This is not a review, but this week I was lucky enough to receive a copy of the newly-released 78-card Mary-El Tarot and have been dying all week to write a few impressions here, but work demands have kept me from being able to centre myself and really think about the deck despite a few snatched drools in cafés, on the subway, here and there. Even now, after an exhausting week, I cannot fully concentrate but might as well write a few random, disorganized obervations. First of all, I have to say at the outset that the deck, as soon as I opened it, quite simply took my breath away. I had seen the scans on line and have been patiently waiting for it to be released while I busy myself with other decks, always aware that this one seemed a bit special. Now that it has arrived I can allow myself to topple headlong into its riches and I see now that it has been well worth the wait. Its elaborate, High Art feel and primeval atmosphere grabbed me from the start.
The first thing that strikes me is the density of the imagery, the layers and depth of symbolism. You just know that there are years’ worth of visual stimuli here to keep you going and get you delving deeper and deeper. It has a tribal, shamanic feel and yet at the same time certain cards (like the 10 of Wands and the Knight of Cups) have a refined, European court portrait feel to them. The overall impressions is one of opulent exoticism. I shall not write at great depth here about the theory behind the deck or an analysis of the structure and the artist’s approach. I’m sure there will be no shortage of reviewers talking about such things and how long it has taken the artist to actually get the deck published. It is a deck with such a strong presence, such a dramatic personality that all I want to do is convey just how dramatic and moving a deck this is, how dynamic the composition of each card is, and hope that this deck is propelled as quickly as possible into the Panthéon of Great Tarot Decks of Our Time. A friend of mine had bought the deck when a few of the first copies reached European suppliers (subsequently, supply problems have meant that the usual stockists no longer have them until – some say – April). However, when my friend received it, she knew it just wasn’t for her and although I had one on order from the artist’s website, I was so eager to see the deck up close that I pounced on this one. I shall keep this one for reading and carrying around, whereas the one signed by the artist (which should be on the way soon) can be kept pristine. To cut down on postage, she didnt send me the box though I know that it comes in one of those sturdy Schiffer boxes. I just wanted to have the deck in my hands (with the companion book, Landscapes of the Abyss), get myself a suitable bag and dive in and absorb. I have no doubt whatsoever that this is going to become one of the most significant deck releases of the decade. There is no other deck quite like it.
The quality of the art, the attention to detail and thought that has gone into it, the painstakingly meticulous technique and intelligent wealth of symbols quite simply send me reeling each time I pick it up. The cards are glossy (many do not like glossy cards but I don’t mind these ones) and measure 14 cm x 8.6 cm with a border of (generally) 7 mm, but which is wider at the bottom where the title is, in simple ochre font. The backs show a double ouroboros symbol on a plain black background. Colour quality and reproduction is fantastic, though I suspect many will have gripes about glossy black cardstock which will chip and scratch. Yet my immediate reaction – and I have said this before – is that when you truly love a deck (as I do this one) these things fade into irrelevance. It is the imagery that captivates. You only get distracted by picture frames in art galleries if the artwork isn’t enough to truly satisfy.
There are so many cards here which I find beautiful that listing a few seems pointless as there is always some other which seems to come along and trump it. However, I have to say I love the mechanical, futuristic Devil, with Giger bolts and trussed up forehead, as if our vices are like clockwork, a kind of automatic pilot. The 10 of Cups feels like a macabre Art Nouveau poster, the composition hinges on the dazzling red mane of the galloping stallion bearing skeleton and child, spilling eucharistic blood (all the Tens have apocalyptic horesmen). I love the Aces (all featuring hermaphrodites), especially the Ace of Disks, featuring the Minotaur of Crete at the heart of the labyrinth. I love the King of Disks, the lascivious, self-fellating Atum about to gorge on an apple plucked from the Tree of Life. This is a deck for grown ups who do not wince from nudity, or fear that their clients may be appalled by overt sexuality. The deck feels darkly sexual, but sexual in the way that all myths of life, all creation and destruction, is invariably analagous to primordial sexuality. It doesn’t shy away like so many other decks. And yet there is much Love emanating from these card images, heavenly, earthly, universal love. In fact, once you start unravelling, like a loose thread that just goes on and on, you find that there is very little that isn’t in this deck. The sheer elegance and beauty of the artwork is enough to hold our attention from the start. I have been reading the book and finding it oddly unnecessary in that this really is a deck which conveys its message directly, sometimes viscerally. The images really do speak for themselves. I often think that, with tarot, unless we create our own deck, we are forever dependent on empathising with another’s personal vision of all the matters on which we seek the cards’ guidance. In theory it is virtually impossible for us to feel so intimately attuned to another person’s unique inner vision – a person we have most probably never even met – and yet I have to say, with the Mary El Tarot, nothing in this deck seems unfathomable to me. Nothing seems brash, pontificating, dogmatic, off-set or off-kilter here. But then maybe this is simply the consequence of great art that reaches out to us. Whether we agree with its message or not, it touches us and eloquently portrays its own truths so that we may be ushered onwards towards our own.