The artists and designers who make today’s tarot decks
Dior’s spring 2021 haute couture collection debuted last January with a lush short film created by Matteo Garrone that opens with a tarot reading that transports its seeker to a mysterious castle populated by lavishly dressed characters from the card game. – the Fool, the Empress, an anthropomorphized Sun and Moon – which act as road signs as she walks down one hallway, then another. The short film and the looks it featured, designed by the brand’s artistic director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, were inspired in part by Italo Calvino’s 1973 novel, “The Castle of Crossed Destinies”, in which the characters lose the power of speech and can communicate only by means of tarot cards, and it was a nod to Christian Dior’s well-documented interest in the divinatory arts, on which he particularly relied during the precarious days of World War II.
By the 1940s tarot was already an age-old practice – it is thought to have originated in central Europe in the 1400s, and the oldest surviving cards come from decks commissioned in the mid-15th century by Filippo Maria Visconti, the Duke from Milano. , and his successor, Francesco Sforza, and feature detailed illustrations of nobility and gold backgrounds. These and other decks became status symbols for upper-class Italians, who used them to play an early version of bridge. The practice spread to France in the 18th century, and the cards were given mystical meanings when occultists, including the cleric Antoine Court, attempted to create an association between the tarot and ancient Egyptian spiritual thought. The connection proved fallacious, but tarot still took on a life of its own, with more and more mystics – influential British occultists Aleister Crowley and Arthur Edward Waite among them – using its decks to predict the future: the death card, for example. , could symbolize an upcoming period of radical change and rebirth, while the Temperance card could suggest a need for balance. The Waite-designed deck, which was first printed in 1909, has long been considered a good starting point for those familiarizing themselves with the Major and Minor Arcana, terms used to describe trumps and suits respectively.
It is not surprising that the tarot has also continued into the 20th century – with the advances made possible by modernity, there has been much conflict and confusion – or that its popularity has increased in the last two years, in the during which the pandemic has blurred the notions of almost everyone. of the normal order of things. The search for meaning and direction, it seems, has never gone out of style and seems particularly urgent at the present time. And even if we don’t actually believe in maps, they seem to possess an imaginative power that, in the midst of so much uncertainty, it can be difficult to access within ourselves. Who wouldn’t welcome any kind of indication as to where we might be heading right now?
One group constantly and particularly attracted to the tarot are the artists. Bridges are a kind of art object, after all, and the artists themselves are responsible for making sense of it. In the early 1970s, Salvador Dalí began working on a game with himself as a magician and his wife, Gala, as empress. In 1979, Niki de Saint Phalle began building her Tarot Garden, a grouping, in the Tuscan hills of Italy, of 22 large-scale concrete sculptures inspired through tarot imagery and adorned with mosaic and mirror tiles. One of the most remarkable is “The Empress”, an opulent, large-breasted sphinx adorned with a crown, which for a time served as the artist’s dwelling.
Today, a new generation of artists and designers are channeling their creativity into creating their own decks, ones that reflect the current times. New York artist Tattfoo Tan created his New Earth Resilience Oracle Cards as part of its New Earth project, an immersive teaching-based work that teaches users practical skills and spiritual modalities to help them cope with climate change. Although we may associate tarot with the celestial, for Tan it can be a tool for staying connected to nature and the seasons here on earth. As a result, his game features minimalist black and white sketches of fog, winter and drought. For her part, Indiana-based artist Courtney Alexander links tarot to the politics of representation. Disturbed by the number of so-called black tarot decks, or those featuring black characters, created by white artists, she set out to create one that felt more authentically inclusive. The result was her Dust II Onyx deck, whose cards are printed with ornate multimedia collage paintings of Alexander, works rooted in black diaspora stories and popular culture. She gave the King of Swords, traditionally a symbol of intellect, the name Papa Blade and the eyes of Kanye West, and the Queen of Cups, the ruler of the emotional realm, the name Mama Gourd and the eyes of poet and activist Nikki. John. “The story of Blackness deserves to be revered,” says Alexander, “and to be seen as powerful.”
Other decks nod to various art moves. For Michigan artists Linnea Gits and Peter Dunham’s Otherworlds Pagan Tarot deck, Gits studied the work of Renaissance artists like Albrecht Dürer, then produced an original oil painting for each card. (Dunham did the lettering.) The overall effect, however, is rather surreal – his reaper is a skeleton with wings made of arrows who is walking over the head of a half-buried woman holding a flower – and remember the habit of early 20th century surrealists of combining seemingly disparate objects in the hope of arriving at hidden psychological truths. (Gits and Dunham are among the artists included in “Tarot. The Library of Esotericism” , Jessica Hundley, Johannes Fiebig and Marcella Kroll’s visual art history of the practice.) And artist Isa Beniston began creating it Sweet Sensations Tarot bridge while quarantining in her Los Angeles apartment in 2020. Unable to access her studio and in need of a project, she bought new supplies from a nearby store and created hyper-colorful, Fauvist versions of the cards using gouache. She also relates to the tradition of the fair and hopes that her project will inspire not only self-knowledge, but also conviviality. “I think people are happier when they use the patio with friends,” she says. “And I love the idea that my work can be used to help build a community. That’s all an artist can really hope for.