The Pond: April 4, 2021

Easter estuaries: The gorgeous Tarot de Budapest, Peter Max, Multiverses and movies, and realizing "...what’s important is the way the world looks."

EASTER GREETINGS! Do you know where your children are? Here are some reviews, reflections, and recommendations for your Sunday.

Reflection 1: Tarot de Budapest

MODERN TAROT PUBLISHING IS AWASH in kitsch. Hundreds of pomo (post-modern) decks are churned out yearly on Etsy and through various Kickstarter campaigns. There are novelty creations like the Hello Kitty, the Zombie, and the Housewives Tarot. And established publishers like US Games and Lo Scarabeo in Italy continue to reprint classic decks like the Marseille, the Waite-Smith, and the Crowley-Harris Tarot. But then, as if paying penance for maintaining beauty in the world, those same large publishers give life to scores of Photoshopped catastrophes, decks with little aesthetic value—or relevance as relates to the Tarot—but are guaranteed moneymakers for ‘collectors’ and Tarot dilettantes.

Two things that often do not work well together: Photoshop-created ‘art’ and the Tarot. And depressingly almost all contemporary pomo decks are now created on computers. Regardless of a technician’s skill, Tarot decks of this nature usually appear lifeless, with no aesthetic provenance—void of any link to the Tarot’s history as a codex for occult or allegorical teachings. I’ll detail more of these offenses this summer in an article that highlights the most grotesque pomo Tarot decks of all time.

But right now let’s talk about authentic Tarot and beauty. Recently I discovered Sullivan Hismans’ website Tarot Sheet Revival. Landing on Hismans’ site felt like reaching an oasis. If like me, you respect the Tarot as a wonderful reminder of humankind’s long history of creating art (instead of manufacturing baseball cards) you will appreciate Hismans’ handmade recreations of some of the Tarot’s earliest decks. Decks that were created not for aristocratic patrons—like the more intricate and gold-leafed Italian decks of the 15th century. But decks produced for the common folks, decks block printed on large sheets of paper, colored and then cut and wrapped up for sale in charming paper envelope-boxes. Hismans does all of this and more with the Tarot he decides to revive and recreate, like his latest effort The Budapest Tarot featured above.

A superb review of Hismans’ artwork and craft is featured on Tarot scholar Sherryl Smith’s must-bookmark site Tarot Heritage. Smith’s site is one of a handful I recommend to anyone interested in appreciating the Tarot as an academic adventure.

Reflection 2: This tweet from designer Jason Kottke

JASON KOTTKE WAS ONE OF THE INTERNET’S very first bloggers—before blogs and blogging were even a thing. I remember finding his site back in the late 90s and following his updates avidly. I still do. Time passed, blogs came and went—although Kottke’s is still published. Jason got married, started a family, and, well, you gotta love his son’s perspicacity. An apple that didn’t fall far from the tree.

Reflection 3: The way the world looks

TWO WRITERS PRESENT two points of view on a single theme. 

In The Brothers Frederick Barthelme writes:

“There isn’t any story. It’s not the story. It’s just this breathtaking world—that’s the point. The story’s not important; what’s important is the way the world looks. That’s what makes you feel stuff. That’s what puts you there.”

And seemingly just back home from a walk, Bernard Cooper responds—from his stellar book Maps to Anywhere:

“Why just yesterday I was lamenting all these things when I saw a stream of black birds soaring over the city. Endless they were, like winged pieces of letters, like a moving sign in Times Square, heraldic and quick and colossal. Except that a message never appeared. Their transmigration riddled the sky.”

Reflection 4: Peter Max the polychromatic king

ONE OF MY FAVORITE pop artists, Peter Max, who reigned throughout the golden years of the counterculture revolution is now sadly, at 83, suffering from dementia. While his family and business associates are mired in a swamp of legal wrangling, Mr. Max sits in his home for hours and stares out the window at the Hudson River. At the white-hot peak of his career, Max’s artwork covered the walls of stoners across America (mine included). Read Peter’s bio here for a mind-bending trip through his reign as the polychrome king of psychedelia. Do you remember the late 1970s when No Nuke protests were a thing? Well, maybe you don’t but you should still get this fabulous commemorative Peter Max bandana. Created in tandem with Japan’s Kapital clothing line, the all-cotton wearable art is available now on Stag Provisions.

Reflection 5: Part 2 of the Waite-Smith Tarot Story

THIS WEEKEND I WILL PUBLISH for paid subscribers to WOODRUFF the second part of my essay on the two Tarot decks that the mystic A.E. Waite created in London during the first quarter of the 20th century. In part one, (free to everyone) I detailed insights about Waite’s first Tarot deck, originally known as the Rider-Waite Tarot, created with the artist Pamela Colman Smith. Continuing tomorrow, I consider Waite and Smith’s reaction to their deck after its first edition appeared in 1909. I also detail the knock-offs and pirated versions of the deck that followed (a fascinating history in and of itself). The Waite-Smith Tarot experienced a wild renaissance amidst the pagan and occult revival embraced by the burgeoning counterculture movement in the mid-60s. A historical moment that closely mirrored the radical changes within the visual arts and literature at the start of the 20th century—right as Waite’s deck first appeared. Also in this second installment, I close read the horoscopes of Waite and Smith and the 1909 ‘birth’ chart for their beguiling Tarot, a deck that changed forever the popularity and perception of the Tarot worldwide. If you’re not a paid subscriber to WOODRUFF be sure to set up your subscription today.


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