New-York / Sainte-Suzanne
Let me start by asking what everyone in the tarot world is wondering: do you remember your first kiss?
How did that first kiss compare to the moment in which you 'got' the tarot? I mean that moment in which the whole tarot suddenly made sense to you.
These are moments of exceptional intensity, rare in a lifetime and much alike. Suddenly the sky rips open and you are sent into a state of fusion with the surrounding world: it suddenly becomes meaningful and is understood. You hallucinate, give thanks for the beauty of the world and fall head over heels in love with the tarot, or Britney Spears.
Now, you probably didn't marry the first girl you kissed, but you became a master card- maker. How did that come about?
First of all, on December 6, 1986, the day I experienced this moment of fusion, I started to write an autobiography. In my vision, all my life had recapitulated before my eyes to the rhythm of the tarot, in precise, quasi-surgical slices of life. So I wrote my experiences, while “remembering myself”, according to the arcana. The basic link between experience and image, essential for the tarot, was accomplished. The rest was easy. “Remembering oneself” means to relive the past as an observing/observer, with the savor of the moment's energies. It is a “Madeleine of Proust”. This book is finished, but I have given up on finalising it.
At about the same time, I started doing readings using the deck I had stowed away when I was twenty. Each arcane is a graphic programming of a “place of consciousness”, or as Castaneda might have said, a precise "assemblage point". So, when my visitor drew the Lover, I could break into the tears of a 16 year old. If Force was turned up, I felt again the ambition of my 30 years. I was in sympathy (in the Greek etymological sense: suffer with) my visitor and it was therefore very easy for me to evoke and transmit the energetic quality needed for finding a way out of her existential crisis.
Then, in 1995 a Parisian theatre commissioned me to make scenery using the 22 majors of the Marteau tarot. Each measured 2.50m x 1.20. The theatre had financed the materials and I had got as far as Temperance when the production was cancelled. I was left with my work and a surfeit of the Grimaud tarot. It was then that I began a serious historical study, painted my canvases white and started over with the Conver. I enjoyed the work very much, and the year and one-half immersion changed me. Among other things, I was able to observe the incredible operativity these images exercise in such formats. Then I took on the first 8 majors of the Noblet. Since the ektachromes for the others wouldn't be available from the Bibliothèque Nationale for a year, I did the Dodal majors and then went back to finishing the Noblet. In the course of these projects, four completely “unusual” Viévilles (XVI, XVII, XVIII, XIX) were also produced in large formats.
You have given us restored versions of the Noblet and the Dodal, first in limited, hand-stencilled editions and now in full, mass-printed versions. I know how important it is for you to preserve the correctness of the original decks, but how much of you do you think there is in these decks?
I see none in the Noblet. And few in the Dodal: the reversible back, still a debated question, and two errors in color placement: one accidental (on the Moon), the other deliberate (Soleil).
Of course, an industrial edition requires that the card dimensions be standardised. The original inner-frame dimensions vary by 2mm in height and by 1mm in width. I chose the the maximum height as reference. Around this is a 1mm black frame and then an outer band of 3mm. This last space is imposed by the printer for technical reasons, and is not determined by whether the corners are to be square or rounded.
In your reconstruction of the Dodal you had access to the two only existing originals: the one at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and the other at the British Museum. Did you work with both of these decks?
What differences did you find between the two?
First of all, the colors on the English copy are in better condition, but soiled and dull. The English print is more charged with ink, as well.
Then, three cards come from another, probably earlier block: the Ace of Batons, Ace of Swords, and the Valet of Batons. For our edition of the Dodal, the choice was made according to which card was more carefully engraved. The English copy was selected for the Ace of Swords, while the French deck was retained for the two others.
How is it technically possible that three cards came from a different block?
The stocks! At that time, people didn't hesitate to re-compose complete decks from disparate sources, even using decks from diverse workshops. Worse, they were often re-cut. We will probably never know if the tarot moulds controlled by the of the Généralité de Lyon marked «français pour l'étrange» (“French for export”) were included or not in the royal destruction edict of 1701. We only know that Dodal began a new production in that year. In those days, little was wasted: everything was used and re-used. So, leftovers from an earlier edition could have been used in another.
