Illuminated Tarot by Carol Herzer Review by Paula Gibby
I am an avid reader of tarot books, reviews, newsletters and the various tarot lists available on the Internet. Of course, as a collector, this is all part of the research I do in learning more about different decks and how to locate them. However, my interest goes far beyond that. I am continually fascinated by what decks other tarotists love, are ambivalent about or outright repulsed by. Being able to look at a set of tarot cards through the eyes of another brings an added dimension to developing an additional awareness and deeper appreciation of a particular deck.
Over the past six years, I have read a great many commentaries on a great many decks. Two decks in particular always seem to elicit enthusiastic or impassioned responses. One is the Thoth deck by Crowley & Harris. The other is the Waite-Smith.
The Thoth deckÖwell, it seems that people either love it or they hate it. Very few are ambivalent about it. Those that love it have made it one of their mainstays; those that hate it look at it a few times, perhaps fascinated in some eerie way with the hypnotic artwork, and then they shove it on a shelfÖperhaps behind a stack of other, more comforting decks. This is understandable. The Thoth is not a deck that stands for fence sitting. It demands a definitive opinion and it doesnít concern itself with whether you happen to like it or not. It seems to enjoy a good healthy dose of dislike just as much as deep respect and admiration.
Frankly, I have been far more interested in the multitude of reactions I have read over the years to the Waite-Smith deck. Unlike the Thoth, the Waith-Smith seems to inspire a great deal of ambivalence. It seems to have become the deck that people love to "graduate from" or "rise above", moving on to loftier, more sophisticated climes.
Slightly disparaging comments abound: "the artwork is flat", "the colors are garish", "the colors are cartoonish", "the drawing skills of Smith are not good", "the images are static", "the deck is ugly".
And so forth.
Why is this fascinating to me? Because hereís the interesting twist. Ask these very same people what three or four decks they use the most for reading and Ė guess what? The Waite-Smith is in that list.
In other words, they donít like it and they donít hate itÖbut they are drawn to it. Something in that deck brings people back to it. Iíve know many a tarotist to encounter the Waite-Smith early on, discard it for other decks, but then come back to it. I know many a tarotist who uses a different deck for readings, but mentally overlays the Waite-Smith imagery over the cards in front of them, bringing an added dimension to the reading.
Try to find a 20th Century deck of 78 that does NOT include some hint of the Waite-Smith imagery. Sometimes it is very subtle, but most of the time, you will find it. Perhaps it is that little boat in the Six of Swords or perhaps it is a small sheaf of wheat making a discreet appearance in an Empress card. How many times do you encounter a blindfolded woman in a Two of Swords? How about an apprentice in the Eight of Pentacles? The Magician with one arm extended upwards and the other grounding him to this world?
What if I snap my fingers in front of your eyes and tell you to immediately envision the Empress and tell me what she looks like. Iím not a betting person, but I will tell you that, just like Pavlovís dogs, the most immediate reaction will be a vision of that pregnant blond woman sitting in the field of wheat with stars crowning her head.
And what about the Fool? I defy anyone to try to claim that, if asked to picture the Fool, the Waite-Smith image does not immediately come to mind.
Like it or not, sophisticated or not, the Waite-Smith deck has imprinted itself upon our spiritual psyches and has been interwoven into hundreds of reinterpretations. Which just further reinforces the imprinting of its images upon us.
I, personally, love this. I happen to be an admitted, unequivocal admirer of the Waite-Smith deck. Although the Waite-Smith was not my first tarot deck, it is one of my very favorites. It may not be the most beautiful, but if you are looking for a deck with excellent, clean lines, clear imagery, complex symbolism and sheer readability, more often than not, the Waite-Smith is close to the top of the list. It is one of the most significant tarot decks of the 20th Century. It has inspired countless artists and influenced hundreds of tarot and cartomancy decks.
The artwork. Perhaps it is because I spent a good many years on the stage that I feel an immediate connection to Smithís cards, which resemble stage set designs to me. I think this was a deliberate artistic device that Smith used and I think it was extremely effective. I love them. I also love the colors. Is it a perfect deck, meaning, does every card resonate with me? No, but what deck does that unless you make it yourself? But I will tell you, it comes very, very close. I am a huge admirer of it. Emphasis on the word "huge".
