One of the most notorious of Tarot decks due to its association with the infamous Aleister Crowley, the Thoth Tarot was designed and painted by Lady Frieda Harris under instruction from the Great Beast. In addition to referencing Crowley’s new religion of Thelema, (Do what you wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will), Lady Harris includes elements of Goethe’s theory of colour and Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy in the execution of the project.
In 1937 Crowley had asked his friend the playwright Clifford Bax to find an artist to realise his longstanding ambition of re-designing the Tarot deck along Thelemic lines After two artists failed to show Bax invited Lady Frieda, then aged 60, to met Crowley. Third time around indeed proved to be a charm and they worked together on the deck for 5 years. Crowley initiated Lady Frieda into his mystical order the A∴A∴ and Lady Frieda Harris persuaded Crowley to break somewhat with Tarot tradition in the Thoth deck. Surprisingly Crowley seemed to develop a genuine affection for Harris and she in turn was devoted to him up to and during his last difficult days in a Hastings boarding house.
Crowley re-named several of the Major Arcana from the Rider-Waite-Smith, for instance Trump XI Strength becomes Lust and Trump XX Judgement becomes The Æon. Naturally the Hebrew letter and astrological correspondences are changed because no two occultists have ever agreed on such matters. The astrological significance of the Minor Arcana is very comprehensively outlined in the accompanying Book of Thoth written by Crowley.
Most of the occult artist Austin Osman Spare‘s experiments in cartomancy were believed to be forever lost (including the ‘Surrealist Racing Forecast Card’ pack, a real shame as this covers a number of my favourite things: art, cards, the occult and gambling), however in 2013 a hitherto unknown pack of 79 hand painted Tarot cards was verified as being the work of the art nouveau enfant terrible.
Influences from the Tarot of Marseilles and the Rider-Waite-Smith decks are evident in the design, however the idiosyncratic verve and boldly brilliant use of line could only have been executed by the skillful hand and wild imagination of Austin Osman Spare.
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes.Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks.
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring,
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.
T.S Eliot The Waste Land 1922
It is no surprise really that the Tarot are mentioned at length in the masterpiece of Modernism, T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land from 1922. The notes alone are a treasure trove of esoteric references, making mention of the Cumaean Sibyl, The Golden Bough of James Frazer, the study of Arthurian legend From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L. Weston, Buddha’s Fire Sermon, Gérard de Nerval’s densely hermetic sonnet El Desdichadoand the Upanishads.
Interest in all matters esoteric and occult had become a feature of the avant-garde ever since the later Romantics, especially Charles Baudelaire and the above-mentioned Gérard de Nerval. Later in the 19th Century there would be Arthur Rimbaud with his theory of ‘the alchemy of the word’, the Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s stint in Paris as a practising alchemist, known as the Inferno Period, and various writers and painters connected to the Symbolist and Decadent movements, most notably J.K Huysmans and my personal favourite Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (see To the Dreamers, To the Deriders).
As the century progressed the Tarot became increasingly esoteric itself. This was quite a recent development, previously the Tarot had been a card game popular in Italy, France and Switzerland, though it also undisputedly used in cartomancy as well. However it was a theologian and Freemason, the Count Gébelin who first advanced the theory in 1781 that the Tarot was a repository of lost ancient knowledge, a theme developed at length by that strange figure known as Etteilla, who added that it was initially conceived by Hermes Tristemegistus himself and was actually ‘The Book of Thoth’. When the man responsible for the French Occult Revival, Eliphas Levi incorporated the Tarot into his magical system and tied the 22 cards of the Major Arcana with the 22 characters of the Hebrew alphabet, the occultation of the Tarot was complete and it became an essential tool for any would-be magician. A quick comparison between any of the older versions of the Tarot with the most famous deck, the Rider-Waite-Smith of 1910 makes this clear, the Rider-Waite-Smith is self-consciously more “mystical”, with an over-abundance of symbolism.
In certain respects the Tarot was tailored-made for Modernism and Post-Modernism, with its emphasis on chance, interpenetration and the shifting, elusive nature of meaning. I have written previously on the Surrealist take on the standard deck of playing cards, Le Jeu Du Marseille-A Surrealist Pack of Cards, and both Salvador Dali and Ithell Colquhuon produced Tarot decks. The Italian post-modernist fabulist Italo Calvino wrote The Castle of Crossed Destinies where the entire plot is told through the Tarot. The Chilean-French film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky has written eloquently on the Tarot de Marseille and weaves the arcana throughout the acid western El Topo (The Mole) and The Holy Mountain.