As for the inscription “F.P. LE.ETRANGE”, T. Depaulis suggests it could mean either “Franc pour L'Etranger” or “Fait pour l'Etranger”, both appellations exonerating, from French taxes, decks destined for export.
Could Dodal have added an i to his name in order to promote the sale of his decks in Italy?
How long did it take you to finish this re-construction?
More than two years.
How long do you think it could have taken for the original engraver to create these plates?
I would imagine a maximum of two to three months, but I'm not sure.
I often wonder how much care was really put in the manufacturing of these decks. What is your feeling about that?
The engraver as free and independent person always worked as cleanly and conscientiously as possible.* In the workshops, printing the black line was mostly carried out by highly qualified professionals. Colors, however, were often put on negligently, sometimes by children in deplorable conditions. I have read in the Sainte-Suzanne archives that in 1792 the local carterie started stencil work at midnight, employing children who applied the colors by candlelight.
When printing your version of this deck, you had to settle for a color palette. Would you say that the final result is closer to the French or to the British deck?
Closer to the French.
I find a strong graphic resemblance between any of the Dodal images and the images in the Noblet. I am talking about the posture of the characters. This is especially clear in the court cards: Pages, Queens, Kings and Knights. The Dodal knights seem like loose versions of the Noblet's horsemen. Do you think that it is possible that the Dodal was made by copying from the Noblet?
No, the graphic style and significant details are too dissimilar. They draw the same thing, the same theme, but each has his own personal style. On the other hand, one can use the word copy for the later tarots made in Marseille from about 1720/30. As elsewhere, there is no more re-actualisation.
When I showed the restored Dodal to a couple of people their reaction was “So... it is the same deck you already have, only bigger, right?” In a way I understand what they are seeing, but at the same time I think they are missing the point. In your view, why was that restoring the Dodal made sense? What are people going to get from it that they won't get from the Noblet?
The Dodal generates a flash, or energetic short-circuit of the unconscious, different from that of the Noblet. A tarot image opens a door, and the landscape behind it is different depending on the door. As I mentioned before, the image is a programming of a “place of consciousness”, the precise assemblage point of a particular inner regard. Depending on the arcane and the engraver, they resemble each other a bit, much, or not at all. It's like a chocolate Charlotte made by two chefs: one will be sweeter, the other juicier.
Tell me a little bit about the term 'companion'. Is that a term you use to define all medieval guilds, or do you mean something else by it?
The “companions” entered into a “Compagnonnage” fraternity like one joins a religion or the Communist Party. Work was organised in the modern way, almost as a trade-union would, with sectors devoted to mutual aid, recruitment or intense in-house techno-spiritual training. As a craftsman you must have manual skill and a highly-developed feeling for materials, but also practice, all at the same time, the 6 other basic traditional qualities: courage, patience, generosity, humility, obedience and sense of responsibility. With time and application, these 6 qualities progress together with one's skill.
But what was it that these fraternities were asked to build? Athanors, alchemical crucibles: collective trance machines intended to transform a whole population and carry it to God! We are in the realm of technological shamanism! So the “companions” within “Compagnonnage” on their building sites, whatever their trade (mason, stone mason, carpenter, sculptor, glass-maker…) are part, whether they know it or not, of a permanent school of wizard/technicians worthy of Harry Potter. The companion becomes Master when it knows he is one. We are a far cry from the later guilds which only served to structure the privileges of professional castes.
I was talking to a woman who has restored a few Thangka paintings from the 12th Century. We were talking about how there is an underlying visual knowledge in a Thangka painting that we can also find in the stained-glass windows of a European cathedral, or the illustrations in a Medieval manuscript. I am talking about an understanding of shape that it is also an understanding about how to use shape to move the human spirit. At a technical level, a Tibetan artist and an European draughtsman knew the same things, they just lent them to different belief systems.
In your text you wrote "the wisdom underling the tarot is a pragmatic professional philosophy". Are you talking about that same knowledge?
Yes, but not only that. There is also the idea of progressive improvement in which work and the spiritual world are inseparable. For a craftsman/artist, the more you make beauty (the beautiful is operative, direct like a punch, creates an astonished destabilisation and opens the doors to paradise), the more your soul is beautiful!
