Graphic Structure and Card Meaning
I’ve just discovered a technique that helps me see the cards in a new light. It’s from a book written in 1973 by Fred Gettings that I just reviewed for the American Tarot Association’s Quarterly Journal. Gettings was way ahead of his time in his approach to tarot history and the Tarot de Marseilles, and is one of the first English-speaking authors to focus on this deck. I couldn’t find any biographical information on Gettings online. If anyone knows about him or if he’s even alive today, I’d love to hear about it.
Gettings’ method is all about analyzing the underlying structure of each card. When you reduce an image to its basic geometric shapes you can see how the parts relate to the whole and read astrological or alchemical symbols into the image, adding layers of meaning.
Lay a sheet of tracing paper or vellum over a card and draw the basic outlines. It’s easy to get caught up in tracing more details than you need, so I stood as far from the paper as I could and squinted my eyes to make the card even blurrier. Here’s what I got by tracing the Justice card from a standard red, white and blue Tarot de Marseilles. I was surprised to see the sword blend into the upright post of the chair and the scales recede into the background. The two most iconic details of the card quickly lost their prominence. The pans of the scale reduce to crescent moons, and the gold chain around the figure’s neck pops out. There’s something rather insect-like about the position of the chair back and her arms.
Gettings emphasized the curve of the top of the chair back and he drew the figure’s body as one large circle, making it into the symbol for Taurus (see the image at the top of the article). This is an outstanding example of emphasizing some details and suppressing others to get the result you’re looking for.
It’s even more fun to do this technique with the pips. Here’s the Nine of Coins from three different decks. The first example on the left is traced from the same standard Tarot de Marseilles as the Justice card above. The central coin is completely enclosed. Is it being protected, or smothered, or is it emerging from a cave or birth canal? The middle image is traced from an 1804 Swiss Tarot de Marseilles. It’s completely plain with just coins and no extra decoration. The central coin seems to oscillate between the two groups of four coins, or maybe it’s being tossed back and forth like a beach ball. Something new has entered the world of the Eight of Coins and they don’t know what to do with it. In the Soprafino card on the right, two stalks of vegetation aim at the central coin, setting it apart from the two squares of four coins each, making it seem special.
I didn’t see any hidden code or astrological symbols in my tracings, but this exercise helped me see card details in a new light and encouraged me to think more creatively about what those details might mean.
If you experiment with this technique, I’d love to hear what you learned from it.