Let me start by asking what everyone in the tarot world is wondering: do you remember your first kiss?
How did that first kiss compare to the moment in which you ‘got’ the tarot? I mean that moment in which the whole tarot suddenly made sense to you.
These are moments of exceptional intensity, rare in a lifetime and much alike. Suddenly the sky rips open and you are sent into a state of fusion with the surrounding world: it suddenly becomes meaningful and is understood. You hallucinate, give thanks for the beauty of the world and fall head over heels in love with the tarot, or Britney Spears.
Now, you probably didn’t marry the first girl you kissed, but you became a master card- maker. How did that come about?
First of all, on December 6, 1986, the day I experienced this moment of fusion, I started to write an autobiography. In my vision, all my life had recapitulated before my eyes to the rhythm of the tarot, in precise, quasi-surgical slices of life. So I wrote my experiences, while “remembering myself”, according to the arcana. The basic link between experience and image, essential for the tarot, was accomplished. The rest was easy. “Remembering oneself” means to relive the past as an observing/observer, with the savor of the moment’s energies. It is a “Madeleine of Proust”. This book is finished, but I have given up on finalising it.
At about the same time, I started doing readings using the deck I had stowed away when I was twenty. Each arcane is a graphic programming of a “place of consciousness”, or as Castaneda might have said, a precise “assemblage point”. So, when my visitor drew the Lover, I could break into the tears of a 16 year old. If Force was turned up, I felt again the ambition of my 30 years. I was in sympathy (in the Greek etymological sense: suffer with) my visitor and it was therefore very easy for me to evoke and transmit the energetic quality needed for finding a way out of her existential crisis.
Then, in 1995 a Parisian theatre commissioned me to make scenery using the 22 majors of the Marteau tarot. Each measured 2.50m x 1.20. The theatre had financed the materials and I had got as far as Temperance when the production was cancelled. I was left with my work and a surfeit of the Grimaud tarot. It was then that I began a serious historical study, painted my canvases white and started over with the Conver. I enjoyed the work very much, and the year and one-half immersion changed me. Among other things, I was able to observe the incredible operativity these images exercise in such formats. Then I took on the first 8 majors of the Noblet. Since the ektachromes for the others wouldn’t be available from the Bibliothèque Nationale for a year, I did the Dodal majors and then went back to finishing the Noblet. In the course of these projects, four completely “unusual” Viévilles (XVI, XVII, XVIII, XIX) were also produced in large formats.
You have given us restored versions of the Noblet and the Dodal, first in limited, hand-stencilled editions and now in full, mass-printed versions. I know how important it is for you to preserve the correctness of the original decks, but how much of you do you think there is in these decks?
I see none in the Noblet. And few in the Dodal: the reversible back, still a debated question, and two errors in color placement: one accidental (on the Moon), the other deliberate (Soleil).
Of course, an industrial edition requires that the card dimensions be standardised. The original inner-frame dimensions vary by 2mm in height and by 1mm in width. I chose the maximum height as reference. Around this is a 1mm black frame and then an outer band of 3mm. This last space is imposed by the printer for technical reasons, and is not determined by whether the corners are to be square or rounded.
In your reconstruction of the Dodal you had access to the two only existing originals: the one at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and the other at the British Museum. Did you work with both of these decks?
What differences did you find between the two?
First of all, the colors on the English copy are in better condition, but soiled and dull. The English print is more charged with ink, as well.
Then, three cards come from another, probably earlier block: the Ace of Batons, Ace of Swords, and the Valet of Batons. For our edition of the Dodal, the choice was made according to which card was more carefully engraved. The English copy was selected for the Ace of Swords, while the French deck was retained for the two others.
How is it technically possible that three cards came from a different block?
The stocks! At that time, people didn’t hesitate to re-compose complete decks from disparate sources, even using decks from diverse workshops. Worse, they were often re-cut. We will probably never know if the tarot moulds controlled by the of the Généralité de Lyon marked «français pour l’étrange» (“French for export”) were included or not in the royal destruction edict of 1701. We only know that Dodal began a new production in that year. In those days, little was wasted: everything was used and re-used. So, leftovers from an earlier edition could have been used in another.
As for the inscription “F.P. LE.ETRANGE”, T. Depaulis suggests it could mean either “Franc pour L’Etranger” or “Fait pour l’Etranger”, both appellations exonerating, from French taxes, decks destined for export.
Could Dodal have added an i to his name in order to promote the sale of his decks in Italy?
How long did it take you to finish this re-construction?
More than two years.
