This two-volume book considers tarot from every possible angle: popular culture, occult theory, academic history, literary analysis and artistic commentary. I hope my brief summary of the articles will inspire you to purchase this major contribution to tarot studies.
Volume I offers a good foundation in tarot history.
The late Sir Michael Dummett surveys tarot from its 15th-century beginnings as a card game, to its appropriation by French occultists in the late 18th century.
Robert Place delves deeply into the iconography of the earliest hand-painted decks and discusses the trump sequence as a neoplatonic ascent of the soul. He also describes the first set of trump cards we know of, by the Duke of Milan’s astrologer Marziano de Tortona, which Place is currently re-creating. (Examples can be seen on his facebook page.) Read more
Lotería is a bingo-like game played in Mexico and the southwestern USA with a game board and a deck of 54 cards. Recently, I saw an exhibit of these cards at a local museum of Mexican folk art, and was surprised to learn that the deck began with a 15th-century Italian board game, and that several cards are very similar to tarot trumps.
The card images have a compelling, iconic quality thanks to more than 300 years of being distilled through European and Mexican folk culture. Several cards share names with tarot: Sun, Moon, Star, Angel, and Devil. Two cards resemble their counterparts in the 1664 Mitelli deck: World as Atlas holding up the globe, and Death as a standing skeleton with a scythe. Read more
I was going to give this book a glowing review (Astrology, Magic, and Alchemy in Art by Matilde Battistini). It’s chock full of gorgeous art on glossy paper (mostly medieval and Renaissance, but ranging from the Greeks to Surrealists) covering dozens of topics from Athanor to Zodiac. But when I got to the tarot section, my spirits sank to my toenails. I was going to revile the Getty Research Center for sloppy scholarship, but on closer inspection I see that the J. Paul Getty Museum merely printed an English translation of an Italian book originally published in Milan in 2004. It’s even more disheartening to realize that this material, coming from tarot’s birthplace, completely ignores the deck’s Italian origins in favor of half-baked French occultism passed off as historical fact. Read more
Cleo from 5 to 7, The French New Wave film directed by Agnes Varda in 1962, begins with a lengthy card reading scene that’s a lesson in what not to do when you see bad news in the cards.
The film follows a woman as she wanders around Paris for two hours trying to distract herself while waiting for the results of a biopsy. Cleo starts her sojourn by visiting a middle-aged woman to get her cards read. The reader spreads out nine cards from Le Grand Jeu de Mlle Lenormand, three each for past, present and future. It’s nothing but happy news until she gets to the last few cards. As the message gets darker, the reader gets more flustered and distressed and is obviously not saying everything she sees; which, of course, makes Cleo suspect the worst. Read more
A few weeks ago, I saw the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcast of their stunning new production of Parsifal. The name means “Pure Fool,” and the story takes us on a fool’s journey from ignorance to transcendence. I couldn’t resist looking for other tarot archetypes in the opera, and I wasn’t disappointed. Every major character reminded me of a tarot trump. Read more
Tarot archetypes appear in the art of several women surrealists currently on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The closest to an actual tarot card is The Lady Magician by Sylvia Fein. The magician’s table is draped in a white cloth and scattered with perfume vials, shells, a framed picture, paint brushes standing in a glass vase, and a feather in a little glass bottle. I wonder if the card with the large border that’s tucked under the cloth is a Tarot card. Sylvia Fein was born in 1919 and calls herself a magical realist. Her website with examples of her work is at SylviaFeinPainter.com.
If the upright tarot tower is about destruction, is its opposite meaning construction? The Flutist by Remedios Varo turns tarot imagery on its head by levitating fossil-embedded stones and setting them in place using the power of the flute’s vibrations. This tower has eight sides to represent the musical octave, and the flutist’s face is inlayed with mother-of-pearl to signify enlightenment and the ability to co-create the universe. Varo modeled her tower on a planetarium built near Mexico City by the disciple of a Russian mystic. Read more
You know Tarot has made it in the mainstream art world when a contemporary deck is given its own exhibit at the venerable Uffizi Museum.
Art News magazine just gave the deck a one-page spread in its March 2012 issue to announce the book, Francesco Clemente: The Tarots, published by Hirmer and available on Amazon for $33.00.
Clemente is an Italian artist based in New York City who studied tarot history and learned to read the cards before creating his deck. He’s quoted in the New Yorker as saying “I never imagined how similar the activities of reading the tarots and painting a picture are. In both cases, there is the effort to be completely present, and at the same time, to remove completely oneself from the picture.” Read more
Have you ever wanted to meet the folks who created the first Tarocchi decks and played Trionfi back in the 1400s? You can come face-to-face with many of them in an exhibit now up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City — The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini. This exhibit focuses entirely on Italian portraits of the 15th century and includes many names that will be familiar to tarot history fans.
There’s Filippo Maria Visconti, who commissioned the first gilded and painted decks, and his daughter and son-in-law Bianca Maria Visconti and Francesco Sforza who commissioned the Visconti-Sforza deck from Bonifacio Bembo, the artist who most likely did the matching portraits of the couple in the exhibit. Also on display are their descendents Galeazzo Maria Sforza and Ludovico Maria (Il Morro) Sforza who raised Milan to its pinnacle of splendor. Read more
Whenever I go to a museum, I make a point of searching the medieval exhibits for International Gothic art that resonates with the Visconti-Sforza deck. A recent chilly (by Los Angeles standards) Sunday at the Getty Center yielded three finds in one room.
The artist Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427), the epitome of Italian International Gothic, flourished at the time Tarot was invented and just before Italian aristocracy began commissioning their elaborate hand painted decks. Aristocrats wanted to see an idealized version of themselves and their elegant world reflected in their art. Rich colors, glittering surfaces and intricate patterns were hallmarks of the International Gothic period, when artists reproduced in paint the feel of velvet brocade and the look of clothing intricately embroidered with gold thread. Read more
French-American Artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) is having a retrospective this month at the Nohra Haime Gallery in New York City. So, this seems like a good time to talk about her iconic Tarot Garden, an installation of twenty-two monumental sculptures depicting the major arcana. Read more