In Douglas Cammell’s and Nicholas Roeg’s midnight classic movie Performance, the on-the-run gangster Chas Devlin (James Fox) turns up at the Notting Hill home of the reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) claiming, somewhat inexplicably, to be a juggler. The first numbered card of the Major Arcana is sometimes called The Juggler, though it nowadays most commonly referred to as The Magician. This hermetic figure points both downward (to the underworld) and upwards (to the stars), a perfect illustration of as above, so below, and prefigures the merging identities towards the end of the movie. Turner seems to realise the import of Devlin’s claim to be a juggler as he immediately comments, ‘You’re a performer of natural magic’.
A quick word on the selection of images; there are thousands of variants on the Tarot available so I have limited myself mainly to the classics. My own preference is for the Tarot De Marseille and the Swiss 1JJ, however the most recognisable is the Rider-Waite-Smith. I have included selections from Dali and Colquhuon as well as the deck designed by Lady Freida Harris for Aleister Crowley. For a contemporary rendition Ulla Von Brandenburg’s excellent deck shows that Tarot continue to fascinate and inspire.
Count it down,
Let it begin,
So that we be finished,
Better sooner than later.
We never start something
Without wanting it over,
Done with all that,
To start on something else,
Something brand spanking
So in descending order
Because to go down
Is really an ascension
On the numbers chosen
Whether it be
696, 695, 694
93, 92, 91
Or perhaps just
(But everything has significance)
So let the countdown …
She turns over the card and pauses,
Lost in contemplation and glances
Over at the abstracted young man
Looking downwards at the table,
There cannot be any doubt, no,
Not this time for once she is sure:
She waits until his coppered stare
Intermingles with her agate rays
Before speaking, carefully considers
The weight and import of each word
“Do you see this card, Le Bateleur,
Numero uno in the pack, but neither
Aleph or alpha, although he juggles
Worlds and words, a natural Magician
With fast hands and silvered tongue,
A grifter and a shyster, but make
No mistake his quick change routine
Is as magic as magick is, all is illusion
After all and he just sells us dreams
Make believe meanings, confidences,
The glittering allure of glamour;
But through such deceptive practises
He rends and tears the veil
To reveal ultimate reality, maybe;
The workings of chance and destiny
The latent manifestation of will.
Well…can you see now?
Do you understand?”
Lowering his eyes he shakes his head
“No? Maybe you will one day,
When you look in some form
Of mirror that will reveal more
Than just the surface of things:
The entire history from the whimper
Back to the lightening strike of the start.”
I can’t believe this
I can’t believe this feeling,
In control of my desolation,
Home in the alienation.
You said you’d take me higher,
And I’m higher,
Higher than ever before
I can’t believe that
I’m seeing the blue-green orb
Ceaselessly ebbing, flowing, flooding,
Mutability the only constant
From this vantage-point
Of this Empire of Dust.
But I am tranquil in my isolation,
Calm in the knowledge,
Of this monthly death
And rebirth, the steady
Procession of waxing and waning,
Gibbous and crescent,
The fullness that must pass
Into invisibility before re-commencing
As two celestial bodies approach closer,
You take me still higher
The cycle and phases of lunacy,
Rays of translucent illumination
A ladder of fine silken threads
Leading upwards towards a point
Where I can glimpse some kind
Of knowledge, leading to communion
With the stellar inhuman intelligence,
The Alabaster Goddess
Whose light burns like ice
Through my veins to ignite in my mind
A deadly passion for her chill
Embrace over on the far dark side.
Different day a different stage set, yet another illusion conjured up by Le Bateleur. Yet the Melancholy Lieutenant had to admit that there was something beguiling about the ersatz realm of Eden Falls, this vast pile comprised of the elements and detritus of his unconscious mind; dim memories, vague recollections, submerged dreams and hopeless longings.
Well maybe to others there was nothing to see hear there and would move on right away but as he lay in bed listening to the incessant rain beat against the windows and the gables or wandered through corridors that sometimes veered and forked unexpectedly, leading to previously undiscovered and undisturbed rooms that somehow seemed caught in flagrante before hastily re-assuming an innocent expression he would be soothed and think that this was maybe the home he had searched for so long, it seemed that it was what we dream of. But no, this couldn’t be the case, for where in the world was the Ingénue? At best this was a luxurious rest stop for the weary soul of the inter-dimensional adventurer, but more probably than not a trap, a monumental fur-lined prison to facilitate an eased institutionalisation.