How long do you think it could have taken for the original engraver to create these plates?
I would imagine a maximum of two to three months, but I’m not sure.
I often wonder how much care was really put in the manufacturing of these decks. What is your feeling about that?
The engraver as free and independent person always worked as cleanly and conscientiously as possible.* In the workshops, printing the black line was mostly carried out by highly qualified professionals. Colors, however, were often put on negligently, sometimes by children in deplorable conditions. I have read in the Sainte-Suzanne archives that in 1792 the local carterie started stencil work at midnight, employing children who applied the colors by candlelight.
When printing your version of this deck, you had to settle for a color palette. Would you say that the final result is closer to the French or to the British deck?
Closer to the French.
I find a strong graphic resemblance between any of the Dodal images and the images in the Noblet. I am talking about the posture of the characters. This is especially clear in the court cards: Pages, Queens, Kings and Knights. The Dodal knights seem like loose versions of the Noblet’s horsemen. Do you think that it is possible that the Dodal was made by copying from the Noblet?
No, the graphic style and significant details are too dissimilar. They draw the same thing, the same theme, but each has his own personal style. On the other hand, one can use the word copy for the later tarots made in Marseille from about 1720/30. As elsewhere, there is no more re-actualisation.
When I showed the restored Dodal to a couple of people their reaction was “So… it is the same deck you already have, only bigger, right?” In a way I understand what they are seeing, but at the same time I think they are missing the point. In your view, why was that restoring the Dodal made sense? What are people going to get from it that they won’t get from the Noblet?
The Dodal generates a flash, or energetic short-circuit of the unconscious, different from that of the Noblet. A tarot image opens a door, and the landscape behind it is different depending on the door. As I mentioned before, the image is a programming of a “place of consciousness”, the precise assemblage point of a particular inner regard. Depending on the arcane and the engraver, they resemble each other a bit, much, or not at all. It’s like a chocolate Charlotte made by two chefs: one will be sweeter, the other juicier.
Tell me a little bit about the term ‘companion’. Is that a term you use to define all medieval guilds, or do you mean something else by it?
The “companions” entered into a “Compagnonnage” fraternity like one joins a religion or the Communist Party. Work was organised in the modern way, almost as a trade-union would, with sectors devoted to mutual aid, recruitment or intense in-house techno-spiritual training. As a craftsman you must have manual skill and a highly-developed feeling for materials, but also practice, all at the same time, the 6 other basic traditional qualities: courage, patience, generosity, humility, obedience and sense of responsibility. With time and application, these 6 qualities progress together with one’s skill.
But what was it that these fraternities were asked to build? Athanors, alchemical crucibles: collective trance machines intended to transform a whole population and carry it to God! We are in the realm of technological shamanism! So the “companions” within “Compagnonnage” on their building sites, whatever their trade (mason, stone mason, carpenter, sculptor, glass-maker…) are part, whether they know it or not, of a permanent school of wizard/technicians worthy of Harry Potter. The companion becomes Master when it knows he is one. We are a far cry from the later guilds which only served to structure the privileges of professional castes.
I was talking to a woman who has restored a few Thangka paintings from the 12th Century. We were talking about how there is an underlying visual knowledge in a Thangka painting that we can also find in the stained-glass windows of a European cathedral, or the illustrations in a Medieval manuscript. I am talking about an understanding of shape that it is also an understanding about how to use shape to move the human spirit. At a technical level, a Tibetan artist and an European draughtsman knew the same things, they just lent them to different belief systems.
In your text you wrote “the wisdom underling the tarot is a pragmatic professional philosophy”. Are you talking about that same knowledge?
Yes, but not only that. There is also the idea of progressive improvement in which work and the spiritual world are inseparable. For a craftsman/artist, the more you make beauty (the beautiful is operative, direct like a punch, creates an astonished destabilisation and opens the doors to paradise), the more your soul is beautiful!
How would you describe the “operative science” you see in the tarot?
Operativity is what the apprentice is learning to acquire. For the image-maker in a sacred period, it is a question of using an image to program the unconscious to a precise meditation. The state it focuses on, the arcane under consideration, is defined by the graphics and above all by the colors. Thangkas and the tarot function on the same operative level.
Whether we like it or not, colors manipulate us. The art is to consciously distribute them in a meaningful way.
Now, mandalas invite our mind to take a spiritual/psychological voyage. Would you say the tarot does the same thing?
In this case, do you think the tarot intends to take us all to a specific place?
