The Effect of the Tarot Pack on the Surrealist Concept of Chance

President Iris Gioti explores the surrealist concept of chance and the effect that the Tarot Packs could have on it.  

“Still more interesting is the study of emergences or reappearances which, through their rhythms and tokens, form history- the history of individuals as well as peoples.” (Mabille 37).”

Surrealist Pierre Mabille’s interest in the occult can be applied to the use of tarot cards as a token, each card and the symbols behind it representing a human rhythm, such as love, death and power, that goes on to shape human history. As a means of telling the future used from the early 14th century, tarot cards have been used by many different cultures to predict the unpredictable. This essay’s focus is on the use of tarot cards by Surrealists as a predictive tool, which brings to the surface a crucial contradiction. A close analysis of Andre Breton’s 1924 The Manifesto of Surrealism highlights the importance of chance to a Surrealist’s art and way of life. This essay will focus on the question: does the use of tarot cards as a predictive tool challenge the Surrealist concept of the self and society, as affected by chance?

“The marvelous is not the same in every period of history: it partakes in some obscure way of a sort of general revelation only the fragments of which come down to us: they are the romantic ruins, the modern mannequin, or any other symbol capable of affecting the human sensibility for a period of time.” (Breton, Manifesto of Surrealism 16). Surrealism is inexplicably linked to unpredictability. This is why I am interested in the prevalence of fortune-telling devices such as tarot cards in the Surrealist circle. The aforementioned quote from Andre Breton’s The Surrealist Manifesto (1924) compliments Mabille’s theories on the importance of singular moments and objects (tokens), in how people interact within society. Occult objects such as tarot cards are an example of tokens that mediate people’s interactions with society. The relationship between the Occult and Surrealism is long standing, as Surrealists attempt to break all the boundaries placed on art and all forms of human expression. One of the ways to do this was to push the limits of human consciousness, by delving into the Occult, a sphere renowned for depending heavily on a vivid imagination and the ability to believe. Despite this involvement with the Occult, it is interesting to see Surrealists engaging heavily in the art of the tarot, because of their emphasis on the importance of chance. Tarot cards, by predicting the future, eliminate the power of chance over a person’s life; either because the individual believes in the prognostic abilities of the tarot cards, or because foreknowledge can make the individual more wary. Renowned director Alejandro Jodorowsky tells fortunes using tarot cards outside his house in Paris, while Max Ernst refused to meet Andre Breton’s lover and muse, Nadja, because a fortune-teller told him that a “Nadia” would do untold harm to his wife. I will be analysing the 1945 tarot pack created by Breton and members of his inner circle, the Jeu de Marseille tarot pack, and contrasting it to the Tarot de Marseille cards that inspired it. I have decided to go back to the “original” cards because Breton himself held them to high esteem, despite the structure of the Surrealist Tarot Pack not following the classic structure of the Major Arcana. The Surrealists have modeled the Jeu de Marseille cards after a normal 52-card pack. I will be exploring how the Surrealists use the tarot cards to employ their own interpretations of society, people and the world around them, as well as exploring how their use and belief in the tarot cards challenges their belief in chance.

Viot addresses the human concept of consciousness versus the tangible, the physical against the mind: “Primitives… take a stone. It is a stone of mystery. This stone has a reality which extends into the extrasensible: not a twin reality, not another reality of which it would be the appearance, but the same reality… matter and spirit are one.” (Viot 112). His argument regarding how other cultures view supernatural and extrasensory occurrences, the connections between the mind and the world around us is comparable to the Surrealist approach to chance and the Occult. The Surrealists attempt to break down the boundaries created between the two. He goes on to say: the “differentiation between mind and matter… the appalling snare of an ideal which has to be merited, and there we are scampering along, with god in front of us, like a carrot on the end of a stick to hoodwink the soul.” (Viot 112). Viot is also creating an argument against the Occult; he is placing god, religion and the human need to believe in a higher power as an obstruction to us fully giving in to the powers of chance. In Breton’s Nadja he muses: “Suddenly, perhaps still ten feet away, I saw a young, poorly dressed woman” “she looked so delicate she scarcely seemed to touch the ground as she walked” (Nadja 64); he encountered her by chance and decided that it was fated that he should meet her and therefore get to know her. Breton was a proponent of the concept of mad love, which was fueled by the idea that chance governs all the admirable phases of life. The critic J. H. Matthews stated that “in active Surrealism, the stress is upon life and thought, not upon literature and language” (50), a statement that exemplifies Breton’s idea that life was only worth living when lived to your own ideals, and therefore the ideals that form the basis of Surrealism. Breton’s encounter with Nadja in his eponymous novel is an example of chance in practice; another vivid example is Walter Benjamin’s concept of the flâneur, of the city-wanderer. Breton is also a champion of this idea; he happens upon Nadja later on in his novel just by wondering around the city of Paris, and by doing so he learns more about her. Chance is evidently a very strong and important concept for the Surrealists, and is in clear contradiction to their practice of reading the tarot.