How would you describe the "operative science" you see in the tarot?
Operativity is what the apprentice is learning to acquire. For the image-maker in a sacred period, it is a question of using an image to program the unconscious to a precise meditation. The state it focuses on, the arcane under consideration, is defined by the graphics and above all by the colors. Thangkas and the tarot function on the same operative level.
Whether we like it or not, colors manipulate us. The art is to consciously distribute them in a meaningful way.
Now, mandalas invite our mind to take a spiritual/psychological voyage. Would you say the tarot does the same thing?
In this case, do you think the tarot intends to take us all to a specific place?
Yes, it it has been doing that discreetly for centuries. It would seem that today there are still amateurs for this variety of shamanism, and a very modern one it is. The source tarots behave like a GPS. They all lead us to the same place, but for some it will be springtime in a crowd while others will experience loneliness and winter. The tarot is above all experimental, so I have often chosen to use the word psychonaut (or tarotnaut!) to indicate this “spiritual-psychological voyager”. Aren't we all sailors on the ocean of the soul?
There is an idea, behind contemporary art, about taking our mind for an illicit spin.
“Art” and “illicit”: these words remind me of the interminable and highly Parisian discussions I participated in when I studied philosophy in university. “Illicit” seems to stand for the courage, which would like to see itself as exceptional, to accept crossing the barriers of conventional regard, and to let oneself be carried on towards an unknown. Illicit, in my opinion, simply means “random”. The GPS precision is lost, and one is tossed about wherever the emotional winds choose to carry us. I fear that with contemporary art we are certainly operative, but like a crazy compass!
Materials and symbols have an experiential meaning,
Meaning isn't exactly the right word; power would be more appropriate.
but although each artwork would set some collective coordinates to start our trip, the arriving point is both individual and unexpected. How do you see that happening with the tarot?
With the tarot we approach precise states of consciousness, valid for all and validated by many generations. This is not the case with highly egocentric and anarchistic contemporary art. As long as we are discovering a territory, the landscape varies according to the seasons, to our position, our mood and the taste of our first kiss. It is a permanent innovation in perpetual motion. The goal of the tarot is to indicate an itinerary of the soul, undertaken one foot in front of the other, and not to toss us about on the tides of emotion.
In your writings I detect a notion that interest me a lot, but I would say it has been more developed in the Eastern world than in the Western world: any craft can be a spiritual path.
Yes, but let us not forget that culturally we are descended from a quadripartite system of social organization :
Producers : artisans/peasants: batons
Merchants: shopkeepers/financiers: coins
Warriors: aristocrats/soldiers: swords
Savants: doctors/priests: cups
The tarot is its reflection. What fundamental difference can we perceive between the castes of the Hindu orient and the “colleges” of the occident? None on a theoretical level, more with respect to action. What characterizes a fraternity of the Middle Ages is the recognition by one's peers, through ritual and ceremonies, of a progress towards excellence, as much technical as (we would now say ) shamanistic or spiritually operative. Modern western Sufism comes closest to this genre today.
When you say, for example, that The Star card shows an eye in the belly of the woman as an allusion to the stone cutters' "eye of the master", their ability to feel the stone and know how to place it, are you talking about a craftsman's ability to intuitively understand the nature and limitations of the material he is working with?
Still more, to feel them physically! In the course of an apprenticeship comes a moment when you are taught how to place your attention, both in the here and now (seeing the instant as it occurs; letting it happen while observing it) and in a particular corporal sensation, a sort of attraction/repulsion, related to the sense of the stone. This trick is useful to a craftsman, but the essential thing is learning to attain a state of observing/observer. One can also call this state “second attention”, and its automatic practice is what makes you a master.
I would think of Jackson Pollock, and how he understood painting to such a extent that he could take it beyond the limits of representation.
He seems to go beyond symbol or meaning and speak directly to the unconscious. All depends on what he has to tell it!
Pollock is an interesting example in that some physicists have now established that all of his paintings follow a fractal structure. He seemed to have painted in tune with the rhythm of nature, and as such one could see his action painting as the by-product of some sort of spiritual momentum.