Which makes me extremely uncompromising when I see anybody tinkering around with it. As I said earlier, it is difficult for tarotists to get these images out of their minds. Perhaps it is because of this that some artists canít resist trying to "improve it". I mean, if a series of images are going to take up permanent residence in your head, itís hard to resist the temptation to pretty them up a bit. Make them more aesthetically palatable.
Frankly, I wish more artists had resisted that urge. And while Iím being frank, let me say that I donít like the versions which have been created with the intent to "improve" Smithís cards. Pretty them up, whatever that means. I find most of the re-colorings to be boring or insipid and yes, that includes a couple of the more popular re-colorings out there. As a collector, I have all of them. But I donít look at them very often.
In fact, up until a few weeks ago, I never met a re-coloring of the Waite-Smith deck that I thought was worth spending more than five minutes looking at.
Until I laid eyes on Carolís Illuminated Tarot. And it was love at first sight.
Letís back up a little and discuss the story behind Carolís painting of the Waite-Smith cards.
In the late 1980ís, Guido Gillabel sent Carol his Cosmic Egg Tarot, a charming set of majors created during one Easter season. Guidoís minimalist renderings of the tarot majors inspired Carol to paint them. The result was breathtaking. Carol then asked Guido to send her other B&W tarot cards to paint. Guido sent her a set of the B&W Waite-Smith illustrations from the "Key to the Tarot".
I wonder what that moment was like. The moment when visionary artist, Carol Herzer, first laid eyes upon the visionary tarot work of Pamela Colman Smith Ė a moment almost 80 years after Smith first created what has become one of the most popular tarot decks in the world. As Carol began her work on these cards, layering her colors, infusing her own energies into the imagesÖdid she feel the similarities in her approach to the artÖthe same approach taken by Pamela so long ago?
Letís talk about that artistic approach so that you can understand the inner similarities. First letís define the term "visionary art". You come across that term a lot these days, so it helps to understand how itís being used.
Visionary art refers to art produced by individuals whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself. Visionary art begins by listening to the inner voices of the soul. These voices lead the artist on vast, unplanned journeys through the imagination. The imagery that results is mystical and magical. It is a transformative experience, both for the artist and the viewer.
Some of Pamela Colman Smithís story has been published in Volume III of Kaplanís Encyclopedia of Tarot. There is a lot of information on Smithís drawing style. Interestingly, one of the contributors to this chapter was an old college professor of mine from James Madison University in Virginia. I had the university librarian pull some of this professorís notes regarding the Smith research and have summarized some of the commentary in the following threadÖSmithís work has been termed slightly Pre-Raphaelite, tending towards impressionistic, leaning toward symbolist, reflecting the clean lines of Ukiyoe art, bordering on the fantastical.
"Bordering on the fantastical". Visionary.
Smithís art has always quietly defied definition. It refuses to be pigeon-holed or typed. Thatís because, after all her years of training, Pamela took that technique and combined it with her inner vision to produce artwork uniquely her own. There are many accounts of Pamela listening to music and drawing what she "saw". At those times, when she sat down, pad in hand, waiting for the music to begin, she had no idea where that inner journey would take her or what it would produce.
In her tarot cards, some of that expression was harnessed by the demands of the cards, their meanings and structure, but if you look at some of the other artwork produced by Smith, you will see images not unlike those fantastical and mystical works produced by artists today. There is one drawing in particular that dwells in my mindÖthat of a wave flowing upward and stretching forward until at the tip, it forms the lovely and graceful head of a woman. The hypnotic lines of the image, the sense of movement, the sheer (and startling) loveliness resulting from the intertwining of human form with one of natureís elements...all of this makes for true visionary art.
Fast forward almost 80 years later to visionary artist, Carol Herzer.
Carol herself is a fascinating woman. She, too, defies typecasting or definition. Carol is one of the most business-like, efficient and professional people I have dealt with. She is a human dynamo for work. She is orderly in her approach to producing her tarot decks, minimizing the need for wasteful or excess movements. She is an absolute perfectionist, viewing everything she crafts with a critical and discerning eye.
Contrast this with the other side of Carol. Carol, the artist. When Carol paints, she paints with her soul. Her spirit takes her on a magical spontaneous journey where the end is unknown or uncertain. The end is not the goalÖthe journey itself is everything. Like her husband, Dirk, Carol is deeply connected to the universal energies when she createsÖenergy which flows into the images taking shape under each stroke of her brush.