It is significant to note when the Surrealists decided to create a Surrealist Tarot Pack; it was in the early 1940s, at the height of the Second World War. A world-wide feeling of fear could explain why a group so defined by their belief in creating their own paths and futures would turn to an Occult medium so entrenched in old-world beliefs. “Survivals are superstitions, customs, habits and practices. Superstition of the ‘super-stare’, what remains after forgetting, that which lingers. These are gestures or judgments whose meaning has become diverted and which subsist.” (Mabille 37). Mabille’s view on the prevalence of superstitions in the modern world explains the Surrealists’ own tendency towards the occult and tarot cards. At a time when the world was overtaken with mass hysteria and war, when it seemed that chance could lead you down any form of destructive path and put you in harm’s way, it is becoming more clear as to why the Surrealists would have turned their attention to the tarot pack, which conceptually so defies their own principles of art and life.

In Eden Gray’s Complete Guide to the Tarot she declares that “the truest claim we can make is that the Tarot is a symbolic record of human experience.” (15), enforcing the conclusion that the Tarot is a token of humanity, shaping history as it translates human emotions and experiences into more tangible concepts. This is evident in the cards of the Major Arcana, which consists of cards that represent a plethora of different ideas; from the feudal hierarchal system to the manifestations of Death, Wisdom and the Fool. The classic Tarot de Marseille includes The Emperor (Fig. 1), The Empress (Fig. 6), The Magician/Jack (Fig. 11). I will be referring to these cards in my analysis of the Surrealist Jeu de Marseille cards.

Breton and his inner circle, comprising of the artists and writers listed in Figure 18, had a novel approach to the hierarchy seen in the Tarot de Marseille. As a predominantly Communist circle, they uncrowned The Emperor and Empress cards, transforming them into The Genius and The Siren. The Emperor and The Empress imply an equality in power and strength that is not evident in the relationship between The Genius and The Siren. The Surrealists could be charged with once again elevating the male figure with the power of his brain, while diminishing the female to a character attached to the idea of beauty and temptation. The change in the character of the common Jack or The Magician is also significant; it again highlights the Surrealists’ tendency to break down class systems, by transforming this character into The Magus, who can be seen to have equal standing to The Genius. The Surrealists’ take on The Fool (fig. 16) is important, as instead of designing their own card they decided to use Alfred Jarry’s wood carving of Ubu Roi (fig. 17), a character from a series of plays he wrote in the late 19th century. As they did not design their own Fool card, I will be focusing my analysis on The Genius, Siren and Magus cards. The Surrealists also shifted away from the traditional suits (hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs) as well as the traditional tarot suits (wands, cups, swords and discs), opting for the locks, wheels, stars and flames seen in the top left had corner of each card (fig. 2-5, 7-10, 12-15). Each suit symbolises a different concept key to the Surrealists, and is reflected in their choice of figureheads for each suit. “The group invented its own symbolism… Flames represented love and desire; wheels represented revolution; stars represented dreams; and locks represented knowledge.” (Schneider). By analysing the transformation from the Tarot de Marseille cards to the Jeu de Marseille, the overall importance of the tarot cards in the Surrealist circle as a predictive tool is emphasized, and how this has challenged their perceived idealization of the concept of chance.   

