His is a vexing biography. Click here for R.A. Gilbert’s paper from the 1986 Ars Quatuor Coronatorum and read of Waite’s—what I’ll call—duality of nature. He is remembered for books on Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, and Golden Dawn, but it seems some personality foibles leached into his mystical life. We’re all human. I have no problem with him, except that his A New Encyclopædia of Freemasonry is so disorganized as to prove the mystics ought to keep out of the reference and history book business.
It is beyond the confines of Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, and Golden Dawn where Waite’s name is best known, as he was the designer of the most ubiquitous tarot cards: the Rider-Waite deck. Rider was the publishing company that printed the cards. Waite provided the concepts for the illustrations. And the third wheel was the artist who brought those ideas to life: Pamela Colman Smith. Thus we reach the point of this edition of The Magpie Mason.
Whitney Museum of American Art currently exhibits “At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth Century American Modernism,” which includes Smith and the tarot cards. The show will close February 26, 2023. From the publicity:
“At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth Century American Modernism” showcases art produced between 1900 and 1930 by well known American modernists and their now largely forgotten, but equally groundbreaking peers. Drawn primarily from the Whitney’s permanent collection, it provides new perspectives on the myriad ways American artists used nonrepresentational styles developed in Europe to express their subjective responses to the realities of the modern age.
America’s early modernists came of age during a time when the country’s predominant mood was one of youthful confidence. Racial violence and social and economic injustices existed, but so too did insurgency and social reform. American technological and engineering ingenuity had made the country the world’s largest industrial power at the same time that political Progressivism and cultural shifts, such as women’s suffrage, had upended bourgeois codes of respectability. The combination gave rise to an excitement about an era that critic Walter Lippmann characterized as “bursting with new ideas, new plans, and new hopes.”
Against this backdrop, large numbers of American artists embraced the new over the traditional and fixed by rejecting realistic depictions of the world in favor of art that prioritized emotional experience and harmonious design. The results were largely ignored by the Whitney Museum, whose loyalty was to the urban realists who formed the core of the Whitney Studio Club, out of which the museum had grown. A handful of non-representational works were acquired when the museum was founded in 1930 and more were added in subsequent decades, but it was not until the mid-1970s that the museum vigorously began to acquire vanguard art made between 1900 and 1930. While extensive, these acquisitions largely excluded work by women and artists of color. The Whitney had already begun rectifying these biases, but in anticipation of the opening of “At the Dawn,” it added more works by these artists to the collection. The result is an exhibition that recasts the story of American art by celebrating the mood of optimistic excitement with which American artists embraced modern styles and illuminates the complexity and diversity that are at the heart of the American experience.
In 1909, Pamela Colman Smith was commissioned to design a set of seventy-eight tarot cards by A.E. Waite, the leader of the Independent and Rectified Rite of the Golden Dawn, a secret, mystical society to which Smith belonged. Known as the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck, it was the first to feature fully illustrated, symbolic images on each card, and integrated Judeo-Christian ideas into a visual vocabulary that often drew heavily on occult magic. Stylistically, the designs in the deck reflect the era’s widespread embrace of the sinuous, organic lines of Art Nouveau and the flowing patterns of Japanese prints. Smith used the style in her tarot cards and in watercolors, such as The Wave to suggest the existence of a mystical occult world beyond the visible one.
Click here for a quick video.
Seeing how Smith was English, I’m not sure how she fits into an exhibition of American artists, but that’s okay. In closing, let me offer the stock disclaimer on how tarot cards are for reflection, circumspection, contemplation, etc., and never for divination.
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