Like Smith, who, pad in hand and waiting for the music to begin, had no idea where her artistic journey would take her, so it was with Carol. Each day, when Carol took brush in hand and placed it upon Smithís drawings, she had no idea what would take shape. She simply connected to her own higher self and followed her soulís inner music.
Of course, this is all very well and good, but to create something as beautiful and amazing as the Illuminated Tarot, you have to have talent and truly excellent technique. Carol has both in abundance.
Coupled with her own innate talent, Carol employs an artistic technique which allows her to translate her mystical visions onto canvas and paper. It is a technique she learned from world renowned artist Ernst Fuchs, himself a visionary artist and co-founder of the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism, which was formed in 1946. This group initially viewed themselves as surrealists, but very quickly developed a more visionary approach. Their work had the clarity and wondrous sense of light apparent in the works of the early Flemish painters.
Ernst Fuchs continued his evolution as a visionary artist, infusing his art with color, power and light. In later years he began to teach a centuries-old technique to his students. Called the "Misch" (masters) Technique, it involved alternating layers of oil glazes and tempera, giving an ethereal, luminous quality to the colors. Note, I said, "layering" colors, NOT mixing them. This is an important distinction because it is this technique of building up gradations of beautiful color, going from the deeper tones being applied first, followed by successive, subtle layerings of delicate, luminous glazes that creates an effect where light reflects from within the painting.
And when the light from within the painting encounters the light of the "outside world", well, that is how that opalescent, shimmering and magical effect so apparent in Carolís work is achieved.
The Misch Technique allows a painter to freely explore and reproduce her artistic visions, but, make no mistake about it, it is an extremely complex technique requiring a great deal of skill and talent.
Carol modified the Misch Technique and applied it to her own choice of color media Ė acrylics. Like some cosmic potter, Carol applies her colors with skills and finesse, culminating with a delicate wash of glazes which not only shimmer from within but reach out to capture the light from without. The result is artwork that glows like some magical underwater opalÖit is fire and it glows. But it is a liquid fire, alternately cool and hot Ė ever moving and expanding.
So now, on to the cards. They are truly marvelous.
Take the deck into your hands and you first encounter the beloved image of Smithís Fool -- that image which has graced the pages of many a magazine (even the National Lampoon), review and catalog.
But what a transformation! The background has come alive. The very air moves and swirls about our beloved Fool as he steps lightly towards the cliffís edge, face raised upwards as if to catch each breath of the wind, rose in hand. His tunic is a blaze of color, sleeves like flames. A familiar card, but look at the Sun! Not the white Sun we are so familiar with, but black, symbolizing the No-thingness from which we come.
The Emperor is regal in his robe of rich purple. Again, shimmering light emanates from behind the central figure, emphasizing the mystical archetypal being occupying center stage.
The Waite-Smith Hermit is one of my most beloved images, so I turn immediately to see Carolís painting and it is wondrous. Golden light spills from the lantern. That is to be expected, but Carol has added wash of violet light, symbolizing its spiritual nature. The tip of the Hermitís staff emits a series of shining rays, the serenity of the Hermitís face is preserved in every detail. His hooded cloak is a glowing, but calming blue. The entire card radiates spirituality, inner exploration and serenity. It is a deeply soulful card.
Death is a wonderful rendering, bringing attention to details I had not previously focused upon. Death himself is striking Ė he has exchanged his suit of black for raiment of blood red. It is an eerie effect, particularly with regard to his trousers which seem to give more of an effect of exposed, raw muscle rather than clothing. I love the red sun rising in the background, just beyond the two towers.
The Waite-Smith Sun has never been a card that made a huge impression on me. But wow, Carolís rendering has given me a whole new take on this card. I could spend hours gazing upon the face of the Sun itself. Or should I say "herself" because there is a subtle feminine aspect to this rendering. With just a few delicate applications of color, Carol has breathed additional life into this star that maintains physical life on our planet. The hue of the horse has also been subtly altered and it now takes on the same coloration as the Sun itself. I find the symmetry of color between the horse and the Sun to bring an added symbolic dimension to this card.
The magic continues on into the minors.
The Two of Swords immediately caught my eye. There is the familiar image of the blindfolded women with the crossed swords. But look at the Moon in Carolís rendering. It spills its light onto the two swords, setting them aglow with cool white flames. Night flames. Moon flames. Interesting imagery.
