If I could have lived in any historical city at any given time, I would unhesitatingly choose Vienna in the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Anytime between 1900 and the outbreak of the First World War to be precise. Of course it would entail being dead now (small detail) but I would forego this simply to have been a part of one of the most glittering civilizations that the world has ever known. I would give anything to be one of the figures in the photograph above scuttling to the opera house one spring day in 1902. To have been a member of the wealthy, art-loving classes at this time would have been bliss, commissioning new panels and trailblazing chairs for airy, minimalist drawing rooms. I think this every time I dig out my copy of the Golden Tarot of Klimt, artwork by A.A Atanassov (who also did the artwork for another favourite of mine, The Tarot of the III Millennium) and published by Lo Scarabeo. I sniffily ignored this deck for quite a while thinking it would be gimmicky, even though I have always been fascinated by this period of Viennese history, as I felt that no tarot reconstruction could ever do justice to its headiness and sensuality. I love Egon Schiele (I wrote my dissertation on his self-portraits), Osker Kokoschka, Otto Wager, plus other less well-known artists of the Secessionist movement, but it is in Gustav Klimt’s work that we truly feel the romantic intoxication of an Empire’s dying days (with all the horrors of the 20th Century inconceivable) and this deck manages to capture a tiny part of that decadence and transform its energy into a surprisingly readable contemporary tarot deck which I come back to again and again.
Vienna at the turn of the 20th century had it all; the centre of an Empire which, as Empires go, was a short-lived one. It began “officially” in 1867 as a ragbag of different countries – with 11 languages – presided over by Emperor Franz Joseph I who would die in 1916, by which time his only son and heir, Crown Prince Rudolf, had committed suicide. His nephew, Franz Ferdinand, became Archduke and heir presumptive. He and his wife visited Sarajevo one sunny day in early summer 1914, and an attempted assassination failed when a bomb bounced off the car. The car later took a wrong turning and as it was backing out of a wrong street where the car was never meant to go, a fatal shot rangout killing them both and – bizarre as this always seems in the history books – it was this that started the First World War.
The years preceding this, as with the final years of any doomed Empire, now seem to us hedonistic and ominous, and Klimt’s paintings (though I’m sure much of it is in our own imagination), seem to reflect this. Yet Vienna at this time truly had it all. So many of the key figures of 20th Century culture were active in Vienna, the figures responsible for what we think of when we contemplate the vastness and and disparateness of it all. Egon Schiele was revolutionalising draughtsmanship and notions of portraiture, Oskar Kokoshka was also doing his bit for the Secessionist movement. Otto Wagner was doing the same with architecture, Schoenberg with music, Robert Musil with literature, while Klimt was creating a more florid type of modernism and – perhaps most significant of all for the 20th Century mind and beyond – Dr Freud was practising at 19 Berggasse between 1891-1938. On top of this, there was also a short time (maybe round about 1913) when Hitler, Stalin and Trotsky all lived there. While Klimt was creating his extravagant gold-leaf portraits, friezes and vampish, iconic idols of female domination, an unshaven, unwashed Hitler was hawking his mediocre watercolours from café to café. But it is the sumptuous drawing rooms of Vienna where for me Klimt’s art resides and which this deck fabulously evokes. And I think that’s the key for me; it evokes, and Klimt’s is an easy (for want of a better word) spirit to evoke (not teach). It isn’t a lesson in Klimt’s art, much less a history lecture on an albeit fascinating period. It is a deck which evokes a certain spirit; a spirit of sensuality, loss, perversion, sickliness, peculiar grace, with grimmacing mermaids swimming against the tide, one of the few decks where male sensuality is as present as female sensuality. The original artwork has been very much “bent” (as I call it) to fit a tarot theme. But I forgive it this. Large scale works, such as Klimt’s painting for the Academy of Medicine (destroyed during the war) are split up, with fragments and details spread across a few cards (like Judgement and The Magician).
This deck has been very cleverly created to feel quite removed from the Rider-Waite Smith pattern and yet if you look closely, it isn’t actually always so far removed. Maybe it’s because it has such a distinct atmosphere, so different from the tweeness of many other tarot decks that you feel it forges its own energies and forcefully elbows more traditionalist meanings out of the way, though if you look closely, you can usually see Rider Waite Smith-ness. But why force yourself? I think each of us should have as a reading deck one (at least) of those decks that floats us free, for those moods when we feel unanchored and dreamy, when we want to swoon into unstructured territory. I like how the cards of this deck, when laid side by side, can be read as a frieze, angular and interlocking. I like how the gold leaf (which sadly doesn’t come up in scans), cleverly worked into the design, often emphasises the geometric flatness, and makes it all feel much more incorporated and cohesive than Lo Scarabeo’s other gold leaf decks. I have never understood quite why I find this deck so readable when it has relatively few pointers towards traditional tarot symbolism, but I find it easy to just let go and be swept away.
Many have commented on the gaunt bodies, but this has never bothered me. Klimt’s and Schiele’s work features scrawny men and women but it would be silly to associate this (as some have) with concentration camps or anorexia when nothing in its historical context ever suggests this. If anything, we might associate it with the Spanish flu epidemic which swept across Europe immediately after the war and killed thousands, but I prefer to see the skinniness as simply another era’s notion of elegance and angst. I know that many hold a different opinion, but I continue to find this a very sensual deck with the emphasis firmly on the contorting and attenuated body (only one card, the Ten of Pentacles, doesn’t contain people), juxtaposed against Klimt’s very distinct decorative backdrops, where they seem bouyant and subject to tides and whims. Only when laid out side by side do the cards (like Marseilles cards) really make sense. This is a deck which favours card draws of two, three or more. A one card draw with this deck always feels rather desolate. I dream of one day visiting the Café Landtmann or the Hotel Sacher, places through which all of Vienna’s key figures at some point passed, and laying out my cards on a table for a reading (while perhaps enjoying a kapuziner like Freud). Perhaps inventing a spread; based around the theme of vanished worlds; the Vanished Empires spread, for all of us carry within us our own lost Empires which we yearn for every day. Or maybe it’s just me.