My tarot tastes and deck purchasing has changed dramatically over the last three or so years. In my tarot-past, any deck was potential game – regardless of tradition, complexity, or style – but as my reading habits and needs have altered, so have the decks I buy.
I recently cancelled my order of Nicoletta Coccoli’s new tarot deck, which is released this month by Lo Scarabeo. Her artwork is of a very high standard and some of the cards I saw online touched me deeply. Hers would have been a perfect deck for me five years ago. I read for myself a lot back then and used blogging as a tool for daily self-exploration. I would have found both enjoyment and benefit in holding up Nicoletta’s paintings as mirrors, reflecting on their messages and untangling their meanings publicly with the help of the blogging community.
These days, I read for others more than I read for myself. I am also nearly at the end of my second beginners tarot course, which I am running from a beautiful little shop in a village in Kent. When I am reading for others, I need a framework I understand and which I can explain clearly. I like my Kings to look like kings and for there to be a few knocked-over-chalices in my 5 of Cups. The Rider Waite system works well for me, so for those purposes, I choose decks fashioned quite closely to it. For this moment in time, Nicoletta Coccoli would take me too far away from a framework I read and teach comfortably.
Does the world really need another Waite-clone? Probably not. What’s wrong with my Radiant, my Morgan Greer or my Hanson Roberts? Absolutely nothing. But as many taroists know, sometimes it is good to stir up the waters just a little, if not too much. When I saw how this deck had fleshed-out and beefed-up the Pages [who I recognised well from Rider Waite tradition], I was pulled into buying this set. I can always be seduced by a consistent and strong court.
On first look, the artwork in the Classic Tarot reminds me of other decks I own and have seen. At first, I noticed a similarity to the Sharman-Caselli and the New Mythic Tarot, both illustrated by Giovani Caselli. There is a comic-book-style to the artwork which links it with both of those. However, the style of illustration in the Classic Tarot brought the artist James Battersby to mind more readily; he accompanied Chanel Bayless on their self-published Kings Journey Tarot in 2010. Because I had many pleasant conversations with both creator and artist during the creation of that set (and their second pack), it was this comparison which warmed me to the Classic Tarot. It has a similar energy in it’s loose and colourful pages, which I thought would bring life and movement to my readings.
The Classic Tarot follows the Rider Waite Smith very closely. Not every detail is reproduced in the same way (such as the pomegranate tree on the veil behind the High Priestess) but anyone familiar with the original Waite deck would have little problem transferring their knowledge to this one. Some cards are a little different to those in the original. In the 7 of Swords a man is shown climbing away from the scene of a crime. In her accompanying book, Barbara Moore presents a twist, asking whether this is an act of theft or rescue. She suggests that the conclusion drawn is down to the perspective of the individuals involved. Having spoken to my own students about how no card is wholly negative or wholly positive, I like this way of looking at the card. You may remember this advertisement from The Guardian newspaper in the 1980s. Barbara’s prompt reminds me of how limited our view can often be and this has helped me to see the 7 of Swords in a different way. Could he be climbing back up to the tent to return the swords?
The colouring in this set is one of its strong points. Being borderless, it allows the images to flow more easily together in readings. In one pair (The Empress and The Emperor), the two images practically join up to make one. There is a comic book style to Eugene Smith’s art, which is possibly why it reminds me of illustrations within a children’s story book. Most of the characters in the cards are active, which gives this deck a lively personality. I find this boosts a reading, as oppose to when designers pose people awkwardly in melodramatic freeze-frames. As an example, it is easier to explain The Hermit’s journey when he is shown putting one foot in front of the other, rather than standing at the peak of a mountain, doing nothing.
I would not say that this is my preferred style of art but Smith receives full-marks for consistency. My biggest peeve with tarot decks is a recognisable difference in artistic style between the Major and Minor Arcana. In this deck, every card has been given the same amount of effort and is consistent in style. I hardly use my Fenestra Tarot because of the more ornate major cards. If I were to find fault, I’d say that many of the faces in these cards look too similar for them to have their own identity. As an example, the Queens all look extremely alike. The majority of characters have very strong jaw-lines, which results in the majority of females appearing masculine.
People will complain about the book which accompanies this deck, since it appears geared to a beginner. This is a fair comment, but with Barbara’s commentary of the 7 of Swords as an example, there is food-for-thought to be found within the text if we are open to it. I actually prefer simple and concise text, so the small paragraphs (accompanied by a listing of the symbols and their meanings) for each card provide a decent-enough springboard for a readers own intuition.
In the last class of my five-week tarot course, I bring in a selection of tarot packs for students, recommending those which I believe would work well with their new understanding of tarot basics. I have no problem with adding this one to my modest list. This is one example where an accompanying book would actually provide a good foundation, since it relies on the core meanings of the Rider Waite Smith which I discuss. It doesn’t add anything radically new to the cooking pot, because in all honesty, it doesn’t really need to. Barbara’s comments on the cards are short but punchy.
So, I am brought back to my original question – does the world (or I, come to think of it) need another Rider Waite clone? We probably need one as much as we need another Cat, Steampunk or Witch tarot deck, but I can see this set getting some regular use on my own reading table. To some, the Classic Tarot might seem like a thoughtless copycat, but there is enough difference in both style and content to warrant its place on the market. Initially, I might have argued that the illustrations could have been a little less cartoon-like (since the Rider Waite already has simplified art) but Smith’s storybook-style does encourage more playful and inquisitive reading, due to the nature of storytelling with pictures. In a market of more and more photographic and computer generated decks (which this might have an element of in its colouring), drawing has become a luxury for me. Many readers coo over the multitude of pretty and inviting tarot sets on offer these days but a lot return to those packs which have a good structure and can be read without too much effort. I would guess that the Classic Tarot will soon become one of the latter for many a reader.
© Steven Bright Tiferet Tarot 2014
Illustrations from The Classic Tarot by Barbara Moore and Eugene Smith, published by Llewellyn