What lies behind artists and designers’ eternal obsession with Tarot cards?
The editor of a new book, published by Taschen, selects six of her favourite examples from her research and talks us through the history of these cryptic and beguiling designs.
For hundreds of years, artists and designers, from Salvador Dalí to the fashion designers at Dior, have returned time and again to Tarot cards as a source of inspiration. The symbolic meaning behind each card has largely remained the same over the centuries, and yet the visual interpretations of those symbols have been continually adapted, reworked and transformed in order to suit their certain time, place and culture.
This month, Taschen is publishing Tarot, a comprehensive survey of this centuries-old art form, featuring more than 500 cards and works of original art, dating back to medieval times and tracing them through to the modern day. Two-thirds of the exquisite cards have never been published outside of their original decks. The book explores the influence of Tarot on artists and designers, and reminds us of our eternal and universal search for meaning, purpose, and the divine.
We asked Jessica Hundley, the editor and author of this new survey, to select a handful of her favourite cards and to explain why these are a particularly good introduction to the history and meaning of Tarot cards. Here is her selection.
The Sun: Pamela Colman Smith & A. E. Waite, “Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot,” 1910
One of the most lasting contributions to the contemporary Tarot tradition resulted from a collaboration between two prominent members of the secret society the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Established in England in the late 1800s, the Golden Dawn was devoted to the study of ceremonial magic, astrology, the occult, and the paranormal. Many thinkers, artists, and writers of the era were members of the Golden Dawn, among them the poet William Butler Yeats and Dracula author Bram Stoker, as well artist and illustrator Pamela Colman Smith (the Golden Dawn was also one of the first secret societies to allow women). Smith was an ardent student of the occult and often practiced channelling her artwork through “visions,” long sessions of deep meditation. It was Smith, working in collaboration with poet and scholar Arthur Edward Waite, a fellow Golden Dawn member, who would essentially reimagine Tarot for the 20th Century. Colman Smith was a visionary illustrator whose reinterpretation of the arcana would revitalise Tarot and inspire countless decks to come. Her unique contributions to the seminal Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot resulted in what remains the most popular and influential deck of all time. In Smith’s Sun card, a child, naked and innocent, rides a white horse, while carrying a banner of victory. Above the child is an enormous sun, usually depicted as figurative, with a serene, paternal face. This image represents the source of all life on Earth. The card also represents childhood innocence and purity. In the background, four sunflowers grow above a brick wall. They represent the four kingdoms of nature – animal, vegetable, mineral, and human – the four suits of the Minor Arcana, and the four elements. The Sun rules over them all. This is the card of attainment and fulfilment. The Sun symbolises the clarion call of victory over darkness, of our emergence into the light.
Two of Swords: Chicome Itzquitntli Amatlapantli, Tarot Mexicayotl, 2020
The Mexican artist David Romero embraces multiple mediums and works under various pen names reflective of the particular genre of art he is creating at any moment. For his Tarot work, he uses his ceremonial name in the Mexicayotl tradition, “Chicome Itzquitntli Amatlapantli (Seven Dog Bird Wing, the date he was born and his spirit name).” His wonderful take on the arcana is depicted in his Tarot Mexicayotl (which means “Heart of Mexica” in Nahuatl, the Aztec or Mexica language, and is also the name of the Aztec religion which is still practiced in Mexico). Identified in the Aztec language, each card of his contemporary series features illustrations influenced by Aztec culture, spiritual practices and rituals.
In his translation of the Two of Swords, ancient Aztec ritual dress, Aztec spiritual symbology and language are the predominant influences. Swords here have been transformed into corn, but the symbolic meaning behind the card remains. Swords are the suit of higher consciousness, of intellect, of decisive change and focused power. Associated with the element of air, Swords symbolise an invisible yet potent strength, as air is symbolic of action, change, and masculine force. This is a card that insists we face our blocks, break down our barriers.
