Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Krakow Tarot

Tarot is a deck of cards that attempts to limn the human experience in 78 images. There are an almost infinite number of Tarot decks, all evidence of human creativity. Most use the Rider-Waite-Smith deck as their foundation, and offer variations on that. My single favorite expression of the human creativity in Tarot decks is the Death card in the brilliantly witty Housewives Tarot. In this retro, 1950s suburban American deck, Death is an expired jar of mayonnaise surrounded by spoiled vegetables and houseflies.

Death in the Housewives Tarot
The Prague tarot celebrates that glorious city's splendors. 

From the Tarot of Prague
In Krakow this summer, in the Sukiennice Art Museum, I saw Jozef Chelmonski's painting "Czworka" and thought what a wonderful Chariot card it would make in a Krakow tarot deck. 

Some suggestions for an enterprising tarot deck designer.

Tarot decks begin with The Fool, a card of new beginnings. Jacek Malczewski's "Introduction" would make a great Fool.

The Magician performs amazing feats in the real world. Like Jan Matejko's take on Copernicus.

The Empress is mom, feminine power, fecundity. Tadeusz Ajduukiewicz's "Portrait of Helena Modrzejewska" conveys all these ideals with great beauty.

The Emperor is dad, masculine power, authority, rationality. Maurycy Gottlieb's "Ahasuerus" will serve.

The Hanged Man is a symbolically rich card that speaks, inter alia, of spiritual sacrifice and letting go. The traditional Polish folk motif of Chrystus Frasobliwy, or Worried Christ, makes a perfect Hanged Man for the Krakow tarot.

The Devil card references moments when we are enjoying a guilty pleasure too much for our own good. What better illustration than Wladyslaw Podkowinski's "Ecstasy"? You can see that she's having a good time, but it's also obvious that she'll regret it in the morning. 

My favorite painting in the Sukiennice, and one of my all time favorite paintings, is Jacek Malczewski's "Death of Ellenai." A very sad story, that of Polish Siberian exiles, is behind this painting. This will make a perfect Death card for the Krakow tarot.

The Temperance card bespeaks moments when all is balanced. I think of it as the resolution to Pachelbel's Canon. Anna-Bilinska Bohdanowiczowa communicates this balance beautifully in her "Self Portrait with a Palette"

The Tower is the one tarot card querents most fear. It communicates complete catastrophe. Jan Matejko's "Wernyhora" is as powerful as the original tarot image of the Tower to send this message.

The Moon, of course, is about darkness, both actual and metaphorical, and the spooky, romantic, deluding, deepening light that moonlight can shed. Stanislaw Malsowski's "Moonrise" echoes the placement of the moon in traditional tarot before water and between two columns.

The Hierophant is a teacher, of both secular and spiritual lessons. He teaches received traditions. Samuel Hirszenberg's "School of Talmudists" expresses the intellectualism, spirituality, and tradition of the Hierophant perfectly.

The queen of swords is an older, intelligent, sharp tongued woman, often single, a spinster, or a widow. Rafal Hadziewicz's "Portrait of Julia Hadziewicz, Mother of the Artist" brings the Queen of Swords to life.

 I'd love to see a work of art by Bruno Szulc worked into the Krakow tarot. And folk art and poster art and szopki … someone do something with this idea, please!


  1. Danusha, these are brilliant ideas!
    In addition to the Tarot reading, this would promote the folk art and teach how to understand it. Brilliant!

  2. Thank you! I'm glad you liked it.

  3. What a great, inspired post! I like your connections of the Polish masterpieces with the tarot. All very interesting stuff as far as I'm concerned... Thanks for sharing! I saw so many of these works for the first time while in Krakow this summer...can't believe I've lived this long with out knowing pretty much anything about Polish art. Thank god this is changing:-)!

  4. Incredible introduction to art ! Nemo

  5. As a Polish national I've often wondered why do the Americans with some Polish roots romanticise the 'Old Country' so much... And the answer is that Poland is awesome.

  6. This is your chance at an original get-rich-quick scheme, do it!

  7. I don't know that anyone gets rich from Tarot ... although I certainly would not mind being the first. :-)

  8. One more proof that tarot reading is coming from real life, like art. There is a connexion between art and life, there is a connexion between life and tarot!


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