Carrington’s Self-portrait (c.1937-8)

The art of Leonora Carrington is mysterious if only because she was a surrealist, a style said to be largely indecipherable because it depicts an artist's inner world. Yet, as I show on this site, most great art had long depicted a mental self-portrait. Indeed there was little new about Surrealism except the style and apparent subject matter which, it is true, appealed to a modern audience newly familiar with psychoanalytical concepts. If seen through the paradigm we use here though, that art is based on perennial wisdom known since antiquity, surrealist painting no longer looks so open-ended as many think. Indeed a recent monograph investigates her interest in esoteric matters, in alchemy, kabbalah, and other related subjects, all part of that tradition.1

Carrington, the daughter of an English textile magnate, lived with the Surrealist painter Max Ernst from 1937 to 1940, the period in which this self-portrait was produced. She was only just twenty and the work remained largely unknown until 1976. Sometimes titled in the literature as The Inn of the Dawn Horse, it is now an icon of art by 20th century-women.

Study it for a moment. A white rocking-horse floats above the artist and seems to be repeated as a live animal in the window framed by gold curtains. (Canvasses are often gold-framed while windows have symbolized paintings since Alberti's 1435 treatise on the subject.2) Carrington wears jodhpurs for riding, white like the horse, while a triple-breasted striped hyena looks out of the image as she does, one leg raised like her arm. The floor is tiled like a squared-up painting-in-process3 and, despite the exotic chair, she resembles a distracted artist at an easel.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Carrington, Self-portrait, sometimes known as The Inn of the Dawn Horse (c.1937-8) Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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Flowing hair, from at least Titian onwards, has symbolized the texture of an artist's brush.4 Hers, though, is angled and perhaps even shaped like the prancing horse above her. Just as artist and hyena are linked through her raised painting-arm so horse and artist are united through her hair and jodphurs. She has the mane it lacks. Each animal is thus a transformation of the shamanic artist herself. A nugget of perennial wisdom, it illustrates that everything in our thoughts is processed through our own ideas, personality and prejudices.  

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Carrington's Self-portrait

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A closer look at her coiffure, if you can call it that, reveals an unseen face. You will be one of its first viewers. A single wide-open eye, a nose and lips are clearly visible (click image to enlarge). The hidden 'face", a pervasive but virtually unknown feature of great art, probably depicts her much-older companion, the artist Max Ernst whose wayward hair (below) resembles the wayward ends she painted as her own. He looks over her shoulder as Picasso said the great artists of the past looked over his. She thus imagines the force behind the creative process, the "mental image" of his face fused with her "painted" head, visual poets united, male and female, in one androgynous mind.5

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail and diagram of Carrington's Self-portrait
Bottom: Photograph of Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington (c.1938)

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Another "face", more approximate but perhaps his again, recurs in her dressed torso, one eye in the lapel of her green jacket.6 She might be implying that the more precise (mental) image in her hair originally arose inside her mind allowing us to see, metaphorically, two different stages of the creative process. Her vest's circular neck, wide and accentuated, is above and between the face's two "eyes". Thus, it may represent the inner eye of imagination. (Circles symbolized such "eyes" in early diagrams of the brain and artworks too.)7 Her head then, which in being realistic resembles a painting, emerges from that creative eye like the Baptist's head on a platter.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail and diagram of Carrington's Self-portrait

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Carrington sits in her mind (the room) while her imagination of the horse is transformed into the framed "painting" in nature on the far wall. All is in process. Posed as an artist, her fingers "measure" out - and in an illusion touch - the squared spaces of her painting (right). The other hand folds over the seat, its fingers "becoming" the folds of the blue fringe below. (Click it to enlarge) The legs of the chair are her shoes. The end of its little blue arm echoes her hand (and an animal's claw) which is linked by the blue strip to the round decoration above, "hand" and "eye" united.

See conclusion below

 

Captions for image(s) above:

Two details of Carrington's Self-portrait

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Isolated within the conventional view of Surrealism, Carrington's self-portrait like much Surrealist art can appear impenetrably dense. Yet when united with the art of its predecessors, regardless of style, more can be seen than imagined.

More Works by Carrington

Notes:

1. Susan L. Aberth, Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art (London: Lund Humphries) 2004

2. Alberti wrote in Della Pittura that "painting is like a view through a window."

3. Artists often square-up drawings and blank canvases to help transfer a composition on a smaller scale to a larger size.

4. See, for instance, Abrahams, Titian’s Mary Magdalene(s) (c.1530-60).

5. In Portrait of Max Ernst (1939) Carrington depicted her companion as a shaman. Shamans, in essence, were and still are spiritually-sensitive guides for those that need help. They are known for their wisdom. Their painted images, like those in Neolithic caves, often depict animals floating on a wall. They float to symbolize that they are not real but are images of the shaman's ability to transform himself and move magically between one reality and another. Carrington's horse, even though a rocking-chair, seems to emulate such symbols. In addition, given Dante's enormous influence on her predecessors, she may have imagined the much-older Ernst as Virgil to her Dante, her spiritual and artistic guide.

6. Green is the traditional color of fertility in art. There are many examples on this site.

7. See Abrahams, Michelangelo's The Dream of Human Life (c.1533).

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 05 Sep 2013. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.