The golden section had this function. To me, certain modern artists seem have gained the worlds of operativity by breaking and entering, in an illicit way, loaded down with a whole pack of more or less convoluted, neurotic and egotistical material. Others open the Doors of Paradise for us.
But I am also thinking about Chang Canasta, a magician who devoted the last decades of his life to painting. When he was asked why, he answered: "I believe in something called talent. Once you have it, you can apply it to everything."
Idries Shah named this “learning how to learn”. Once you've learned how to learn, in 6 months to a year you can achieve excellence in a profession previously unknown to you. He went on to say that in a well-filled life it was necessary to have practised at least 6 trades at the highest level! Serghiu Celebidache was the celebrated orchestra conductor and the respected mathematician and rug expert and pheasant breeder and exceptional linguist speaking 7 languages...
Talent here is, again, an understanding of form, rhythm and pattern that a guy like Canasta could use to present a card trick or to paint a landscape. As soon as we understand proportion, balance, symmetry and contrast, we can apply that knowledge to all areas of our experience. Is it that the tarot intends to teach us, beyond the iconographic choice of imagery: mastering your craft is mastering yourself?
You have perfectly summarised the mission of the tarot. It goes even further: «mastering yourself» in order to participate in the Soul of the World.
You also mention in your text that "All master engravers during the second half of the 17th century were instructed in the inner meaning of the tarot – Mermé is their last representative." How do you relate that affirmation to the idea of the Dodal being the last tarot that was consciously permeated by the companions intention?
It is the flame of Maison-Dieu which induces me to say that.
The tarot emerged from a Platonic-type mental world of philosophical immanence: the individual can, by his own achievements, put himself in a position to join the worlds of the Spirit. The flame is thus ascending, and to my knowledge Dodal's is the last tarot to depict it in this way. All the other significant details confirm how well-understood the “pilgrimage of the soul” was, and how at that time the procedures of transmission were fully-functioning and conscious.
Later, the flame billows down from above, raising the question of divine grace and its intercessors: we are in a philosophy of the Aristotelian type. The inner meaning is lost; what remains is reduced to recollection and hearsay. The same applies to the other meaningful details. At best one installs them by copying, while at worst “fantasy” takes over. The engraver of Nicolas Conver went so far as to settle his accounts with nascent freemasonry by placing 3 dots on the chest of the Devil: freemasonry is a she-devil! These mid-eighteenth century quarrels mean nothing to us today. Respect for a tradition vanishes, the overall consciousness of a civilization shifts and the pre-industrial era dawns.
Cartouche of Haultin l'aîné,
cardmaker at La Rochelle
attested in 1680
Dodal furnishes only meaningful details and signs with the Master's chrism. Resembling a stylized 4, this figure evokes measuring instruments and has been the prerogative of image-makers, carpenters and stonemasons since the Middle Ages.
I am asking you this because I am not familiar with the companions' tradition, but I am familiar with what I would call the 'Marseille Lore'. To me, this lore consists of a series of footnotes added to certain images, without their necessarily being in accord with the image's original iconographic intention. I take that lore to be a fundamental part of the Marseille tradition, and by tradition I mean the narrative/divination use we made of these cards. To mention a couple of these footnotes, there is the idea that The Fool is the card without a number and Death is the card without a name; so when you overlap both, Death becomes The Fool's skeleton.
If I remember correctly, it is to Tchalaï that we owe this idea.
That lore is the reason Jodorowsky said, in a preface to his first deck edition or in one of his books, that having been raised on classic Marseille lore (Grimaud), "killing the father" was the condition on which he could produce his deck. Numerous bad "good habits" had been acquired because this was the only historic deck on the market. Along the same lines, there is Tchalaï's fine discourse concerning the comma on Force's hat. But this comma was the result of damage to the woodblock!
When I began work on the Conver, after having painted over the Marteau images, I underwent the same temptation: make my own deck. For example, at first I painted the figures in Soleil naked, then put on vines with green leaves...then became annoyed with myself and dressed them back in their shorts! When Jodo liberated himself from the Marseille/Grimaud lore, he went into an egotistical creation frenzy. Considering his talents, this choice was regrettable.
There is also the idea of the person who is emerging from the grave in Judgement being, graphically at least, composed of two halves of two visibly different persons,