When you think about it, tarot cards are kind of the perfect art form. They help us understand our past, present and future via symbolism and design. You can put them in your pocket. Take them on holiday, take them down the pub. Tarot cards are accessible, affordable, and they actually make us 'question ourselves' – bringing full meaning to one of the most overused phrases in contemporary art.
The story goes that the first tarot cards came from 15th-century Italy when Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan commissioned a deck of symbolic cards. Artists used gilded gold on the cards as a luxurious display of social and economic status for those who used them. The practice of tarot then moved through France and spread across Europe.
By the 20th century, tarot was still going strong. In 1909, artist and mystic Pamela Colman Smith created one of the most famous tarot decks to date, although sadly, her artwork was overshadowed for many decades by the man who commissioned it. Later on in the century, Surrealist painters like Salvador Dalí and Leonora Carrington also found their own affinity to tarot – both creating their own tarot-inspired art.
When I asked artist, designer and tarot reader Claire Yurika Davis about the history of tarot, she told me that the full story is not as euro-centric as it seems. "The first civilisation in our 'modern' history we could say that really did this is the Chinese. They were the inventors of paper, and they're the originator of paper-based games."
Fortune-telling has also been part of Romani culture for centuries. The Romani people played a huge role in preserving and transporting divination practices, from palm reading and crystal balls to tarot. Because of this, some have called tarot a form of appropriation.
Reach further back in tarot's history, and you'll find yourself in Ancient Egypt. "There's a lot of evidence to say that the 21 archetypes we see in tarot originate from Ancient Egypt," says Claire. "When you put [tarot and Egyptian hieroglyphics] together, it's like duh, same same." And she’s right. It really does seem obvious when you look at them – both are a series of elaborate symbols that can tell a story.
Today, tarot is more popular than ever. In 2021, it broke into the elite fashion world, taking centre stage in a short film by Matteo Garrone for Dior’s spring haute couture collection.
Marcella Kroll is one artist who’s seen attitudes towards tarot change over the decades. She’s also one of the few tarot creators who does it all. While many tarot decks are collaborations between artists and writers, Marcella reads, writes, teaches and designs. Plus, she’s an author of Taschen’s landmark book, Tarot: The Library of Esoterica.
“I think now, more and more people are finding that they need to go to alternative methods to figure things out,” says Marcella. “It's a combination of western, eastern and esoteric things because the world doesn't operate as one linear system.”
In our post-internet, post-covid, post-everything era, it's no surprise that people are looking for ways to find meaning. Tarot cards do exactly that. And the power of their visual design cannot be understated. When you connect with your tarot cards on an artistic level, you can connect much more deeply with what they share. For Claire Yurika Davis, working with a deck you don’t connect with “might deliver some base-level nutrition, but it's not an enjoyable meal.”
Luckily, nowadays there’s something out there for everyone. You can pick from AI-generated tarot readings by Russian-American artist Asya Davydova Lewis to ornate designs inspired by Catholic and Islamic iconography by Hungarian-Iranian artist Emil Aminollah Kazanlár.
A whole host of artists, illustrators and designers are creating their own tarot art. Paula Duró is an Argentinian artist who creates busy but understated cards, all hand-drawn. You can see the coloured-pencil marks in the designs, which gives a sense of intimacy. It’s like she’s made it just for you. French artist Chloé Marie Gaillard also worked with coloured pencils for her 2017 deck with Uusi Studio. Modernism meets folk art in Chloé’s bright designs on brown paper, all with a Matisse-like flair for shape and form.
The Spolia Tarot, designed by artist Jen May, has a more Dada feel. Her cards are wonderfully weird and strangely soothing collages. The colours are bright, but not in a digital way. You can feel the handmade-ness. See the edges cut by scissors. Feel the textures of old books and magazines. The surreal compositions also hark back to the sought-after 1985 tarot deck, Voyager Tarot, by Ken Knutson and James Wanless.
Many artists are changing the traditions of tarot too. In a standard deck of playing cards, there are suits, numbers and characters. In tarot, there are suits and archetypes. One deck that changes those archetypes is The Black Power Tarot, created by musician King Khan, artist Michael Eaton and filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. In the deck, the usual tarot archetypes like The High Priestess, The Fool and The Magician are replaced by prominent figures in African-American history. Nina Simone, Sun Ra and Tupac, just to name a few.
On a similar wavelength, Marcella Kroll’s deck, Dreamers, changes traditional male/female archetypes into mystical non-binary beings. The High Priestess becomes The Oracle. The Lovers become The Twins. “I just love divination and I think that tarot has come to this place because it does need to evolve,” says Marcella. “Divination systems need to evolve like people do, you know, like society needs to evolve.”
And it’s fair to say that the art of tarot is definitely evolving. For now, we can’t say exactly what’s in store for the future of tarot, but maybe next time we’ll ask the cards…
Opportunities to collect
Our latest collaboration with Pittsburgh-based artist Devan Shimoyama, Le Mat, is a beautiful re-interpretation of the The Fool card in tarot. Devan cites the work of Pamela Colman Smith as one of his key inspirations, as well as his Baptist Christian upbringing.
We definitely recommend picking up a copy of the book Tarot: The Library of Esoterica, published by Taschen.
The Met Museum take you through some in-depth tarot history in Before Fortune-Telling: The History and Structure of Tarot Cards.
In this Guardian article Elle Hunt looks at the contemporary phenomenon of tarot: When the mystical goes mainstream: how tarot became a self-care phenomenon.