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Further examples: The Empress by Sebastian Haines, “The Tarot of the Golden Serpent,” 2013 (detail) © Sebastian Haines
The Hermit: Julia A. Turk, “Navigators Tarot of the Mystic Sea Tarot,” 1997
Julia Turk is the artist whose work graces the cover of The Library of Esoterica: Tarot and several selections of her incredible arcana appear throughout the book. British-born, American-based, the now 82-years-old, Turk spent decades studying Tarot and other forms of esoterica and mysticism before creating her fantastical Navigators Tarot of the Mystic Sea, which embraces androgynous figures, often in nautical settings, for an imaginative and surrealist reinterpretation of the arcana’s traditional imagery. In her accompanying text to her deck, the artist created a complex and highly original system, an arcana that references dreams, psychotherapy, and the Kabbala. Figures in the deck are executed as androgynous in order to offer a more inclusive interpretation of archetypes. As to the meanings attributed to her Hermit card, Turk explains: “You become receptive to cosmic vibrations by setting aside the demands of the ego-personality.” In the Navigator’s Tarot, Turk plays with the traditional symbolism of the card. The Hermit represents both seeker and guide. He searches for solitude. He asks for intentional isolation for solitary meditation. In many decks he is often shown as an old man standing alone on a mountaintop, holding a long staff and glowing lantern. Clad in the robes of a monk, his hood is pulled low, his beard ragged and grey. Inside his lamp, a six-pointed star shines, representing the Seal of Solomon. In Turk’s Tarot, this symbology is transformed into a more inclusive, gentle and modernised interpretation.
Queen of Cups: Peter Dunham and Linnea Gits of Uusi Studio, Eros: “The Garden of Love Tarot,” 2017
This limited-edition contemporary deck features illustrations by artist Linnea Gits, as well as detailed hand-lettering by designer Peter Dunham. Their Tarot Eros deck is inspired by the traditional iconography of the early French Tarot decks known as Tarot de Marseille, most likely introduced to France in the late 15th or early 16th Century from Italy. The earliest surviving Tarot de Marseille cards are credited to the artist Jean Noblet and printed in Paris around 1650.
Both Gits and Dunham are the co-founders of Uusi, an independent boutique printer and small press based in the US. The duo has created several extraordinary modern Tarot decks, working both together and collaboratively with various other artists. In this playful deck they combine classic archetypes with elements of the erotic. Uusi explains the inspiration behind their Eros deck as “a burlesque take on the original Tarot de Marseille. A spicy Tarot to remind us all we need is love!” Their Queen of Cups is voluptuous and flirtatious. Connoting imagination, creativity through openness, the traditional meaning of the Queen of Cups conveys a call to tap into our emotional depths, to nurture, to act with compassion and empathy.
The High Priestess: Manzel Bowman, “Manzel's Tarot,” 2017 (detail)
American artist Manzel Bowman works in digital collage and fine art mediums, creating work that resonates with themes of Afro-Futurism while exploring utopian landscapes and iconography that often take on mystic and mythological subtexts. Utilising a contemporary collage style yet drawing upon imagery of classic archetypes, Bowman creates his own highly original symbology, redefining the iconography of Tarot tradition. In traditional Tarot iconography, the High Priestess is often shown sitting between two pillars, each column representing duality, the masculine and the feminine, the negative and the positive. The High Priestess takes her place between, suggesting her role as mediator and equaliser, the central path that unites dark and light.
Manzel embraces a more abstracted vision while still capturing the symbolic qualities attributed to this card. The High Priestess is the guardian of the sacred, representing the subconscious, the hidden mysteries of the unknown. She sits at the entrance to the conscious and the cosmic, a reminder to see beyond into a deeper place, where intuition allows for truer understanding.
Strength: Michael Eaton and A. A. Khan, “The Black Power Tarot,” 2015
A collaboration between Belfast-based artist Michael Eaton and Canadian musician King Khan, the Black Power Tarot is based on the Tarot de Marseille structure and was conceived by Khan as a way to recreate the arcana with modern iconography. A long-time student of Tarot, Khan chose iconic African Americans to represent each of the figurative cards in the Tarot’s major arcana. Khan had been gifted a Marseille deck by filmmaker and mystic Alejandro Jodorowsky and both the imagery of the Marseille and Jodorowsky’s personal teachings inspired the conception of the Black Power deck. According to Khan, “The mission was to add a heavy dose of surrealistic mythos to American history by replacing the archetypes of the major arcana.”
For Eaton and Khan’s translation of Strength, they chose Tina Turner as representative of the traditional attributes and symbology associated with the card. In classic decks, Strength is shown as a woman holding open the jaws of an enormous lion. She maintains dominance over the creature, controlling its wild nature with a calming grace. Here, the lion, long a symbol of courage, is tamed by a wise and bold mistress. In some decks the woman seems to gently stroke the lion’s forehead and jaw, indicating that tenderness and love are able to quell the raging beast. The lion may also symbolise passion, raw desire, and animal instinct. This card signifies bravery in the face of adversity. Yet there is no coercion here; instead, inner strength is utilised to rise above difficulties and subdue aggression. Compassion and patience hold the key to attaining power and overcoming obstacles.
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Cover of Tarot
Spread from Tarot, published by Taschen, July 2020