First, know that an understanding of tarot cards isn't necessary to enjoy a new exhibition at the Salvador Dalí Museum that features 78 contemporary works based on a set Dalí created in the early 1970s.
"Contemporary Magic: A Tarot Deck Art Project" features a who's who of contemporary artists with a few high-profile fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood, Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs, Philip Treacy (famous for his "fascinators" worn on royal heads) and Christian Louboutin (of red-soled shoe fame) added to the mix. Guest curator Stacy Engman, who solicited the participants, is a fabulously dressed member of a cool arts scene in New York and has an impressive list of cultural contacts. (She also, reportedly, owns hundreds of Treacy hats.)
I am a tarot ignoramus so, for readers also unenlightened, here's some basic information gleaned from cursory research. Tarot cards were first used for games in mid 15th century Europe. They evolved several centuries later as instruments of mysticism and divination that one read.
There are several variations of the cards. Dalí based his set on one that has 78 cards made up of four suits (sword, coin, cup, wand) represented by face and number cards and a group of trump cards. There are varying reports about the set's genesis. His wife and muse, Gala, read tarot cards, and some biographers write that he created the set in her honor. Others claim it was commissioned by Albert Broccoli, the producer of the James Bond films, for use in the 1973 movie Live and Let Die. The latter theory was mentioned during a 2007 panel discussion at the Tate Modern during its Dalí exhibition. The cards are mostly collages using bits of famous European paintings with Dalí embellishments.
Engman assigned each artist a card. Some used the general meaning of the card as a source of inspiration; others riffed on Dalí's version.
A tarot website explains that "the Four of Swords shows a period of rest and recovery after a time of challenge, with the promise that, once recovered, you can and will return to the challenge." Dalí uses Jacques-Louis David's famous painting The Death of Marat to represent his Four of Swords card. David's painting depicts the moments after the murder of French Revolution leader Jean-Paul Marat by Charlotte Corday, who stabbed him while he bathed. Dalí might have been enjoying some irony since Marat would never recover and return to the challenge. And his death was by blade. Yoshitomo Nara uses his manga-related style in his version, which doesn't seem to reference Dalí.
John Currin took inspiration from Dali's 10 of Cups in which a Renaissance painting of a man and woman party among lots of fruit. He, too, uses a playful couple in his ink drawing (who look a bit like him and his wife, artist Rachel Feinstein), festooned with an old shoe, sock, banana peel, a bunch of grapes, a fish and a bird.
Francesco Vezzoli, famous for his weeping women, like Dalí, collaged images to create a Queen of Swords card, emulating Vincenzo Catena's 16th century painting of Judith with the head of Holofernes. In his version, Judith is Lana Turner (who's not crying).
Some participants recycled photographs. Photographer and cultural commentator Patrick McMullan used an inverted photo of Andy Warhol as the Hanged Man. Designer Westwood used a promotional photo by Jurgen Teller for the Chariot card with a sexy blond in a golf cart. (Wit is a common component in many of these tarot takes. Another example: Josephine Meckseper's Queen of Pentacles/Coins card, which uses the image of a woman carrying many shopping bags ... get it?)
Of course, designer Treacy incorporated the image of a hat in the Magician. And, of course, Dalí used himself on that card in his deck. Gala, of course, is the Empress, from one of Dalí's own paintings.
After soaking in the show — and marveling again at all the big names in it — I visited the museum's gift area looking for a pack of Dalí's tarot cards. At $145, I didn't buy the set (they're beautifully printed, by the way), but the gracious saleswoman let me look through a display copy for a long time. I would have enjoyed seeing more of them.
This is a true bonus show for visitors. It's in the Raymond James Community Room on the first floor and it's free.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.