The Melancholy Lieutenant knew he had to be on guard, always on the look-out for clues, searching for the way out of Eden Falls. Maybe he would find the key to escape in the jigsaw puzzles, pop-up books and illustrations in the volumes lining the infinite shelves?
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. Continue reading →
Writing and magic have always been closely associated. The Egyptian God Thoth was thought to be the inventor of writing and the patron of every magical art. The considerable cultural contact and resulting overlap over the centuries because of conquest and trade between Egypt, Greece and Rome led to the deities Hermes and Mercury who shared many of the same attributes as Thoth before they all further blended together, creating the composite figure that was to later a immeasurable influence in the history of ideas, Hermes Trismegistus. At a later date and further north in what Roman writers christened as Ultima Thule, Odin, was the God of Seid (Sorcery) and, as described in the strange scene where Odin sacrifices himself to himself in Havamal, the inventor of runes which it is suggested throughout Norse mythology as being an alphabet with an inherently magical purpose. Even in modern day English the connection remains; spell needs no explanation and a grimoire refers to grammaire which is a book of Latin grammar. Continue reading →
An exceptional artist and in my opinion an even better writer Leonora Carrington was the inspiration for many of Max Ernst masterpieces, notably The Robing Of the Bride (see A Week of Max Ernst: Friday) and was in many aspects the archetypal Femme-Enfant of Surrealist desire; a dubious honour that Carrington, as one of the founding members of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Mexico in the 1970’s, found galling.
Daughter of a English industrialist and an Irish mother, Leonora identified closely with her Celtic heritage which was to play an important part in her art. She was a rebellious child and was expelled from two private boarding schools for her unruly behaviour, subsequently she was sent to Florence to study art. In 1936 at the age of her 19 her mother gave her Herbert Read’s book Surrealism and she was intrigued. When the International Surrealist Exhibition came to London Carrington visited and was struck most forcibly by Ernst’s work. Shortly after she met Ernst at a party, they were immediately besotted and so began one of the most passionate and productive of all Surrealist love affairs. The 46-year-old Ernst immediately left his second wife for the 20-year-old Carrington; however a divorce wasn’t immediately granted and a torrid love triangle ensued until the outbreak of WWII which changed the situation dramatically. Ernst was interned twice first by the French as a German national and then by Gestapo as a degenerate artist. He managed to escape with the aid of Peggy Guggenheim who later became his third wife for a short period. Leonora suffered a mental breakdown that resulted in her being institutionalised in a Madrid psychiatric hospital; a period she characterised as living on The Other Side of the Mirror. Later Andre Breton encouraged her to set down her experiences and the result was published as Down Below.
Leonora and Max met again later in New York but their wartime experiences had been too intense for their affair too continue, however they carried a candle for each other till the end of their days despite their respective marriages. Carrington ended up in Mexico City where she was good friends with Benjamin Peret’s wife and fellow Surrealist artist who shared her occultist affinities, Remedios Varos (though Frida Kahlo wasn’t impressed, she referred to them as ‘those European bitches’) and would get occasional visits from Luis Bunuel, who speaks of Carrington with genuine fondness in his autobiography My Last Sigh as well as highly praising her marvellous Surrealist novel The Hearing Trumpet. Another friend from this period was the maverick film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky who frequently stopped by to discuss the Tarot and alchemy. Carrington remained in Mexico City producing art and sculpture up until the first decade of the 21th century, becoming in the process something of a Mexican National Living Treasure until her death in 2011 at the grand old age of 94
Assia features in several of Germaine Krull’s work of the 1930’s. She was also the muse of several other photographer’s including Dora Maar, Emmanuel Sougez and Roger Schall. She also posed for Andre Derain and several sculptors including Charles Despiau whom she would sit for twice a week from 1934 to 1938.
Assia Granatouroff was born in the Ukraine in 1911 of Jewish heritage. Her family fled revolutionary Russia and settled in France in 1922. After studying textile design she began working as a model in 1930. This proved so successful that it financed a theatrical and film career. With the invasion of France she fled to Marseilles but was arrested by the Gestapo. However she managed to escape and joined the Resistance. After the war she took to producing esoteric artworks inspired by the Tarot.
The photographs of Assia have an almost sculptural quality, emphasising Assia’s full, powerful figure and the statuesque nature of her Amazonian beauty.