Le Jeu De Marseille-A Surrealist Pack of Cards


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 CNT_FAI_flag[1]the Spanish anarchist organization CNT-FAI). The suits are: Locks (Black) to represent knowledge; Stars (Black) dreams; Wheels (Red) revolution and Flames (Red) love.

La-muse-de-lecriture-automatique-e1376434302312-550x300[1] The muse of automatic writing

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.

842232f6b2411eeb77cbd003a90118c1[1] Tarot De Marseille

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 De 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.

le-jeu-de-marseille-1[1] Genius, Sirens, and Magus of the Le Jeu Du Marseille

65 thoughts on “Le Jeu De Marseille-A Surrealist Pack of Cards

  1. Wow. That is fascinating. I guess when you’re a Surrealist and you have time on your hands, interesting things happen. Did not know that about Marseilles. Then again, since I’m Jewish, I don’t study the Tarot.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Right, well, of course you could be Jewish and do/dabble in that stuff but since it is considered heresy I try to avoid it. (I think I heard of him…did he write about a crocodile?) I would maybe want to study Kabbalah but I was instructed that only people who were truly knowledgeable of Torah law should study it. They are texts for scholarship at an advanced level. But that does interest me, certainly, anything metaphysical along those lines. It’s unfortunate that certain celebrities whose names shall not be mentioned have dragged Medieval Kabbalah to the depths of Hollywood.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Of course Brauner like all Surrealist would have been an espoused atheism anyway, they didn’t have much time for any organized religion, interesting that they were so into esoteric/occult stuff but they were looking for a third way neither science or religion…that Kabbalah stuff by Madonna with the marketing ploys is terrible

        Liked by 1 person

      3. πŸ™‚ The history of occultism/metaphysics is very interesting. I bought a book this year (haven’t read it yet) about the influence of the Occult even in the Abraham Lincoln presidency. His wife brought in a seance/clairvoyant to try to bring back their son from the dead. I thought that the writings of theosophy were very interesting but some of them were anti-semitic although perhaps not more than the average English person of the time.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Definitely racist and anti-semitic overtones in theosophy, which is strange because they would have been quite politically correct for the time but all the popular obsession at the time with racial origin makes disturbing reading these day


      5. I think though that political correctness supports/masks antisemitism as well as elitism, though, so it wouldn’t be surprising. Still, there was some really interesting things in Alice Bailey.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. I had not known that about either of them. The Strindberg online is very nice. sort of Turner-ish. I loved Miss Julie. I should find good film version of it.


      7. There is a decent enough vesion of Miss Julie by mike figgis…a little stagey for a film but still…i love the play but have you ever read the preface….virulent misogny…still I love Strindberg, I like the whole inferno period, from an occult diary is bat shit crazy


      8. I haven’t read all of those. and I was a drama major once, so should have. I’ll have to get back to it. I’m not sure if the misogyny would bother me this time around. It’s in a particular historical context, though.


      9. Inferno is a semi autobiographical novelistic telling of the time when he left his third wife (I think third) and child and fame in Sweden and Germany to become a practising alchemist (i kid you not) From the occult Diary is a diary about the nightly hallunicatory visions that he saw of a actress he was after (again i kid you not)

        Liked by 1 person

      10. Interesting. Especially that occult diary. Strindberg sounds pretty eerie as a person. Sounds like he could have been a suspect for Jack the Ripper if he’d been in London.


      11. Same with Brecht. Although there it’s much less psychological motivation than political and so on but still a great dramatist. If I could do a career over again I would have been a psychologist and someone like Strindberg was right in the thick of it.


      12. Well, that’s true. I studied him in college and we never focused on that. It’s true the same way some of those writers visited the USSR and looked the other way. Maybe Brecht was just being self-interested since didn’t they give him his own playhouse in East Germany, funded and so forth. It was a sinecure. No excuse, of course.


  2. Enjoyed the post, the cards, and your conversation with Kinneret above. As a teen, I once cut cardboard to make my own deck of cards, but I had a hard time being creative enough to make a unique deck. Also, I’m also Jewish, but secular. Study is omnivorous with me.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you as always, I enjoyed writing the post even if it is long. I like playing cards and the Tarot and it was amusing to think of the Surrealists formulating plans for the deck while the war rages outside.I like their design and the re-location of the suits as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I found this to be interesting Mr. Cake, “Surrealism as a secret society, a fraternity invisible to all except the initiated.” This does seem to be very much the case, or at least my perception. The cards that you’ve displayed are beautiful. ~ Miss Cranes

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I love cards as well… not many card games I cannot play… the conflict between the ideal world of art and the dirty reality of politics is always a conflict I think…to change the world you have to corrupt yourself… nobody has squared that circle yet

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Apart from Salvadore Dali’s paintings and Anton Breton’s revolutionary start, I knew nothing about surrealism; except when I was introduced to this unique style of writing in a short creative writing course I took a few months ago. I was quite intrigued by this style although I do believe that surrealism works better in paintings (you know due to the immediate effect it has on the mind of the viewer of course). Your blogs are really very interesting and I did spend some time today browsing through your works. Your knowledge in art is so vast that I am impressed beyond words and going by the stories you’ve written I must say you’re a very good writer as well. I just have a small request (and you’re welcome to ignore it πŸ™‚ ), can you do one blog post (more than one would be even better) on Renaissance Art. The two reasons behind this weird request are:

    (1)I kind of fell in love with the paintings I saw in the museums of Europe (mainly Louvre and Florence) in my last international trip. The Renaissance studies always had an effect on me since the school days and somehow the curiosity was piqued during my European sojourn.

    (2) I am reading a book titled ‘My name is Red’ by Orhan Pamuk these days; it is about the influence of 15 century Venetian and Frankish art on Islamic paintings. As an Indian, Islamic art is not new to me (as you probably know that Mughals had a huge effect on my country’s art and culture); but now I want to learn a little about European art too.

    Hope you won’t find my reasons too stupid.

    Have a great day!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the lovely reply. I like Surrealist writing, of course, and Surrealist painting, though I would argue that the greatest continuing impact Surrealism has is on photography and advertising.
      Regarding Renaissance art, I do occasionally write on the subject, though it isn’t something I have great knowledge on, except for certain artists and the subject of erotic art. I will be delighted to send you links. Thanks once again.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you Mr. Cake (you are a cupcake in a world full of muffins indeed πŸ˜‰ pardon me, I do have a knack to overdo cliched stuff πŸ˜› ), my weekend reading list is sorted now. And yes, I totally agree with you there that the concept of surrealism can be expressed and portrayed best in photography and advertising.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you….hmmm not sure I am a cupcake, I am a very serious person, but I will take your compliment with good grace. I look forward to hearing your comments, Miss Piyali.


  5. I searched about this deck because I’m reading a memoir if a guy who was there when it was designed. He says that they couldn’t acquire the Marseilles tarot deck, so they decided to make their own. The book is called the art of resistance by Justus Rosenberg. It’s a real good read.

    Liked by 1 person

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