The Allure of the Tarot
By John Allen, Executive Director, Coral Gables Museum
Tarot Cards. The very term conjures up images of wizards and fortune-telling, of sage readers who could foresee the past, present, and future. To those familiar with Tarot decks before the era of the printing press, they also call to mind miniature masterpieces of art, each card painted by hand with incredible detail.
While modern decks focus on their being a discovery tool of the New Age, their documented history, which dates back to the early 15th century, is far more complex. Tarot cards first surfaced in Northern Italy as early as 1418. The oldest, partially surviving deck are 15 cards from a magnificent set commissioned by the rulers of the Duchy of Milan in c.1440. From the detail of the surviving cards, one can readily understand why they were only available to the very wealthy. They were as much works of art as what they were utilized for – very complicated card games. While members of the clergy ranted against cards, primarily for their use in gambling – a popular activity at the royal courts of Europe – there was no serious condemnation of them during these early years.
Over the centuries, several variations on Tarot decks were created, with significant differences in the number of cards per deck, usually depending on which country they were created in. However, most decks had some common elements. The cards were typically divided into two types. The Major Arcana, consisting of 22 cards, were considered the most potent (and could reveal such major events as birth, marriage, and death), and the Minor Arcana, which were divided into four suits of 14 cards each – Cups, Wands (or Batons), Swords and Coins (or Pentacles), for a total of 78 cards. The terms Major and Minor Arcana were not used at the time, the cards lacked numbers, making the games played considerably more complicated than the card games we know today.
The earliest evidence of Tarot cards being used for divinatory meanings and cartomancy dates from Italy c.1750 and gained major esoteric popularity in Paris in 1789, when Antoine Con and Jean-Baptiste Alliette created the “Etteilla” deck, specifically designed for occult purposes. This deck derived from the ancient Egyptian Book of Toth.
The renowned artist Carlos Estévez has here created his own version of the Major Arcana, The “Royal Blue” Deck, which is as much a work of great art as those created over 500 years ago. It is a remarkable work, harking back to those created by some of the great masters. Enjoy!
I- The Knight
This card depicts the human being. It is the first one in the tarot and symbolizes the main element of Existence.
II- The Key
As an instrument to open doors, the key metaphorically symbolizes the realm of the senses. There are three eyes on this key’s upper part. Two of them are intended to perceive reality, and the third one is projected to see The Invisible.
III- The Walled City
This card references social life; the way in which we live, as humans, and how we gather in communities. It is also related with the parallel symbolism of the body and the soul – the body being a container and guardian of our inner world.
IV- The Movement
This card depicts a dancer. It represents the constant movement, not only of human life but also of the Universe in which we live.
V- The Time
This card, together with The Movement, represents the philosophical categories of the universe of humans. Time is a man’s invention and we use it as an important tool to organize Life.
VI- The Bridge
This card is all about connections. Connecting is key for every process to materialize. From an existential perspective, it is the element that links our ideas with their fulfillment.
VII- The Destiny
This balloon metaphorically depicts the journey of Life. Balloons are flying devices that are manually operated while they depend on the atmospheric and weather conditions, in order to fly. Travelling in a balloon represents how we humans deal with the uncertainty of Life.
VIII- The Poison
Even though it represents a snake, this card is not necessarily a negative one – the snake is also a metaphor of the struggles we have to face in our daily lives. Contradictions (the dialectics of existence) are the engine of progress. In this sense, the presence of poison symbolizes a conflict that needs to be solved.
IX- The Sea
This card represents The Unknown. When we sail in a boat, we don’t know what is happening in the deeps of the ocean. Here, the sea is a depiction of the mysteries of Life.
X- The Sky
This card depicts The Unlimited. The sky is represented by a figure in the form of a bird-airplane; the symbiotic process between nature and the mechanical world. It also alludes to human creation. Creation results from projecting ideas that we have in our brain. This process is key to human evolution; human legacy depends on it. The sky is the limit.
XI – The Essence
Within the world of insects, butterflies stand out for being incredibly beautiful and, at the same time, extremely fragile. These two elements define the essence of human nature.
XII- The Soul
This card is an allegoric depiction of the soul as a complex machinery of concentric gears. It is also an allusion to a star, or a mechanical, celestial body.
XIII- The Cross Path
This card depicts what is probably the most universal of the symbols; the crucifixion. The crucifixion represents the conflict of Existence. It depicts a human being in the middle of a crossroad; willing to make a decision on which direction to take.
XIV- The Infinite
This card, depicts the greatest of the mysteries – The Infinite; The Unreachable. In an existential way, the infinite represents the inner universe of the human being.
XV- The Storm
This card depicts the unexpected force of nature. It relates to the difficulties and obstacles in the course of human life.
XVI- The Labyrinth
This symbol depicts Life, not as straight line but in a complex path, full of adversities and problems to solve.
XVII- The Star
In the traditional tarot, the star symbolizes good fortune. Stars are an important tool for orientation when we are navigating. They are a metaphor of guidance and the sign that indicates the right path to follow.
XVIII- The Fire
The fire symbolizes the energy. It is a symbol that have a dual meaning because if seen in a negative way could be an element of destruction.
XIX- The Vision
Instead of being an illusionary approach to reality thought vision, this card refers to the power of intuition; the skill of seeing what lies behind the apparent reality.
XX- The Space
This card refers to the physical space where we live. It also depicts the connection that we create with our surrounding and the influences of the environment where we are.
XXI- The Moon
The moon is represented here as the queen of the night. It conveys the universe of the unconsciousness and the dreams, and is a symbol related with intuition.
XXII- The Sun
This card depicts the source of power. Also, it represents the guidance of the cycle of Life. The sun is a symbol of the human heart.