Yes, it it has been doing that discreetly for centuries. It would seem that today there are still amateurs for this variety of shamanism, and a very modern one it is. The source tarots behave like a GPS. They all lead us to the same place, but for some it will be springtime in a crowd while others will experience loneliness and winter. The tarot is above all experimental, so I have often chosen to use the word psychonaut (or tarotnaut!) to indicate this “spiritual-psychological voyager”. Aren’t we all sailors on the ocean of the soul?
There is an idea, behind contemporary art, about taking our mind for an illicit spin.
“Art” and “illicit”: these words remind me of the interminable and highly Parisian discussions I participated in when I studied philosophy in university. “Illicit” seems to stand for the courage, which would like to see itself as exceptional, to accept crossing the barriers of conventional regard, and to let oneself be carried on towards an unknown. Illicit, in my opinion, simply means “random”. The GPS precision is lost, and one is tossed about wherever the emotional winds choose to carry us. I fear that with contemporary art we are certainly operative, but like a crazy compass!
Materials and symbols have an experiential meaning,
Meaning isn’t exactly the right word; power would be more appropriate.
but although each artwork would set some collective coordinates to start our trip, the arriving point is both individual and unexpected. How do you see that happening with the tarot?
With the tarot we approach precise states of consciousness, valid for all and validated by many generations. This is not the case with highly egocentric and anarchistic contemporary art. As long as we are discovering a territory, the landscape varies according to the seasons, to our position, our mood and the taste of our first kiss. It is a permanent innovation in perpetual motion. The goal of the tarot is to indicate an itinerary of the soul, undertaken one foot in front of the other, and not to toss us about on the tides of emotion.
In your writings I detect a notion that interest me a lot, but I would say it has been more developed in the Eastern world than in the Western world: any craft can be a spiritual path.
Yes, but let us not forget that culturally we are descended from a quadripartite system of social organization :
Producers : artisans/peasants: batons
Merchants: shopkeepers/financiers: coins
Warriors: aristocrats/soldiers: swords
Savants: doctors/priests: cups
The tarot is its reflection. What fundamental difference can we perceive between the castes of the Hindu orient and the “colleges” of the occident? None on a theoretical level, more with respect to action. What characterizes a fraternity of the Middle Ages is the recognition by one’s peers, through ritual and ceremonies, of a progress towards excellence, as much technical as (we would now say ) shamanistic or spiritually operative. Modern western Sufism comes closest to this genre today.
When you say, for example, that The Star card shows an eye in the belly of the woman as an allusion to the stone cutters’ “eye of the master”, their ability to feel the stone and know how to place it, are you talking about a craftsman’s ability to intuitively understand the nature and limitations of the material he is working with?
Still more, to feel them physically! In the course of an apprenticeship comes a moment when you are taught how to place your attention, both in the here and now (seeing the instant as it occurs; letting it happen while observing it) and in a particular corporal sensation, a sort of attraction/repulsion, related to the sense of the stone. This trick is useful to a craftsman, but the essential thing is learning to attain a state of observing/observer. One can also call this state “second attention”, and its automatic practice is what makes you a master.
I would think of Jackson Pollock, and how he understood painting to such a extent that he could take it beyond the limits of representation.
He seems to go beyond symbol or meaning and speak directly to the unconscious. All depends on what he has to tell it!
Pollock is an interesting example in that some physicists have now established that all of his paintings follow a fractal structure. He seemed to have painted in tune with the rhythm of nature, and as such one could see his action painting as the by-product of some sort of spiritual momentum.
The golden section had this function. To me, certain modern artists seem have gained the worlds of operativity by breaking and entering, in an illicit way, loaded down with a whole pack of more or less convoluted, neurotic and egotistical material. Others open the Doors of Paradise for us.
But I am also thinking about Chang Canasta, a magician who devoted the last decades of his life to painting. When he was asked why, he answered: “I believe in something called talent. Once you have it, you can apply it to everything.”
Idries Shah named this “learning how to learn”. Once you’ve learned how to learn, in 6 months to a year you can achieve excellence in a profession previously unknown to you. He went on to say that in a well-filled life it was necessary to have practised at least 6 trades at the highest level! Serghiu Celebidache was the celebrated orchestra conductor and the respected mathematician and rug expert and pheasant breeder and exceptional linguist speaking 7 languages…
Talent here is, again, an understanding of form, rhythm and pattern that a guy like Canasta could use to present a card trick or to paint a landscape. As soon as we understand proportion, balance, symmetry and contrast, we can apply that knowledge to all areas of our experience. Is it that the tarot intends to teach us, beyond the iconographic choice of imagery: mastering your craft is mastering yourself?