The Emperor’s divinatory meaning is “leadership, mental activity, domination. War-making power…Controlled and directed sexual power.” (Gray 26). The Tarot de Marseille Emperor is pictured seated on a throne, “his right hand (the active, male side)” (Gray 26) clasping the ultimate symbol of power in Europe, a sovereign sceptre topped with a cross. The power of the church is evidently behind him, the Christian symbol of the eagle augmenting his powerful image. There is also grass growing by The Emperor’s left foot, highlighting his fecundity, his ability to rule positively and bring prosperity to his land. The masculine symbols of strength can also be seen in the Surrealist Genius cards, but the symbols of feudal and religious power are non-existent. The Surrealists’ decided to depict only male characters for The Genius card, despite the word “genius” not being specific to the male gender. It could be implied that this is another example of the Surrealists placing more importance on male genius and accomplishments, or it could be that they chose to adhere more closely to the traditional Emperor card. For The Genius card they depicted Georg Hegel, the Marquis de Sade, the Comte de Lautreamont and Charles Baudelaire. Despite their alliance with Communism and the dissemination of the class system, two of The Genius cards depict French royalty. All four men inspired the Surrealists in different ways; Hegel was the father of German Idealism; de Sade was infamous for his libertine sexuality and sadism, that led to his incarceration multiple times; Lautreamont was actually Isidore- Lucien Ducasse, a French poet who was considered a prophet for Breton and his circle, as was Baudelaire. For this analysis I will focus on The Genius of Wheels, the Marquis de Sade. It is a key point that the Surrealists chose the Marquis de Sade for the suit of Wheels, the suit of revolution. It would have been just as fitting to place him as The Genius for the suit of Flames, representing passion, but the Surrealists must have placed him in the suit of Wheels because of his revolutionary writing, which paved the way for a more liberal view on sexuality and erotic works, as well as his involvement with the post French revolution government. The card itself has a very similar colour scheme to The Emperor card, adhering to the primary colours. The Marquis de Sade is also portrayed holding an object that clearly resembles the sovereign sceptre, shaped like a chalice on one end and like a dagger on the other. The dagger could be a reference to de Sade’s sadistic tendencies; he was notorious for his assaults on sexual partners, while the golden chalice represents his noble birth and wealth. His golden jaw, mouth and forehead are manifestations of his golden tongue, his ability to write and speak in an enticing manner. The gold accents and red robes are also a reference to the privileged position held by de Sade, as well as the power of The Emperor in society. Despite trying to strip away all societal and class distinctions, it is still evident in the construction of the Marquis de Sade card that there is an iconography that can be clearly linked to the feudal system and to Europe’s tokens of power. By adhering to certain tokens of power in the creation of their new societal order (as depicted in the tarot cards), the Surrealists are contradicting their own theories on the eradication of class systems and other forms of societal control. This rests on the basis that the Surrealist tarot pack represents their own ideas on the reformation of society. The echoes of the feudal Emperor card also affect the Surrealist concept of chance, further constricting it through the use of the tarot as well as the power of The Emperor/Genius.

“Woman as the subject (of desire and pleasure) in the tragic community of insatiable longing is understood conspiratorially by the male voyeur.” (Passeron 78). The Siren figure in the Jeu de Marseille is a continuation of the Surrealist conceptualization of femininity and women: of the woman as a mysterious, erotic and muse-like symbol, a token of fragility. The Surrealist Siren exists in clear contrast to The Empress (fig. 6), as The Empress holds a title with equal gravitas to The Emperor, and is even placed before him in the order of the tarot. This is clearly not the case with the Surrealist equivalent, as evident from the title the figure holds. The Surrealists also chose figures for The Siren that greatly contrast The Genius: the medium Hélène Smith (fig. 7), the Stendhal character Lamiel (fig. 8), Lewis Carroll’s Alice (fig. 9) and the Portuguese Nun (fig. 10). Aside from Hélène Smith, the other three Sirens are fictional characters; there was a Portuguese Nun that could possibly be the narrator of the ground-breaking Letters of a Portuguese Nun, but it is not confirmed that she penned the letters herself so we will assume that the Surrealists are depicting the fictional character. This is also indicative of the Surrealist men’s idealisation of women; there were few who were accepted in Breton’s inner circle that were considered serious artists and not muses, and there was a strong objectification of women in Surrealist art. “Even in their most erotically liberated paintings the Surrealists showed their predilection for ‘true love’, which they exalted as much as genius; but both love and genius are idealist concepts” (Passeron 80). Passeron nails the distinction between genius and love, men and women in Surrealism, highlighting the Surrealist en-masse conceptualization of woman as love, eroticism and the opposite of the genius man, but also the idealism in Surrealism; men were exalted as geniuses but Breton, Dali and numerous other Surrealists’ neuroses and faults in character where ignored, while women who didn’t adhere to their views on femininity and woman-as-muse were denounced as hysterics (Nadja) or avoided and feared (Claude Cahun). The image of the Portuguese Nun is a clear contrast to The Empress: with her head thrown back she seems to be in the throws of erotic ecstasy, the two orb-like structures in the centre of the card representing breasts. The pomegranate is also a strong sexual image representing the vagina, and the habit that the Nun is wearing is off-set by the flames that surround her. She is clearly a lustful reincarnation of woman, aligned to the Surrealist concept of the muse and The Siren, meaning that this card is a conceptualization of the Surrealist view of women in society.

