“I am surrealism!” Salvador Dalí once declared. The idiosyncratic, often bombastic, lifestyle of the Spanish artist who could recall in boundless detail his experiences as a fetus has exasperated and fascinated for nearly a century. Add in his wife, Gala, whose chimeric manifestations in so many of his works are both alluring and jarring, and their life frequently appears an imitation of his art.

Dalí’s legacy endures, as evidenced by the vast number of visitors to the special exhibit, Dalí, which just closed at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Featuring works on loan from the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, nearly one million people attended over a three-month period, forcing the Centre to open the show 72 hours straight the last three days in order to accommodate demand.

Dalí was a painter, a sculptor, a jewelry maker, a filmmaker and a writer. He was also a creator of the esoteric. Gala, considered the financial genius behind her husband’s success, had a yen for the tarot and often sought divine truths and hidden meanings from the cards during social gatherings. In his later years, Dalí created a 78 card deck, Dalí Universal Tarot, for his beloved Galuchka. Distribucions d’Art Surrealista and Comos Naipes released the deck in 1984, the year Dalí turned 80, and is still available for purchase.

In tribute to Dalí’s tarot cards, Stacy Engman, chief contemporary curator to the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park, New York, invited some of the most provocative and recognizable contemporary artists and fashion designers to reinterpret the deck, among them Karl Lagerfeld, Ultra Violet, Andres Serrano, Christian Louboutin and Marc Jacobs. The resulting collection, Contemporary Magic: A Tarot Deck Art Project, contains 78 original framed artworks on 7 x 10 inch paper.

It could be said that this traveling homage to Dalí’s original deck, on tour since 2010, has finally come home. On exhibit at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida until May 12th, Engman’s curated show is flamboyant and maniacal, disjointed and whimsical, disturbing and quizzical — a perfect tribute to the artist who was all that and so much more. While it would have been lovely to see the original Dalí cards side-by-side with the contemporary exhibit, there is a sampling of his deck at the entrance to the show — a siren’s call to enter the world of the obscure and exotic.

Origins of the Tarot

To understand Dalí and Gala’s fascination with the tarot, one must first understand its cultural heritage. The origins of tarot cards date back to the Renaissance. Most scholars agree that the deck’s original purpose had far more to do with parlor games like Bridge and Tarrochi than divination, which was practiced by esoteric groups at the turn of the 20th century in France and England.

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, founded in Great Britain in 1887, was a secret society of both men and women (a rarity at the time) and is considered one of the most important contributors to the spread of Western occultism. Members of the group intertwined the mystical aspects of world religions with the practice of magic as a means to spiritual enlightenment. Astrology, the four classical elements (earth, air, water and fire), geomancy and the tarot were utilized in this journey toward self-actualization.

A. E. Waite, a member of the Order and scholar of the occult, collaborated with illustrator Pamela Colman-Smith, to create a 20th century contemporary deck of tarot cards. Known as the Waite Deck, it was published in 1909 and remains the most popular tarot deck in the English-speaking world. The deck is comprised of 78 cards, split into two groups: Major Arcana and Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana houses 22 cards — often considered “trumps” — which are archetypal in nature, e.g., The Lovers, The Hangman, The Moon, The Fool and Death. The Minor Arcana is divided into four suits — swords, cups/chalices, pentacles/coins and wands. Each suit has a king, queen, knight, and page and starts with an ace and ends with a ten. Every card has a brilliantly colored image corresponding to its trump or suit, royalty or number.

Trained readers of the tarot deal a hand and seek to interpret the meanings of the upturned cards in relation to the person sitting before them. The divination provides the seeker of knowledge a path into the future.

Dalí’s Deck

Tarot Universal Dalí utilizes Waite’s delineations, but that’s where the similarities end. Dalí’s cards are beautifully produced with gilt edging; the names of the Major Arcana are written in English and Spanish. Unlike the Waite Deck — each card meticulously drawn and painted uniformly — Dalí’s deck is a pastiche of old-world art, surrealism, kitsch, Christian iconography and Greek and Roman sculpture. Many of his reoccurring motifs such as the rose, the fly and the bull’s head are found throughout the deck.

In the accompanying booklet — written in Spanish, English, French and German — the introduction notes:

“The Wizard (Arcanum I), Salvador Dalí, has transformed with his exceptional art and his marvelous talent the 78 golden plates of ‘The fabulous book of Thot’ into as many artistic marvels, each one of them duly signed by the hand of this unmatchable, internally famous painter … such an extraordinary artistic creation does not detract, in any way, from the Tarot’s close symbolism. On the contrary, it enhances with its captivating beauty, the Tarot’s esoteric and plastic meaning.”

Dalí’s fanatical self-promotion is legendary, but here he actually shows reserve. Yes, reserve — as if his reverence for the tarot nearly humbles him. Alas, it doesn’t last for long.

He has chosen himself as the face of the Wizard, whose meaning includes willpower, creativity and genius, while Gala’s face is superimposed on a sculpture of Isis. Dalí’s description of the card is an ode to the “celestial Gala-Isis,” which represents “the supreme spiritual power; physically it represents Nature, and intellectually, the fertility of the microcosm and macrocosm. The scepter with the fleur-de-lis stands for brightness.”

Like the Waite Deck, the Minor Arcana is similar to a modern deck of playing cards. The cards are depicted with the suit’s emblem and its number: blue, white and yellow swords; yellow chalices (cups); bright green stalks with yellow leaves (wands) and yellow coins with red pentacles. Found in each suit, the color yellow is symbolic of the inner light within humanity — the light that can be divined through reading the tarot. “Heaven is what I have been seeking all along,” Dalí once wrote. “Heaven is to be found, neither above nor below, neither to the right nor to the left, heaven is to be found exactly in the center of the bosom of the man who has faith.” With each reading, the artist was brought closer to his internal heaven.

(Article continued on next page)