Sunday, April 26, 2009

Cuddly Tarot?

Hanson-Roberts Tarot Deck | Illustrated by Mary Hanson-Roberts.  Published by US Games, 1985.

Historical Significance:  Nil
Artistic Appeal:  High
Symbolic Resonance:  Moderate
Evocative Potential:  High

I have a fondness for this deck because it was the first deck I ever bought and used.  Without any knowledge of Tarot, in 1986, I wandered into Perelandra Bookstore (now defunct) in Eugene, and was immediately drawn to the collection of Tarot.  I don't remember now why I chose this particular deck at the time, but for some reason I selected it--or the other way around.  In any case, I enjoyed learning about the Tarot with this deck, and the readings were meaningful enough to keep me interested.  Before writing this, I did the usual Web survey, and I find it interesting how many other people, in their reviews, also describe this as the first deck they ever had.  I don't think that is a coincidence.  The Hanson-Roberts deck, besides being one of the most popular after Rider-Waite and Marseilles, is very user friendly.  If feels safe and non-threatening.  It is a very good deck for beginners.

The artwork is pleasing.  Ms. Hanson-Roberts used the medium of colored pencil with black ink outlines.  This resulted in images that feel very soft with complex color gradations.  The fact that it was printed with continuous color tone makes it distinct from most older decks printed with solid color using half-tone printing processes.

Hanson-Roberts is a skilled artist.  Her compositions are balanced and appealing.  Compared to older decks, the images feel fresh and contemporary.  There are some Art Nouveau elements, but for the most part, the artwork draws directly from the familiar Rider-Waite images, although the style is quite different.  The compositions are zoomed-in compared to R-W, with more detail, giving the feel of being close to the subjects.  The symbology is very much paired down in this deck.

The style of the art can best be described as cartoonish.  The subjects are uniformly warm and friendly, some so much so they are downright cutesy.  There is nothing overtly scary or disturbing in this deck.  The images and the readings from this deck feel very gentle, sometimes whimsical, and always affirming.

The meanings and symbols are firmly and predictably in the occultist Tarot tradition, most famously realized in Rider-Waite.  There are no surprises or new symbolic schemes.  The meaning associated with each card is much that same as with R-W and derivatives.  As always, this deck comes with its own pamphlet, but if you're familiar with the R-W meanings, you will hardly need it.

It should come as a surprise to no one that Mary Hanson-Roberts, a long-time Florida resident, is an illustrator of comics featuring felines and all things cute and furry.  Her best know comic, called Here Comes a Candle, was first serialized in the comic periodical, Furrlough, and, in 2000, was published as a graphic novel.  She is an active member of the "Furry Art" community and is known to attend, sometimes in a place of honor, furry art conventions such as ConFurence and FurFest.

In any case, the Hanson-Roberts Tarot deck is a little too cute for my taste, but it still holds sentimental value for me, as it apparently does for many others also.  It is a good starter deck due to ease of use and its kind personality.  It is especially recommended for youth and anyone who experiences fearfulness at using a traditional deck.

There is also a companion guide available specific to this deck:  The Hanson-Roberts Tarot Companion

If you like this deck, you might also have a look at her other deck, The Whimsical Tarot: A Deck for Children and the Young at Heart. . . it features, as you might guess, bipedal cats.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Campy Gloom

The Bohemian Gothic Tarot Designed by Karen Mahony and Alex Ukolov. Published by Magic Realist Press, 2008.

Historical Significance: Nil
Artistic Appeal: Most High
Symbolic Resonance: High
Evocative Potential: Most High

This is my all time favorite Tarot deck to use. It's evocative, mesmerizing, and moody. It gives (or allows for) nuanced readings. Its images are meaningful as well as beautiful. The images draw the eye in and entrance the mind.

Although the images are darkly Gothic, the readings feel gentle, if sharply insightful. This contrasts with those old woodblock decks from the 17th and 18th Centuries, whose readings can feel heavy, dualistic, and bluntly ruthless. The images and symbols in those old decks have an actual medieval feel and outlook. The images and symbols in the Bohemian Gothic Tarot are only superficially Gothic (there are a lot of bones and skulls) but the details (and the images are quite detailed) are sudtle and complex. While there is use of symbol, meaning is coveyed more by the mood of each image. I have never worked with a deck in which so much can be gleaned from the delicately elusive facial expressions of the figures.

I admire the artist/designers. They clearly spent a lot of time on the artwork. Overall, images evoke the feeling of a gothic romance or a campy but mysterious old horror movie. Some of the images appear to be directly influenced by old movies. The images are never gory or repulsive, they all seem to draw the viewer in and leave you daydreaming about the story behind it. Each card seems to have its own story. Every time I look at one of these cards, I have the feeling I am looking through a window, seeing just one small part of something much larger and mysterious.

The symbols and meanings of the cards are only nominally of the Rider-Waite tradition. Some cards present a visual allusion to that tradition. With other cards, the images are wholly unique without apparent reference to previous decks. In most cases, the meanings, as defined in the accompanying book, appear to derive, at least in part, to the occult tradition that spawned the ubiquitous Rider-Waite, but also make clear reference to the image on the card. I can't say that I fully appreciate the subtle symbolism in every image, but it seems clear to me that much thought and care went into every design.

Karen Mahony and Alex Ukulov both live in Prague, but neither of them are natives. Mahony is from Dublin originally, then lived in London after the age of 17. Ukulov is an ethnic Russian from Yalta in the Crimea. They both came to Prague on what appeared to be parallel spiritual journeys. They met in Prague where they fell in love with the city and with each other. Their first Tarot deck they collaborated on was the Tarot of Prague.

Mahony's background is web design. Alex is a photographer and an acolyte of photoshop. They are both artists. Their method is to take original photographs and combine parts of various images into a seamless and naturalistic scene. They are methodical and very thoughtful in this work. Mahony works mostly on composition while Ukulov works on the details of bringing the image components together. You can read their interview on Aecletic Tarot: Interview with Karen Mahony and Alex Ukulov.

Overall, I enjoy using this deck very much. I ended up buying this deck twice (new) because my first deck was left out in the rain.