You have perfectly summarised the mission of the tarot. It goes even further: «mastering yourself» in order to participate in the Soul of the World.
You also mention in your text that “All master engravers during the second half of the 17th century were instructed in the inner meaning of the tarot – Mermé is their last representative.” How do you relate that affirmation to the idea of the Dodal being the last tarot that was consciously permeated by the companions intention?
It is the flame of Maison-Dieu which induces me to say that.
The tarot emerged from a Platonic-type mental world of philosophical immanence: the individual can, by his own achievements, put himself in a position to join the worlds of the Spirit. The flame is thus ascending, and to my knowledge Dodal’s is the last tarot to depict it in this way. All the other significant details confirm how well-understood the “pilgrimage of the soul” was, and how at that time the procedures of transmission were fully-functioning and conscious.
Later, the flame billows down from above, raising the question of divine grace and its intercessors: we are in a philosophy of the Aristotelian type. The inner meaning is lost; what remains is reduced to recollection and hearsay. The same applies to the other meaningful details. At best one installs them by copying, while at worst “fantasy” takes over. The engraver of Nicolas Conver went so far as to settle his accounts with nascent freemasonry by placing 3 dots on the chest of the Devil: freemasonry is a she-devil! These mid-eighteenth century quarrels mean nothing to us today. Respect for a tradition vanishes, the overall consciousness of a civilization shifts and the pre-industrial era dawns.
Cartouche of Haultin l’aîné, cardmaker at La Rochelle attested in 1680
Dodal furnishes only meaningful details and signs with the Master’s chrism. Resembling a stylized 4, this figure evokes measuring instruments and has been the prerogative of image-makers, carpenters and stonemasons since the Middle Ages.
I am asking you this because I am not familiar with the companions’ tradition, but I am familiar with what I would call the ‘Marseille Lore’. To me, this lore consists of a series of footnotes added to certain images, without their necessarily being in accord with the image’s original iconographic intention. I take that lore to be a fundamental part of the Marseille tradition, and by tradition I mean the narrative/divination use we made of these cards. To mention a couple of these footnotes, there is the idea that The Fool is the card without a number and Death is the card without a name; so when you overlap both, Death becomes The Fool’s skeleton.
If I remember correctly, it is to Tchalaï that we owe this idea.
That lore is the reason Jodorowsky said, in a preface to his first deck edition or in one of his books, that having been raised on classic Marseille lore (Grimaud), “killing the father” was the condition on which he could produce his deck. Numerous bad “good habits” had been acquired because this was the only historic deck on the market. Along the same lines, there is Tchalaï’s fine discourse concerning the comma on Force’s hat. But this comma was the result of damage to the woodblock!
When I began work on the Conver, after having painted over the Marteau images, I underwent the same temptation: make my own deck. For example, at first I painted the figures in Soleil naked, then put on vines with green leaves…then became annoyed with myself and dressed them back in their shorts! When Jodo liberated himself from the Marseille/Grimaud lore, he went into an egotistical creation frenzy. Considering his talents, this choice was regrettable.
There is also the idea of the person who is emerging from the grave in Judgement being, graphically at least, composed of two halves of two visibly different persons, or the idea of The Hermit containing a visual pun in that a man who looks at his lantern blinds himself instead of finding anything.
This pun is part of the essence itself of the Hermit. But within this lore, some details are significant, like this androgynous figure in Jugement, or the Hermit’s cane which resembles a spine, while others are not.
Your book is full of these great “narrative spells”. I call them ‘narrative spells’ because they are these little stories that validate a detail in a card, but at the same time they get validated by that same detail, in some sort of symbiotic loop; but these little tales don’t seem to amount to a coherent code one can read through the whole sequence,
These stories are there to bring into relief a particular perceptive state, explain certain experiences, or highlight a detail. They don’t add up together, and are indeed like footnotes.
I am a little bit septical about their historical validity.
You are right to be sceptical. Certain stories come from my own stock of experiences and I can validate them, while others are visions drawn from the memory of the world. These are from time to time corroborated by other people in strange ways. For example, I received a mail explaining that the “caterpillar trance” was an exercise practised in simplified form by people studying phosphenism.
For one thing, these descriptions can’t be found in books. They spread by word of mouth, it seems. So, what I want to know is, what is your take on that lore?
