THE TAROT BY ERICA DAVIES FREUD MUSEUM

January 11, 2015

Much of Hervé Constant’s work has explored the journey of the soul in its search for fusion with the infinite. It was entirely appropriate that he was commissioned to paint a series of works based on the ancient symbols of the tarot.

 

HERVÉ CONSTANT AND THE TAROT 

Much of Hervé Constant’s work has explored the journey of the soul in its search for fusion with the infinite. It was entirely appropriate that he was commissioned to paint a series of works based on the ancient symbols of the tarot. The cards of the Major Arcana with their rich fusion of colour and symbol are a perfect launch pad for Hervé’s imagination.

Constant’s own journey has been an odyssey of creative self – discovery. Born in Casablanca of a Moroccan mother and a French father, he and his brother were for some time placed in an orphanage. Seeking a means of emotional expression Herve trained to be an actor. His career progressed, but he came to realise that it was painting not acting which for him, was the richest medium of self expression. The symbolist poet, Rimbaud was an early and enduring source of inspiration to his art. Rimbaud’s dazzling images and colours have evoked from Herve a series of powerfully expressive paintings which have been exhibited at the Musée Arthur Rimbaud.

The tarot’s origins are obscure; attempts have been made to find the source in ancient Egypt, and to ascribe the transmission to Europe to the gypsies. These speculations are largely the stuff of romance, though sets of the cards can be traced back to the fifteenth century. There are 78 cards in the full pack, 22 of the major arcane and 56 in the minor arcane, which in its turn is divided in four suits. These four are the equivalents of the clubs, spades, hearts and diamonds of the playing cards we use today. All the cards are used in a wide variety of spreads as a tool for divination. However the cards of the major arcane are regarded as making the most powerful statement when they appear in a spread.

The cards which Herve has used as the basis for his series are the tarot of the Magician drawn in the 1920’s by Oswald Wirth. Wirth has based his cards on the ancient tarot of Marseille. He redrew them, incorporated the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, added symbols which he felt enhanced the meaning and recoloured them. In recent years there has been an outpouring of new designs and newly elaborated interpretations for each of the cards, yet the fundamental interpretations of the major arcane still remains the same. Their essence is a narrative of the major changes in the spiritual development of an individual. The journey of soul through the travails of life from the innocence of youth, the trials and ordeals of old age, death, resurrection onward to spiritual transcendence. They are always numbered and therefore have a progressive order.

To do full justice to the meaning of each of the 22 cards would take half a book, but in conversation Herve drew attention to three cards which held special meaning for him. Perhaps the most enigmatic of these is Le Pendu, the hanged man, numbered 12, an image which often sends a shudder through those unfamiliar with the symbolism of the tarot. On closer examination the hanged man can be seen to be smiling, almost contentedly hanging by his foot, his body forming the shape of a cross. In some decks the figure is thought to be the representation of the more developed soul of the Le Bateleur, the magician, numbered 1. The hanged man is interpreted as a wise person who has abandoned the vanity of assertive individualism and has understood the wealth which can materialism to spirituality.

Hervé is also drawn to La Tour, the tower, numbered 16, sometimes called La Maison de Dieu. Wirth added a particularly strong symbol to this card by depicting the tower struck by a bolt of lightening which emerges from the sun and not a thundercloud. This underlines the meaning of this card as demonstrating the inevitability of change. It also symbolises that the collapse of old pattern of life can lead to new freedom as the individual is not longer restrained within the encircling walls of the tower. One of the most resonant of all the figures of the tarot is Le Fou, the fool, the card bearing no number, signifying that it is both the beginning and the end. It is the only card of the major arcane which has survived in our present day playing cards in the form of the joker. The fool boldly strides forward not perceiving an obelisk. He is oblivious of the lynx biting into his leg; he trusts completely that the world will provide for him. This card is regarded by many of the commentators on the tarot as the most profound, being both the beginning and the end, it represent the start of a new cycle of spiritual and intellectual growth.

Hervé Constant has found the Wirth Tarot an inspiring well spring for his painting. With his own strong sense of the emotional content of colour, he has changed the colours to add the emphasis most satisfying for himself. The tarot’s archetypes and resonant imagery have provided this reflective artist with an exceptional source for his own mature invention.

Erica Davies, Director, Freud Museum

 

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