Art books

The art of tarot, from the Renaissance to today

Tarot has had a resurgence in popularity in recent years. But the iconography of this centuries-old occult practice is constantly evolving with each new generation of artists

As tarot enjoys a 21st century renaissance, a new book explores the artists behind the cards' storied imagery that has its roots in 14th century Italy. The first volume from Taschen's Library of Esoterica—a series that will document creative ways humans seek spiritual connection—Tarot offers a lushly illustrated compendium of more than 500 cards from Italy's Northern Renaissance to today, many of which are rarely published. Additionally, original works of art from around the globe reproduced alongside the cards and essays by art historians, esoteric scholars and tarot practitioners such as Jessica Hundley, Thunderwing, Johannes Fiebig and Marcella Kroll contexutalise the cards as part of a rich artistic and creative tradition that is nothing short of divine.

renaissance

The first known references to tarot all date to the early Renaissance and are centred around Venice, Milan, Florence and Urbino in Italy. From one of the oldest known tarot decks, this hand-painted and gold-leafed card is believed to have been commissioned by the former Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza, from the studio of artist Bonifacio Bembo. Only around three decks survive from this era and other examples of Bembo's designs can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

hermit

The legacy of tarot still permeates Northern Italy especially, and artists like Osvaldo Menegazzi, based in Milan, continue to innovate on the original imagery. Though he does not read tarot himself, Menegazzi is immersed in the history and symbolism of the cards and has developed a number of deck designs influenced by traditional iconography and more modern artistic movements. This pared down, surrealist deck from the 1970s is inspired by the sacred geometry of seashells.

hanged man

The practice of tarot was certainly not limited to Italy, although in its early days its application was predominantly reserved for courtly company. These 15th century French cards were once believed to be a commission to the artist Jacquemin Gringonneur at the bidding of the so-called "Mad King" Charles VI, who suffered numerous mental breakdowns during his reign, though historians now believe the works are the creation of an anonymous artist.

rider waite smith

Tarot became more of democratic divination tool in the late 19th century with the rise of occultism in the Victorian era. But it was the creation of the Rider Waite Smith deck in 1910 that propelled the archaic practice into the modern mainstream. While some imagery remains similar to that found in earlier decks, much of the Christian references were toned down. For instance the "Pope" card became the "Hierophant" and the "Papess" became the "High Priestess". The Sun card, which would have had Christ-like connotations in early decks, instead is reworked into a more general representation of health and abundance.

pamela coleman smith

Indeed, our contemporary understanding of tarot is largely informed by the iconic imagery created by Pamela Coleman Smith for the Rider Waite Smith deck. Yet the artist's name was omitted from the published cards for decades due in large part to the fact that she was a biracial woman. Born in London to wealthy American parents who had a large circle of eclectic friends, she lived for a time in New York and Jamaica before moving back to the US in 1893 to attend Pratt Institute where she was introduced to the significant styles and ideas of the day, including Art Nouveau and Symbolism, which she deftly deployed in much of her early feminist paintings and drawings.

wegmuller

Throughout the 20th century, artists took to playing with tarot in their own creative practices, finding the cards and their rich and storied imagery a playful and useful muse. The Swiss artist and krautrock musician Walter Wegmuller created vibrantly hallucinogenic tarot arcana throughout the late 1970s and early 80s. He even recorded a double concept album dedicated to the art and the record came with the full deck of neuzeit tarot, or new-age tarot.

Black Power Tarot

As tarot grows in popularity once again, artists of the 21st century have often returned to traditional designs, frequently reworking them to reflect changing attitudes to race, gender and sexuality. A collaboration between artist Michael Eaton and musician AA King Khan, the Black Power deck replaces traditional (largely white) archetypes with iconic African American musicians and artists.

cover

The Library of Esoterica's Tarot is available now from Taschen. All images courtesy of Taschen.