death. He often visited her, bringing gifts, and he even titled some of her works. But before the bond developed, she learned that parameters had to be set. Immediately upon seeing her work, Edward chose twenty paintings, for which he offered $1,000. Why pay more if she was unknown, he explained. Although Carrington had a toddler and a newborn and was barely able to pay her daily expenses, she refused to sell him a single drawing and escorted him to the door. As an apology and a peace offering, James returned with a set of sable brushes, but still she would not sell him the paintings. She soon realized that the only way to deal with James was to outsmart him. If he wanted her works, she told him, he could buy them from the gallery that represented her; however, as she had no representation, he could not buy anything. In 1947, James was responsible for bringing Carrington together with Pierre Matisse, the owner of a New York gallery, where she held her first one-woman exhibition in February of the following year. Edward acquired two paintings and a few works on paper from the show, and eventually, Carrington, though somewhat reluctant, agreed to sell him a few works directly. James continued to acquire paintings, including most of Carrington's finest works, from the Galería de Arte Mexicano, which represented her in Mexico. The Juggler was one of them. After acquiring the painting, restless and always on the move, he left it in the care of Kati Horna who, on occasion, lent it on his behalf; until one day when he gave it to her as a gift.
Salomon Grimberg, Dallas, Texas, March 26, 2008.