The Royal Blue Tarot: An interview to artist Carlos Estévez by his friend and collector, José Valdés-Fauli
In July 2016, I went to France to visit Carlos Estévez, a friend and an artist that I admire and respect. I also collect his work. Carlos was undergoing a four-month artistic residency in Paris. I had a chance to visit him in his studio, as well as explore the city together. We went to the Saint Ouen flea market, a place of common interest. But what caught my attention the most on this visit was what Carlos was doing at the time in his studio. He was working on a 22-card tarot series entitled Royal Blue Tarot and which we will discuss below.
José Valdés-Fauli – Carlos, tell me how this tarot project came about.
Carlos Estévez – I have always been interested in tarots for their powerful imagery, for their magical content and above all for the psychological and philosophical aspect. However, the definitive trigger for this project was two exhibitions that I saw during a visit to Madrid: Bosch. The V Centennial Exhibition at The Prado Museum and Wifredo Lam a retrospective at the Reina Sofía National Art Center Museum. The dream-like world of Hieronymus Bosch always inspires me. On the other hand, in Lam’s exhibition, there was a showcase of tarot cards made by Lam and other surrealist painters. Immediately, on my return to Paris, I started this project
JVF – I understand that you did the project for your son?
CE – When I returned to my studio in Paris, I made the first card, “The Knight”, which represents the human being. The figure of a knight on his horse makes me think of Life as a battle and men as the warriors who fight for it. When I made the card, I was not very convinced if it was worth continuing with the idea of the tarot. I showed it to my son, and he said he loved it and asked me to complete the project for him. With that second impulse, I was able to finish it.
JVF – Why do you titled it Royal Blue Tarot?
CE – The title is due to the color of the paper. I am very interested in the symbolism and psychology of color, and to me the names of colors have a poetic content.
JVF – How is your tarot different from conventional tarots, and even from tarots made by other artists during the history of art?
CE – My tarot, in numerical terms, is very orthodox. It is based on the 22 Major Arcana, which contains the great secrets of the Universe. However, it differs from other artist’s interpretations in that it is divided into two groups of 11 cards. Each group has a different format; 11 cards are circular and 11 are rectangular. Any artist can design a tarot deck, but I assure you that it will be different each time, because each artist will recreate their own ideas, their unique iconography, and their personal style. This means that, even without much effort, each tarot will be different.
JVF – What is the idea or the meaning of using two different formats?
CE – I wanted to bring a new symbolic level. Tarot cards are based on symbols that are activated in a playful way to conform a reading. With these two formats, I wanted to create a duality, also playing with the symbolism of the shape of the card itself. I wanted to make a contrast between forces that oppose and complement each other, such as yin and yang.
JVF – Can your cards be used in a mystical sense? Can they be used in Tarot readings?
CE – Tarot cards are a human invention; they were designed by an artist. They are very connected to the imagination and will of their creator. Of course, mine can be used for reading. But the most important thing for me is their reading as art objects; the interpretation that the viewer can make of each of the symbols that I have previously interpreted and translated myself into images. As we have discussed in other occasions, I do not rule out the possibility of reproducing them and placing them in a box with the double function of being a tarot deck and an artwork.
JVF – Carlos, once you finished this series, which you gifted to your son, did you ever think of making other tarot pieces or is the subject already exhausted?
CE – Very often, ideas keep coming to my mind after I finish a project. It is not something that I can definitively break up with. Sometimes, I write down the ideas and do not develop them; other times, I give them continuity, and in my opinion, a more mature work comes out, with which I am more satisfied. In this case, when I finished the Royal Blue Tarot or Tarot Azul Real, in Spanish, I quickly realized that it was only a beginning of the subject and that the idea has many other possibilities. In fact, right now I am working on another tarot, much more extensive and ambitious. I only anticipate that it will be an interactive installation, but I still have a lot of work to do.
Front left to right: Shed Boren, José Valdés-Fauli and Carlos Estévez in Estévez’s studio, Paris, France, 2016.
My drawings, paintings, sculptures, and installations reveal the invisible realm to the spirit that lies hidden beneath the visible world. – Carlos Estévez
Carlos Estévez (b. Cuba, 1969) is a visual artist based in Miami, Florida. A graduate from the Higher Institute of Arts (ISA), Havana, Cuba, he has received numerous awards and recognitions throughout his career, among which are: the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters & Sculptors Grant; the Cintas Foundation Fellowship in Visual Arts; and the Grand Prize of the First Contemporary Cuban Art Salon, Havana, Cuba. He has been an artist-in-residence in Academia de San Carlos, UNAM, Mexico; Gasworks Studios, London, England; The UNESCO-ASCHBERG in The Nordic Artists’ Center in Dale, Norway; Art-OMI Foundation, New York; The Massachusetts College of Art, Boston; Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris; Montclair University, New Jersey; Siena Art Institute, Italy; and McColl Center for Art + Innovation in Charlotte, NC, among others.
Estevez’s work has been vastly exhibited internationally. Some of his solo exhibitions have been presented at the National Museum of Fine Arts, Havana; Tucson Museum of Art, Arizona; The Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University, Miami; Center of Contemporary Art, New Orleans; and Lowe Art Museum, Miami. His work is included in prestigious collections such as those of the National Museum of Fine Arts, Havana; The Ludwig Forum, Aachen, Germany; The Bronx Museum, New York; Museum of Fine Art, Boston; Perez Art Museum Miami; Drammens Museum for Kunst og Kulturhistorie, Norway; Tucson Museum of Art, Arizona; Denver Art Museum, Colorado; Yale University Art Gallery, Connecticut; Arizona State University Art Museum; Fort Lauderdale Art Museum; The Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum at FIU, Miami; BNY Mellon Art Collection, New York; and Lowe Art Museum, Miami.