Text By Roger Winstanley
It could be argued that there are three significant moments in the development of contemporary tarot as we know it. Firstly, it can be traced back to the end of the 19th Century with the formation of gentlemanly esoteric organisations that met to discuss various aspects of spiritualism and ritual magic. This culminated in the first modern tarot deck, known as the Rider Waite Smith Tarot designed by visionary illustrator Pamela Colman Smith, under the guidance of A.E Waite and published in 1909. Secondly, with the advent of the counter-culture in the 1960s, hippies and beatniks absorbed the spiritual aspects of the tarot and were fascinated by its potential for self-exploration and freeing up the mind. It was at the end of the 1960s that Aleister Crowley‘s Thoth Tarot first became known to the public though it had been created much earlier – again, by a woman, Lady Frieda Harris – a deck very much seized on by the children of the Aquarian age with its art deco aesthetics, projective geometry and densely symbolic references. Thirdly, now, with increased access to self-publishing and the growth of kickstarter funding campaigns, tarot has never been so accessible. New and diverse voices are seeing in tarot a vehicle for many of the changes and the questions regarding identity that society is now facing. Tarot is truly having its moment.
While the roots of tarot can be traced back to early 15th Century Italy where it was available only to a very small elite, we are now seeing increasingly diverse voices making tarot their own. Each generation has, to a certain extent, done this and the constant symbolic reworking, adapting and creating new connections is what has allowed it to survive, albeit in various guises. The basic tarot deck, it’s worth stating here, has remained largely the same since inception – structurally at least. There are 78 cards, including 22 Trumps or Major Arcana (these are the famous archetypes; Death, The Hermit, The Lovers etc) and then the 56 Minor or pip cards (four suits numbered one to ten, court cards, broadly similar to a contemporary playing card deck). Give or take a few minor variations, a deck must have this in order to be considered tarot. Anything else is an oracle. Curious and readable in its own way, but not tarot.
It is often a surprise to people that the fortune telling aspect of tarot is relatively recent. Prior to the 20th Century tarot was mostly a betting game. Yet even this fortune telling aspect has now undergone a certain transmutation. Maree Bento, in the introduction to her deck The Lua Tarot quotes Philippe St Genoux’s take on how tarot has slightly changed its course; “When you drop the idea of predicting the future, you start to experience the cards as a mirror of the psyche. That’s when playing with the tarot becomes a path to wisdom.” This is where tarot is currently at; less fortune-telling, more as a tool for meditative, introspective, therapeutic purposes, self-knowledge and, above all, as a highly structured framework for creativity and art.
It is these aspects which a recent Taschen publication explores to dramatic effect. The first volume in a new series The Library of Esoterica, published last year, is dedicated to tarot. The sort of beautifully illustrated, desirable art publication for which the German publishing house is famous. What strikes me immediately about this book is how certain images which are only known in card format, when amplified, can be taken as richly detailed and decorative artworks in their own right. It is easy to get drawn in and contemplate the imagery and reflect on the symbolism. This has always been the base line of modern tarot reading – our private response to the iconography is what the card means. Everyone can make the card depictions their own and nobody should feel tied to any authoritative meanings. This is the starting point for analysing ourselves and the world that surrounds us. The book also has a number of tarot designs which are not from any actual published or complete deck, but nevertheless stand alone as timeless archetypes – Love, Strength, The Moon – and hold an enduring fascination for artists. It stands as an inspiring showcase for tarot design with a large proportion of the images included from the last decade thus reflecting more current trends.
Uusi, a Chicago-based studio, are among the contemporary artists included in this volume; key players in the recent tarot renaissance who refer to the cards as a timeless, contemplative objects that have now moved “out of the New Age dungeon and back into the modern world”. Their Pagan Otherworlds Tarot mixes shamanism, European folklore and a return to nature in their starkly refined oil painted images – much sky, emptiness, clouds and space for contemplation.
Beyond this publication by Taschen, there is a huge range of contemporary tarot art out there; Portuguese American deck creator Maree Bento’s Lua Tarot is unusual in the way it manipulates obscure 19th Century engravings and is an attempt to create deck which appears at first glance historical yet is contemporary in its diversity and inclusiveness, containing some Afro-American court cards and changing some of the Christian iconography which some traditional tarots have (for example – no Judgement card, but Evolution, making it more valid for all).
Another contemporary artist who was not included in this volume but whose projection has been considerable, is Courtney Alexander, an artist exploring the narratives of her identity as a fat black queer femme. Almost immediately after graduating in Fine Arts she crowdfunded her mixed media Dust II Onyx painting series as a tarot deck, raised $30,000 dollars to publish it then raised another $50,000 for a second edition once it had quickly sold out. A spectacular achievement. The deck reflects a rich variety of gender expressions, cultural influences and icons from pop culture with the aim of making every black person feel included and as a way for the artist to rethink her own connection with darkness, blackness and healing since, as she says, it is from darkness that our entire universe was born.
These are just a few of the artists who are re-framing and rethinking tarot right now, finding meaning in a racing, impersonal, technological world, seeing in this age old structure and iconography a place for all identities to find expression and as a mirror to question the shifting values of 21st Century life.