Leonora Carrington

Transference

1963

Artist
Leonora Carrington 1917–2011
Original title
Transferencia
Medium
Oil paint on hardboard
Dimensions
Unconfirmed: 570 × 1030 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Tate Americas Foundation, purchased with assistance from the Latin American Acquisitions Committee 2017, accessioned 2021
Reference
T15725

Summary

Transferencia (Transference) 1963 is a symbolic portrait of Dr Abraham Fortes, the psychoanalyst whom Leonora Carrington consulted in Mexico City in the early 1960s. The composition is in Carrington’s idiosyncratic illusionistic style and shows her characteristic fascination with the interaction of humans and animals. Her analyst is shown within a terracotta room at the composition’s centre and again in each of the side sections. On the left, in a chamber featuring animal-headed hybrid figures rendered like Ancient Egyptian carvings, he appears in an orange robe which spills over a fish basking in a pool. In the foreground an owl-headed creature rises from the pool holding a cup aloft in Arthurian mode. A blue cat and two green figures ascend towards the central, and most complete, portrait. Under a large spider and a small blue bat, the portrayal shows Dr Fortes enclosed in a curtained space – like a mosquito net – the transparency of which lends him a pallid appearance. He holds another bat to his chest with his left hand, and in the right holds a staff with tassels which may be a fly-whisk or a whip. In the adjacent candle-lit space (the candles being perched on the antlers of a reindeer) and below a balcony covered in esoteric signs, an array of Carringtonian animals bear witness to a figure – again Dr Fortes – being disgorged by a fish in front of a trio of witches or fates who accompany a giant bird in inspecting an infant animal in its nest. A further panel of Egyptian-style reliefs acts as a divider from the right hand section. Here Dr Fortes appears for a third time, again robed in orange, riding on the shoulders of a bushy-haired figure dressed in pink and rose, who holds a green orb. Stars and the artist’s Zodiac sign of Aries populate the evening sky beyond.

Carrington gave Transferencia to Dr Fortes shortly after completing it and it has remained in his family ever since. While alluding to the act of giving the painting away, the title of the work openly refers to the psychoanalytic process in which the patient’s neuroses are transferred to the therapeutic process itself and subjected to the work of therapy. The title seems to have been suggested by the sitter himself. The richness of the personal imagery, made more complex by Carrington’s long-standing interest in a wide range of different systems of thought and experimentation, has the effect of making the practice of therapy appear to be an almost alchemical act of transformation. In common with her other compositions of magical or esoteric figures, Carrington places Dr Fortes at the centre of a system of images of her own making. Their therapeutic relationship may be captured, not without ambiguity or contradiction, in the entrapped figure at the centre as well as in the flying couple on the right where Carrington herself may be the bushy-haired woman bearing him upwards.

Carrington’s characteristic illusionism is well-suited to rendering convincing the cerebral acts of memory, imagination and therapy that are the subject of Transferencia. Her careful drawing and luminous surfaces can be associated with an admiration for Italian Renaissance painting, in which the practice of conveying narrative through multiple renditions of the central figure is also found. Like her close friends and fellow painters, Remedios Varo (1908–1963) and Leonor Fini (1908–1996), Carrington placed her distinctive technique at the service of an imagery that lay outside what was habitually considered as rational. Her personal animal world, in particular, may be compared to that of the Early Netherlandish painter Hieronymous Bosch (living 1474–died 1516) in its mystery and occasional violence.

By 1963 Carrington was also able to draw on her long experience of surrealism, which she first encountered at the age of nineteen in the aftermath of the International Exhibition of Surrealism in London in 1936. Her understanding of the irrational was not, however, merely a manifestation of a trajectory parallel to surrealism. She had been committed to an asylum in Spain following the Fall of France in 1940. Her dosing with drugs while incarcerated against her will is recalled in the extraordinary text Down Below, written in 1943. ‘I must live through that experience all over again,’ she wrote to an unnamed friend at the beginning of Down Below, ‘because … I believe that you will be of help in my journey beyond that frontier by keeping me lucid and by enabling me to put on and to take off at will the mask which will be my shield against the hostility of Conformism.’ (Republished in Carrington 1989, p.163.) Despite a profound mistrust of doctors that the experience engendered, such a confessional reliving of the past is seen as essentially therapeutic.

Carrington made Transferencia two decades after the trauma of the Spanish asylum and in a significantly different context. Dr Abraham Fortes was a professor at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, a colleague of the German social-psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, and well-connected in the Mexican art world. In 1963 Carrington was also bringing to conclusion a major mural commission, El mundo mágico de los Mayas 1963 (The Magic World of the Mayas) for the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City (subsequently transferred to the Museo Regional, Tuxtla Gutiérrez in Chiapas). As part of her research, informed by the archaeologist Laurette Séjourné, she spent periods with the indigenous peoples of Chiapas who, she felt, retained access to beliefs pre-dating the Spanish conquest of Mexico. In the mural she depicted a creation myth illuminated by cosmic lights and resulting in an ethnically diverse humanity in harmony with the animals. Although Carrington does not allude directly in Transferencia to her contemporary research in Chiapas, the painting may be seen to share with El mundo mágico de los Mayas the achievement of a harmonious and creative position in the world that was an aspect of Frommian analysis.

Further reading
Leonora Carrington, The House of Fear: Notes from Down Below, London 1989.
Andrea Schlieker (ed.), Leonora Carrington: Paintings, Drawings and Sculptures 1940–1990, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 1991.
Leonora Carrington: The Mexican Years 1943–85, exhibition catalogue, Mexican Museum, San Francisco 1991.
Susan L. Aberth, Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art, Aldershot and Burlington, Vermont 2004.

Matthew Gale
September 2016

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Display caption

This is a portrait of Dr Abraham Fortes. He appears several times in the painting. Fortes was Carrington's therapist in the early 1960s. The title of the work refers to a process that can occur in therapy. Transference is when a patient’s feelings about one person are redirected towards another, often their therapist. Carrington also includes references to Zodiac symbols and the art of Ancient Egypt. These reflect her interest in myth, animals and symbols. She often painted dream-like scenes with figures from literature, the Bible and Greek mythology.

Gallery label, June 2021

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