In the Four of Cups, the melancholy of the young man is emphasized by the deep blue hues of the sky which gradually flow into a night sky heavy with glistening stars. There is night in this young manís soul and Carolís beautiful painting allows us to see the sadness within him.
The Nine of Pentacles is another one of my favorite cards and again, Carolís painting celebrates Smithís drawings. The Smith sky of yellow is now soft combination of mauves and the palest of yellows. This melting yellow is replicated in the flowing robe of the lady
Although Carol is faithful to the drawings of Smith, she has renamed some of the Majors, as follows:
Hierophant - The Initiate
Hermit - The Guide
Hanged Man - The Unconscious
Death - Transformation
Devil - Illusion
Judgment - Awakening
The World - The Universe
The Court Cards have also been renamed and assigned their elements and to the signs of the zodiac.
Why do I adore the Illuminated Tarot when I am so rigidly uncompromising when it comes to changing Smithís own colors? Well, for one thing, Carol is an incredibly gifted artist whose vision, talent, and technique is a formidable combination Ė a combination that is more than capable of bringing grace and beauty to Smithís drawings.
But perhaps the most significant factor for me is that Carol did not approach his project with the goal of "improving" Smithís cards or making them "better". She deeply admires Smithís drawings. When meditating upon the Illuminated Tarot, one gets the impression that this series of cards is a celebration of not only Carolís, but Pamelaís amazing abilities and talent. Of course, one cannot know how Smith would feel about seeing her cards re-visioned, but I like to think, Smith being the intelligent, inquisitive person she was, that she would be immediately captivated by Carolís artistry and would want to learn the techniques herself. I can imagine her hovering attentively over Carolís shoulder as they busily discussed color, layering and glazing techniques. Two visionary artists deeply immersed in a stimulating conversation.
The most frustrating thing about reviewing the Illuminated Tarot is that, no matter how carefully I prepare scans of the cards, they will not do justice to the actual cards. Carol paints with light, where golden sparkles shimmer like celestial sand and night skies glow with silvery violet. Such luminous color cannot possibly be captured in a jpeg.
Even I was not prepared for the effect of handling 78 cards which glow like opals and pearls under flowing water. It was several days before I could even get through all the cards. I kept reaching sensory overload.
As with all of Carolís decks, the deck construction of the Illuminated Tarot is of the highest quality. It is a handmade, laminated deck which arrives in its own handmade, lined pouch with one of the cards affixed to the front. The deck comes in three different sizes to accommodate personal preference and budget. It has a rich, weighty feel to it that will make you reluctant to put it down. Not that you will want to, because the Illuminated is not only an excellent reading deck, but perfect for meditation as well.
If you are one of those tarotists who have that ambivalent attitude towards the Waite-Smith deck, the Illuminated Tarot is perfect for you. If you love the Waite-Smith, you will love the Illuminated. If you hate the Waite-Smith, you will love the Illuminated.
It is that beautiful.
You can order the Illuminated Tarot through Carolís website and prices and sizes are given. You can also see many more scans of the cards and read Carolís own story of how the Illuminated Tarot came to be.
I will tell you that Carol has the most reasonably priced handmade decks available anywhere. They are sumptuous, well-crafted and durable. They hold up well to constant handling, which is good because you wonít want to go anywhere without the Illuminated. My own copy is one of my treasures and a constant companion.
Thatís what happens with love at first sight.
Very highly recommended. It is a true gem. Treat yourself by making this wondrous deck a part of your tarot collection.
Illuminated Tarot by Carol Herzer
Handmade Deck of 78 Cards with hand-made pouch
This deck is available from the artist's website.
Paula Gibby first began to study the tarot in the summer of 1996, as a result of studying Kabbalah and the Tree of Life. She completed two B.O.T.A. tarot courses and is an active member of Tarot-l and Comparative Tarot. She has contributed tarot reviews to Wicce's Tarot Page and is a major tarot collector--at present, she owns over 300 decks. Her spiritual studies continue to widen; she has completed several Reiki courses and has received the Reiki II attunements. Inspired by the work of Arnell Ando and Michele Jackson, she created the Blue Rose Tarot and is now working on a new Majors-only deck. She is also presently quite busy as a Finance Manager in the Washington, D.C. area.
Review © 2001 Paula Gibby
Page © 2001 Diane Wilkes
Images © 1989 Carol Herzer