“The Magician represents Man’s will in union with the Divine achieving the knowledge and power to bring desired things into manifestation through conscious self-awareness” (Gray 23). Gray’s interpretation of the card is in direct correlation to the Surrealists’, as evidenced by their choice in figures: the father of toxicology and occultist, Paracelsus, revolutionist Pancho Villa, the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud and German philosopher Novalis. Leiris states that W.B. Seabrook and he were both “fully convinced that one of the few valuable things one could work towards was the abolition, be any means available (mysticism, madness, adventure, poetry, eroticism…) of the intolerable duality established, as a consequence of our present morality, between body and soul, matter and spirit.” (Leiris 65) which is a Surrealist idea that all The Magus figureheads pursued by also breaking with social customs, whether through the practical applications of alchemy and the Occult, a revolution for the establishment of democracy, forming the basics of psychoanalysis, or the conceptualization of magical idealism. The Magician card (fig. 11) is clearly involved in alchemy, but the wand he holds “reaches up to take the hand of the Infinite for accomplishment in the higher realms, while he reaches down with the other to encourage the evolution of the lower kingdoms- thus uniting Spirit and matter” (Gray 23),  a clear manifestation of Leiris and Viot’s ideas. Freud as The Magus of Stars (fig. 14), of dreams, is complimentary to The Magician card, due to the suit he is included in but also his right extended arm. The importance of Freud in the understanding of the human psyche is also a clear correlation to The Magician; he was at the forefront of the evolution of human ideas, connecting the abstract to the concrete in the form of the mind and the body. The physical elements of the representation of Freud contradict The Magician; there is an overpowering emphasis placed on the physical, as his tie and lapels make up two separate female bodies, while The Magician card is more in tune with the mind. The Magus cards, just like the Genius and the Sirens are artful manifestations of the Surrealists concepts of the self and society, but their use by the Surrealist circle as a predictive tool is still very much out of line with their emphasis on the concept of chance.

The Surrealist Jeu de Marseille tarot pack is a pictorial manifestation of the key elements in Surrealism. They have depicted in their choice of symbols their Communist leanings, their disambiguation with class systems but also their ideas on the superiority of the male sex and their views on woman as muse, as object. The use of the tarot is linked to de-mystifying the future, which brings it into direct antithesis with the Surrealists and the Surrealist Manifesto penned by Breton. In it he exclaims:

“The mind of the man who dreams is fully satisfied by what happens to him. The agonizing question of possibility is no longer pertinent. Kill, fly faster, love to your heart’s content. And if you should die, are you not certain of reawaking among the dead? Let yourself be carried along, events will not tolerate your interference. You are nameless. The ease of everything is priceless.” (13)

Breton has placed emphasis on the power of chance and the inevitability of life from the outset of Surrealism. “Let yourself be carried along, events will not tolerate your interference” (Breton Manifesto of Surrealism 13) is a proclamation against the very art of the tarot and its divinatory powers. Bauduin addresses the “occultation” of Surrealism during World War II, that Breton was “strengthened in his view that esotericism could offer valuable ideas and symbols for his own movement. Meanwhile… the surrealist artist had become a magician during the war, someone who effects changes that are desired mentally in the world through her/his art.” (32-33). The use of tarot cards as a predictive tool in Surrealism could then be seen as the Surrealists’ attempt to breach the disconnect between the physical, mental and the supernatural, fueled by their views on their current unstable environment, but the tarot is still contradictory to the Surrealist conceptualization of society and life as governed by chance.

