The Art Nouveau Tarot deck
Deck review by Floris Wijers

          If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.

 
This deck was published in 1989 by U.S. Games Systems and was distributed
by all major distribution companies worldwide like Urania Verlags in
Germany. However, it is not easily available in Europe anymore and frankly
I have seen it only very rarely in France, Belgium or in Great Britain. It
had been on my whishing list for a long time before I finally found it in a
local store in The Netherlands.
 
I guess it has never gained much acclaim because the minor arcana is so
different from any kind of standard that it's difficult to read with. You
get the feeling that in creating it, artistic and aesthetic values have
prevailed over symbolism. This is really a pity because both the major
arcana and the court cards offer beautiful art, in which especially facial
expressions are better than in most decks.
 
The deck comes with an instruction booklet that provides us with some
information on the artist (Matt Myers) and explanations of the symbols
used.
Each suit of the minor arcana tells a story, beginning with the two and
ending with ten. The stories are clarified in the booklet, but the story
does not have much in common with the divinatory explanations that are
given to upright and reversed cards. These meanings are rather 'standard',
whereas the stories certainly are not. The cards are pretty much standard
in size and rather slim: 2 3/8" x 4 3/8". One of the two 'extra' cards that
come with each 78 card deck shows a self-portrait of Matt Myers who
magically holds the radiant Tarot deck between his hands without touching
it. This image is also featured on the box.
 
Art
 
The catalogue of U.S. Games Systems says about this deck: "Matt Myers has
created a stunning 78-card Tarot deck in the style and tradition of
turn-of-the-century decorative art".
The art is done in excellent drawings, with as prevalent colours oranges,
blues, purples and turquoises. Whether the art is 'Art Nouveau' as the
title suggests is very debatable by the way. A conoisseur of Art Nouveau
would certainly deny this because only the pip cards show some resemblance
with just a very specific form of art nouveau: Tiffany stained glass lamps.
The entire deck is much too fancy, with too many fringes and frills to be
'Art Nouveau' at all.
 
This is unimportant though. The drawings are all pieces of art of very high
quality (therefore it a pity the deck is not an inch larger!). The use of
colour is sublime and artwise this is one of my favourite decks. I realize
though this is a matter of personal taste. One collegue reader told me once
she thought the persons on this deck were 'far too handsome'. Certainly all
the people could have been models out of any fashion magazine, for they're
all incredibly beautiful indeed. A lot of the men have long, wavy hair. In
the "Bottom of decks" survey, that ranks decks according to their
'ugliness' or 'repulsiveness', the Art Nouveau Tarot deck is critisized for
it being 'too cute' (other results of the survey can be found in the Tidbit
area on this site).
 
Major Arcana
 
All majors have a roman number on the top and the card title on the bottom.
The High Priestess is the Priestess, the Hierophant is the Priest, the
Wheel of Fortune is the Wheel. Justice is eight, Strength is eleven. Every
major offers something 'different' from the usual. To mention a few:
The Fool is chasing a butterfly, trying to catch it with his bare hands.
While he comes running toward us, he is focused on the butterfly and and
does not see the abyss he's about to fall into. His motley costume swirls
around him, bells clinging as he runs. His carefree face is radiant with
joy and innocence.
The Magician is charming eight floating objects in the air before him. The
symbols are those of the four suits and symbolic animals for the four
elements: a salamander for fire, a humming bird for air, a fish for water
and a mouse or a marten for earth. The Magician wears a cape in the shape
and colour of peacocks' feathers.
The Priest is shown without the usual disciples or monks; he stands alone
in a chapel in deep prayer, face tilted up toward the heavens. A symbol of
the holy trinity (in this case three interwoven rings) appears several
times. The whole image invokes the question: "Is the devotion we're
witnessing real and experienced inside (esoteric), or just for the sake of
appearances and the tradition (exoteric)?"
The Chariot is being driven by a young man, who is clearly very
self-assured and thinks the world is at his command. He has reins but does
not make use of them. The car is being pulled by two quarreling eagles.
Strength is pictured as a young woman sitting under oak trees, leaning
comfortably against a lion that quietly sits behind her. His tail gently
curls up over her legs. The young lady contemplates an acorn in the palm of
her hand. The booklet accompanying the deck explains that she's thinking
about how this little acorn one day in the future will have grown into a
mighty and strong oak. No doubt - but what's the lion doing there?
Death is the most uncanny image of all - a cheerfully hip-swaying skeleton
is cutting a field of flowers. It has tied some cut flowers with a ribbon
around it's white skull. Some threads of worn clothes are still attached to
the skeleton and blow gently in the wind...
The Star, the Sun, the Moon, Judgment and the World miss out on most of the
traditional symbolism.
 
