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!
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.