In the Second Manifesto of Surrealism Breton wrote: “Everything leads me to believe that there is a certain point in the life of the spirit at which life and death, the real and the imagined, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, the exalted and the lowly, cease to be seen as contradictory.” (123). He is stating exactly what the Surrealists are trying to do through the use of the tarot cards and other Occult practices; it is a way of naming the unknown, assigning known tokens to concepts that are often hard to grasp. By using the tarot deck, people were able to label and communicate a universal view on the key elements of society, of what life is made of, and ultimately death. This is why the tarot deck is a crucial element of the Occult; it portrays humanity’s tokens and reference points, the governing factors that have shaped history. The Surrealist tarot has the same function as the Tarot de Marseille: it puts the world into order, at a time when the world around the Surrealists was shifting dramatically. The use of tarot cards as a prognostic tool does challenge the Surrealist concept of the self and society, the importance of chance in a Surrealists’ life, but as Bauduin stated, the “decisive turn towards the heterodox that was prompted by rising political tensions and the eventual outbreak of the Second World War… forced [Breton]… towards a more serious consideration of occultism… I would argue, therefore, that an ‘occultation’ of Surrealism… proceeding from a new understanding of the mind and the new paradigm of the existence of the unconscious” (32), making the Jeu de Marseille tarot pack an exploration of the shifting social order, an exploration which was always key to the Surrealist way of thought.

Fig. 1                Fig. 2                Fig. 3                Fig. 4                Fig. 5

Fig. 6                Fig. 7                Fig. 8                Fig. 9                Fig. 10

Fig. 11              Fig. 12               Fig. 13               Fig. 14               Fig. 15

Fig. 16                                  Fig. 17

Fig. 18

Figures 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18. “Le Jeu de Marseille” published by Grimaud, Paris, 1983. The designs were first published in VVV Magazine, New York in 1943. Images courtesy of Barney Townshend.

Figures 1, 6, 11, 16. “Tarot from Pierre Madenié, Dijon 1709, France”. Republished by Yves Reynaud and Wilfried Houdouin. Swiss National Museum of Zurich, 2009.

Works Cited

Ades, Dawn, Michael Richardson, and Krzysztof Fijałkowski, editors. The Surrealism Reader: an Anthology of Ideas. London: Tate Publishing, 2015. Print.

Leiris, Michel. “The ‘Caput Mortuum’ or the Alchemist’s Wife.” Dawn, Richardson and Fijalkowski, pp. 64-71.

Mabille, Pierre. “Preface in Praise of Popular Prejudices.” Dawn, Richardson and Fijalkowski, pp. 32-39.

Viot, Jacques. “Don’t Clutter up the Colonies (fragment); Approaching the Enchanted Castle”. Dawn, Richardson and Fijalkowski, pp. 110-114.

Bauduin, Tessel M. Surrealism and the Occult: Occultism and Western Esotericism in the Work and Movement of André Breton. Amsterdam U Press, 2014. Print.

Breton, Andre. “Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)”. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Translated by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 1974. Print.

Breton, Andre. “Second Manifesto of Surrealism (1930)”. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Translated by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 1974. Print.

Breton, André. Nadja. Translated by Richard Howard. London: Penguin, 1999. Print.

Gray, Eden. A Complete Guide to the Tarot. London: Studio Vista, 1970. Print.

Houdouin, Wilfried. “Tarot from Pierre Madenié, Dijon 1709, France”. The Tarot of Marseille Millenium Edition- Historic Tarots Gallery. n.p., nodo Web. 29 Dec 2016.

“Le Jeu De Marseille.” The World of Playing Cards. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Dec 2016.

Matthews, J. H. An Introduction to Surrealism. Pennsylvania State University Press: 1965. Print.

Passeron, René. The Concise Encyclopedia of Surrealism. Translated by John Griffiths. Ware, Omega, 1984.

Schneider, Martin. “The Surrealists’ Tarot Deck.” Dangerous Minds. n.p., 29 Sept. 2014. Web. 30 Dec. 2016.