For the last 150 years, and it is barely older than that, this Lore has been fed at best by visions, at worst by the analyses and pronouncements of its spokesmen. The word-of-mouth transmissions have been interrupted for centuries. Only the world’s memory remains, that strange source phenomenon which is the tarot’s gift to its faithful enthusiasts. The memory of Jean Noblet or Jean Dodal is present still, and the path has been cleared of underbrush. These ancient masters can still flood you with their spirituality. It is for us to make contact. The stories issued from the world’s memory have an incomparable savour, leading you into a consciousness where doubt doesn’t exist. Here direct transmission comes into play; it is the storyteller’s talent. As a tarot reader, you often enter into visions and know how to share them. You already exercise this talent.
It is that lore part of the message from the companions,
Yes, direct transmission was part of the Compagnons’ teaching in times past. Today the younger generation is thirsty for stories, as it is these that transmit. In any case, what choice do they have? There is no longer any techno-spiritual instruction available through a profession.
or is that an embellishment on the way we describe the images that happened later? Do you think that such lore may have influenced the way the images were drawn?
Significant details were transmitted and utilized. The other details, those nourishing the lore, are late and intellectual, mostly dating from the middle of the 19 th century.
I like that lore a lot. In fact, at some point I mentioned to Roxanne that one of the reasons why I enjoy working with the Dodal more than working with the Noblet is precisely because many of these footnotes can’t be seen in the Noblet.
Noblet is a bit dry, and close-fisted with details, while Dodal’s engraver is savory, his details are numerous and imaginative! Compare their versions of the lady in the Star: Noblet made her half adolescent/half man to illustrate the virginal-purity/force-maturity of the master, a very strict and masculine definition of the canon. Dodal makes her pregnant to emphasize the transmission of essentials, and gives her a double regard to signify that she understands from within and without – a very supple and feminine description of mastery.
This leads to my next question: you make a distinction between the Noblet, the Dodal and the Viéville and the rest of the decks within the Marseille tradition. For you the Dodal is the last deck within the Marseille tradition in which some details were purposefully added.
Now, for the untrained eye, like mine, when it comes to certain details the Dodal is more similar to the Conver than to the Noblet. The Noblet seems to be the odd one.
That is exact, and I feel the same way. I think the answer has mostly been covered: it is the “Marseille lore”. Noblet undoubtedly is part of it, but from afar and in a strange way. He gives the impression of being an ancestor from another planet! One sees that the basic teaching is the same, but the two seem not to have had the same professor.
How do you manage to see such distinction between the Dodal and the following decks so clearly?
Dodal’s engraver knows what he’s talking about from experience, or transmission, or (as I believe) both. After him, one speaks of things because at best one has heard them spoken of. It is hearsay: my cousin told me that his brother had heard this or that… As long as the engraver has not lived the inner process of transformation to mastery, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and can only copy. With Noblet and Dodal, we are in the same world, but not with Conver and even less with those who follow him. We know their mental world by heart, and let me say we are very glad to be rid of them.
Finally, I wouldn’t like to end this interview without knowing: what will be next? I imagine that right now you and Roxanne may be feeling ready to rest a little bit and rejoice in the enormous accomplishment you have made but, what will you do when you get restless again? What is next?
Viéville, if I manage to extract myself from the historian’s quandary I’m mired in. I am convinced that this tarot was made “as mirror” by necessity, by an impossibility to do otherwise, and not to confer a particular meaning. Furthermore, why perturb and confuse the coming generations with all these images conforming to the Marseille pattern, but reversed? As for the 4 or 5 unusual arcana, they alone justify the effort. These “exceptions” confirm the rule and are the major interest of this tarot. The question deserves reflection by the community of historians and enthusiasts.
So yes, I would like to edit the Viéville in the classic Marseille order and direction. This would indeed be an illicit act. Will I have the courage to deliver myself up to massacre by the purists?
New-York / Sainte-Suzanne
Originally posted in February 2010 on Enrique’s site: tarology.wordpress.com
* “An engraver of 25 years named CLAUDE MERME born at CHAMBERY to the family of a Master Card-maker of CHAMBÉRY (His father was JOSEPH MERME) declared at the time of his marriage (which took place on April 3, 1714); to have worked for JEAN & JEAN PIERRE PAYEN in AVIGNON. He declared to have also worked for another Master Card-maker JEAN-JOSEPH REVEST at CARPENTRAS.
At the date of his marriage, he worked for another Master Card-maker from AVIGNON, ÉTIENNE BLATEROND. JEAN PIERRE PAYEN and BLATEROND confirmed his declarations on that day.”
SOURCES: Archives Départementales du Vaucluse. Étude Charrasse.
Posted by Yves le Marseillais here