The History of Tarot Art

The History of Tarot Art

Holly Adams Easley and Esther Joy Archer
Bellevue, Wash.: Epic/Quarto, 2021. 256 pp., casebound with slipcase, $50.

Many have spoken of the occult revival of the 1960s. Fifty years later, it seems more accurate to say that the occult revival merely started in the 1960s, because it has continued in full force since then.

The History of Tarot Art illustrates this trend. It surveys the art of the Tarot from the earliest exemplars in the fifteenth century to the edgy creations of today, showcasing a burgeoning range of decks that elude any comprehensive account, particularly in the last fifty years.

The book begins with the fifteenth-century Visconti Tarot, which had its origins in the ducal court of Milan, and proceeds to the Sola-Busca Tarot, from a slightly later era, and the only deck of the period to have surviving exemplars of all twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana. As the authors point out, the Sola-Busca deck influenced many of the images of the Minor Arcana in the most famous Tarot of the English-speaking world: the Rider-Waite deck.

 Another chapter describes the sixteenth-century Tarot of Marseille, whose crude, woodcutlike images are often believed to deliver the most accurate version of the archetypes behind the cards.

The authors go on to explore the cards’ occult dimensions, which came to public attention in the eighteenth century with the French savant Antoine Court de Gébelin and were developed in the nineteenth century by another French savant: Éliphas Lévi.

Further chapters discuss the familiar Rider-Waite deck, created in 1909 by the British occultist A.E. Waite and the illustrator Pamela Coleman Smith. The authors contend that Smith was enough of a force in its creation that it should be renamed the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. Another chapter discusses the expressionistic Thoth Tarot, designed by another British occultist, Aleister Crowley, in collaboration with Lady Frieda Harris (a Co-Mason).

The later part of the book will be of greater interest to Tarot lovers, who will for the most part be familiar with the well-established decks discussed in the first chapters.

The authors introduce us to the New Agey Aquarian deck; the Morgan-Greer Tarot, with its richly saturated colors; the Motherpeace deck, with its round cards; the Druidcraft Tarot; and the bizarre Deviant Moon deck, whose figures resemble hungry ghosts as conceived by Tim Burton. The authors also spotlight other decks, such as the alluring Spacious Tarot, which “invites you to explore the depths of yourself and the archetypes found in tarot through the lens of the natural world.”

The contemporary decks and images are evocative and for the most part well-chosen. But even the authors’ best efforts cannot hide the fact that there is a lot of bad Tarot art in the world, as revealed in the last chapter, “Contemporary Tarot,” which samples some representative decks from the past decade. They are of uneven quality. Many are whimsical, such as The Golden Girls Tarot, featuring characters from the popular eighties sitcom; others, like the Fifth Spirit Tarot, portraying “a cast of people who do not adhere to traditional gender binary,” are earnest but ineptly executed.

 As the authors note, “it wasn’t easy to narrow down 600 years of tarot art into just a handful of influential decks for this book,” but they have done an admirable job, describing the multifarious images in a cheeky but well-informed style. As a bonus, pockets in the rear flyleaf provide the full array of the cards of the Sola-Busca Major Arcana. This handsome and well-designed book will attractively adorn the coffee tables of many Tarot lovers.

Richard Smoley