Court Cards
The court cards have Pages, Knights, Queens and Kings. The Pages are
children, the Knights young men standing without the horse, the Queens are
mature women sitting on a throne and the Kings are mature men seated on
their thrones as well. Matt Myers is faithful to the old fortune-telling
tradition that attributes physical characteristics to each suit. Swords
e.g. are black-haired people with dark eyes, Cups are blondes with blue
eyes, etc.
 
The first 'problem' with the court cards and the minors is that not the
normal attribution of elements and suits are followed in this deck, but
that Staves are connected with air and Swords with fire. Cups and Coins
follow the traditional attribution of water and earth.
Myers uses salamanders for fire as does Pamela Colman Smith for the
Rider-Waite deck, but in the Art Nouveau Tarot we find these animals on the
court cards of the Swords (King and Page) and not the Staves.
The Knight of Swords is a ferocious man, yelling at full volume with his
sword lifted high in the air. The Queen of Swords holds her Sword in a
defensive way across her lap, but clutching the blade with one hand so
strongly that blood runs down the sword.
 
Minor Arcana
 
Each suit of the minor arcana tells a story. In all stories a man and a
woman (that are similar to the Queen and King of the suit) star in a plot
that ends well for the Cups and Coins, but unhappy for the Staves (the man
is left alone by his woman) and disastrous for the Swords (the woman kills
the man with a dagger). In virtually all Tarot decks the number of the
minor card is shown by the number of symbols pictured on the card. Not in
this deck; on each card features only one symbol. The symbols are
traditional, only the suit of Coins is represented by a round stained
window.
Although the colours on the cards are gorgeous, the imagery is very distant
from any other deck. There are some vague resemblances to the Rider-Waite:
- the woman of four of Coins holds on to her stained glass as the man in
four of Pentacles does to his Pentacle;
- six of Swords pictures a woman in a boat, floating down a river.
 
Many of the images within one suit resemble each other because one specific
set of colours is used for every card in a suit. This makes reading with
the minor arcana really difficult.
 
Personal evaluation
 
This is a beautiful but somewhat strange deck. The minors, with their
highly individual stories, are a challenge (or, as you choose, let down) on
it's own. I asked Mary Greer one time what way she'd approach these cards
and she suggested I'd write a personal story for each of the stories, so I
would be able to locate each card in the sequence. This proved to be a
magnificent excercise but has not facilitated reading with this deck.
I will continue exploring various ways to approach the images in the minor
arcana and find ways to use the deck in a creative way. It's simply too
interesting to just put aside.
This is most definately not a deck you want to get started with because I
gather you'd easily get confused if you do not already have a good working
knowledge of Tarot.
 
Publishing data:
 
First published in 1989 by U.S. Games Systems, Inc.
Art by Matt Myers.
 
There's no book that I know of that either is devoted to this Tarot deck,
or uses the images of the Art Nouveau Tarot to illustrate its contents.

          If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.

 
Floris Wijers, The Netherlands
e-mail: floris@euronet.nl


Review Copyright 2000 Floris Wijers
Page Copyright 2000 Diane Wilkes