During the 1930’s Surrealism expanded outside Paris. Despite defections, internal discord and excommunications, Breton’s genius at spotting and recruiting talent, plus major exhibitions held in London and New York meant Surrealism had become a truly global movement.
However by late 1940 with Paris occupied by the Nazis and a puppet government in place at Vichy, Breton and other fellow surrealists were holed up in a mansion in Marseilles waiting to go into exile to America. Max Ernst was also there after having been first interned as a German national by the French and then by the Gestapo as a degenerate artist. Leonora Carrington was down below in a psychiatric institute in Madrid. Pierre Unik would end up in a concentration camp, from which he managed to escape from, only to then vanish into thin air.
While cooling their heels the Surrealists concentrated their energies on…well, re-designing the standard deck of playing cards. Away with royalty, the court cards were banished and replaced by figures of Genius, Siren and Magus. Each new figure comes from the surrealist pantheon. Sade is the Genius of Wheels, Alice (of Wonderland fame) is Siren of Stars and Novalis is Magus of Flames etc. The suits are neither traditional playing card suits or the tarot suits but are re-fashioned in surrealist manner, though the usual two black/two red colour scheme is retained (there was no reason to change colours with such strong revolutionary links, see the flag of the Spanish anarchist organization CNT-FAI). The suits are: Locks (Black) to represent knowledge; Stars (Black) dreams; Wheels (Red) revolution and Flames (Red) love.
So far, so surrealist. However although the commitment to revolution is as strong as ever, there is a notable lack of political figures represented. Hegel is the Genius of Locks but his most famous disciple Marx is left out. Sade is represented as the Genius of Wheels but then Sade for the Surrealists was always the apostle of total freedom. Pancho Villa as the Magus of Wheels is the only figure whose fame rests sorely on revolutionary politics. In contrast two occultist feature, Helene Smith, the muse of automatic writing and medium as the Siren of Locks (incidentally,the only Siren that isn’t fictional, but that is a debate for another time) and Paracelsus the Renaissance doctor and occultist as the Genius of Locks. This would suggest that Surrealism was moving away from direct political action and towards the occultation that Breton had posited in the Second Manifesto as the real goal of the movement. Given the Surrealist’s split with the French Communist Party (PCF), the show trials in Moscow, the Spanish Civil War, Trotsky’s assassination in Mexico City and the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, a level of disillusionment is understandable. Breton sincerely wanted Surrealism to be more than just another art movement, to achieve a radical transformation of life, which he believed best effected through collective membership in a Party dedicated to revolutionary action, however Surrealism was never to square the circle of blindly obeying Party diktats and retaining artistic autonomy.
The fact of being in Marseilles may have suggested and lent an occult slant to the whole enterprise, as the very name given to the deck, Le Jeu Du Marseille, acknowledges their awareness of the Tarot De Marseille, one of the oldest and most copied of all Tarot decks. Although Le Jeu Du Marseille is limited to the standard 52 cards plus 2 jokers (Jarry’s Ubu Roi) and the major arcana is excluded, the Marseille reference certainly suggests that one of its many purposes is divinatory.
Although it may initially strike us as odd that with France occupied, Europe at war and their own future so uncertain that the Surrealists should occupy their time in playing around with card design, it is entirely in keeping with Surrealism’s founding tenets, as well as pointing towards its future direction. The seriousness of games, the primacy of play over work, imagination re-claiming its rights. In the years of exile to follow and the post-war period the increasing importance of the esoteric: alchemy, Tarot and hermeticism. Surrealism as a secret society, a fraternity invisible to all except the initiated.