The Tuesday Newsletter (9.7)

A history reset, Tarot as performance, artists remake the Tarot, and--

The following was not part of my plan for September content—so I’m starting off the “new routine” by departing from it! But I have a good reason.

Yesterday, I started revising and updating the final chapter from Part One of The Tarot: History, Mystery, and Lore. It picks up after the splintering of the Golden Dawn, and covers the period from 1925 to 1975.

On the upside, I’ve come a long way since 1450! And if you’ve missed any of the episodes up to now, here’s a set of quick links.

The process has reached a turning point, however. “Revision” of previous chapters presented some challenges (like improvements for online reading, and relaxing the rather dense original style), but there wasn’t a whole lot of “updating” required. Even though the last couple of decades have produced more details about the history of Tarot before 1900, the fundamental outlines have remained intact.

But it turns out there is a lot more to be known now about the four characters who make up the first part of this chapter: C. C. Zain, Paul Foster Case, Manley P. Hall, and Israel Regardie.

At the time I wrote HML, there was little information about these folks, and not much interest. Since then, however, three of them have been the subject of substantive biographies. And taking these newer sources into account, I find that my original text is not just inadequate, or slightly off. Some of it is flat-out wrong.

Once I started trying to correct and expand the biographical information, the whole structure fell apart—so I’ve essentially written a completely new chapter. And I feel honor-bound to get it “out there” right away.

So I’ll be posting the first part of “Transforming the Tarot” here on Substack tomorrow, and will share the link on Thursday. But if you absolutely can’t wait, the draft is available now on Medium. (It got very long, though, so be forewarned.)

This whole experience has reminded me once again of how the study and practice of Tarot has changed in the 21st century. There’s a great deal to be said for the increased amount and availability of historical and scholarly materials, of course. But some other changes are not so sanguine.

That’s an un-cheery topic, however, so it’s postponed to the Thursday MoonLetter. In the meantime, I’m going to carry out a previous promise to make some of the oldest EP material newly accessible. Here are three items that fit the Tuesday SunLetter model of Art/Lit/Practice.

First: Performing the Tarot

Aura CuriAtlas was founded in 2013 to “find magic in ordinary situations, presented in unusual ways.”  Blending dance, theatre, and acrobatics to tell stories, the company takes its unusual name from the combined qualities of lightness (Aura), strength (Atlas), and play (Curiosity).

Given the adventurous spirit of Aura CuriAtlas, it’s not surprising that in 2019 they decided to translate the 22 Major Arcana cards of the Tarot into a work of performance art—bringing to life the essential symbolism of the cards, through acrobatics and dance.  

The show begins with The Deck, a performance of all 22 cards in their traditional order.  Here are three sample photos to give you a flavor of the presentation:

In the next part of the show, The Readings, a member of the audience was invited to draw a set of cards on behalf of the whole group.  The company would then perform those particular cards in a new order and context, specific to that audience.  

The creative principals of Auri CuriAtlas are faculty members at William & Mary University. Dance professor Joan Gavaler choreographed The Fool and The World, which was performed to original piano music composed by music professor Sophia Serghi. And it’s worth noting that this was not their first Tarot-related collaboration.

In fact . . . “you can think of these as branches on a tree,” Gavaler said of their ongoing projects. Gaveler and Serghi take a Jungian view, focusing on symbolism and the awakening of unconscious material.

Visit here for more about their approach—and further insight into the wide range of creative ideas that can be generated by Tarot.

Second: Artists Remake the Tarot

In 2011, the UK’s Focal Point gallery put together an exhibition titled “Outrageous Fortune: Artists Remake the Tarot.” And curator Andrew Hunt’s idea for organizing the show was as complex as a Tarot reading.

  • Each artist from a selected group was asked to recruit five more artists—creating a randomized group with unpredictable connections.  Each of the resulting 78 participants was assigned a Tarot card, based purely on chance, and was asked to create a work inspired by the card.

  • Artists were free to use any medium, but almost all submitted paintings. Works were required to measure 428 x 285 mm (roughly 11 x 17 in).

  • The show itself was arranged in three gallery rooms, and in each room there was a posted list of the Tarot cards for that room, in their traditional order.  The art works were displayed in the same order—so visitors had to match the card on the list to the art on the wall.

Echoes (often distant) of essential Tarot ideas and iconography were the only common denominator of the show’s artworks, which range from minimalist graphic prints to complex collages to manipulated photographs. Some of them bear an obvious—even super-obvious—relation to the assigned Tarot card, while others could not possibly be matched to the assigned image without following the map.

But all of them are fascinating, in the sense that they represent how artists unfamiliar with the Tarot take a limited amount of information about a single card, and create in their own style a small work intended to reflect that card.

There’s no coherent album of the show online—and the booklet that evidently went with it seems oddly mixed up, at least in the version I saw. The artworks were reproduced in a conventional deck format, with the 1000 numbered copies distributed by seemingly random means. And if there’s one of them still to be had somewhere, I couldn’t find it.

But! I’ve matched up a few of the artworks with their assigned cards, so you can get a small idea of the show’s diversity.

“The Hanged Man” by Dawn Mellor

“Death” by Simon Popper

“Nine of Swords” by Mike Nelson

“King of Wands” by Dan Rees

“Two of Pentacles” by Adam Chodzko

“Ace of Chalices” by Anna Barriball

“Five of Swords” by Ruth Ewan

So that’s a very brief virtual tour of the show, which traveled to several different galleries and caught attention among UK art-lovers. Some of the artists contributing to the show were very well-known—including Suzanne Treister, whose Hexen 2.0 project is described at more length in this story.

Third: Recreating a Tarot Legacy

If you are intrigued by very early Tarots, you might want to own a facsimile copy. The Visconti-Sforza deck has been available for many years, of course, and commercial versions of the Marseilles type are plentiful. But if you’d like something special — consider a hand-crafted deck from Tarot Sheet Revival.

These very old designs have been seen mainly in stained and faded sheets, barely salvaged from the scraps used by bookbinders. So I didn’t really appreciate their aesthetic interest until I visited the TSR website.

Through painstaking craftsmanship, TSR is recreating printed Tarot decks as they would have looked centuries ago, when the designs were fresh and vibrant.

Here’s how they do it:

Tarot Sheet Revival is a research laboratory for the rediscovery and implementation of techniques inspired by master cardmakers and wood engravers. A variety of tailor-made techniques, preparations and materials contribute to the creation of each TSR tarot — including:

  • original engravings

  • natural glues from ancient recipes

  • hand-glued cards made from laminated sheets

  • hand-cut stencils and hand-painting

The result seems much richer than other facsimiles I’ve seen — and you can watch their new work in progress on Facebook. You can also read more about the artist behind TSR, and how the cards are created, in this article from Tarot Heritage.

As always, thanks for reading! And if you haven’t visited the new surveys page, I hope you will.

Warmest regards, Cynthia