The art of Frieda Harris, 1877–1962

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Searching around for artwork by Frieda Harris turned up a few examples I hadn’t seen before including the marvellous painting above which is unfortunately untitled and undated. Harris is very familiar to Aleister Crowley aficionados and those with an interest in the Tarot via her paintings for the Thoth Tarot deck, a project that she and Crowley worked on during the 1930s. The deck is justly celebrated for its modernising of the Tarot symbolism, and for its radical art style which wasn’t afraid to combine some of the developments in 20th-century art with Harris’s studies of Projective Synthetic Geometry.

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Masonic Tracing Boards.

Less familiar is her work away from the Tarot deck, some of which can be seen here. Prior to meeting Crowley, Harris was involved with Freemasonry for which she produced three designs for the Masonic teaching aids known as Tracing Boards. (See larger copies here.) I used to think these looked like outtakes from the Tarot deck but seeing them in the light of the mysterious painting above it’s evident that the Tarot style wasn’t unique to that set of cards.

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Liber Aleph vel CXI: The Book of Wisdom or Folly (1918) by Aleister Crowley.

A book cover which pre-dates the Tarot designs. The heads are the traditional embodiments of the four elements but with one change: the human figure has a feminine face rather than the usual masculine features. The same figures appear on her painting for the final Tarot Trump, The Universe (below), but in a more traditional guise.

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Alas Vegas Tarot cards

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Back in February I bought a Wacom drawing tablet and said I’d show some proper results from its use later. For the past few months I’ve been working on this project using a combination of Wacom drawing and vector graphics. The initial brief from games designer James Wallis was for six Tarot-style card designs for his Alas Vegas role-playing game which has as its theme a fantasy extrapolation from Las Vegas and its gaudy mythology. The Kickstarter funding for the game turned out to be more successful than was anticipated so James asked me to expand the six cards idea into a full set of black-and-white Major Arcana designs.

This has been a fun series to work on although a number of the cards presented problems at first, the antique nature of the Tarot symbolism being a difficult thing to map across a very commercial American city. The symbolism from the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) deck was used as a rough guide although we deviated in a few places from the more traditional attributes. Las Vegas has changed over the years so rather than represent a single period of the city’s history there are references to different eras, from the huge casinos of today back to the buildings of the 50s and 60s with their distinctive “Googie” architecture. Notes for the cards follow below. The artwork can be seen at larger size here.

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The Fool is usually a young man about to step off a cliff edge with a dog barking a warning at his heels, hence the dog on the sign.

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Several of the cards convert the Tarot characters into cabaret acts. This one was pretty inevitable, and I’m sure it’s not the first time a stage conjuror has appeared on this card.

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The chair is based on the 1965 “Ball Chair” design by Eero Aarnio (as seen in The Prisoner TV series), adapted here to resemble the Priestess’s crescent moon.

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The style on this one is more 70s than 60s: patterned wallpaper (the hearts derive from the symbolism of The Empress, and from playing cards, of course), white rug, Kung Fu pyjamas.

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The art of Pamela Colman Smith, 1878–1951

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Following yesterday’s post about Frieda Harris’s Tarot designs, it only seems right to acknowledge the other major Tarot artist of the 20th century. Pamela Colman Smith has been overshadowed by her male mentor, Golden Dawn scholar AE Waite, even more than Frieda Harris whose name at least gets mentioned as much as Crowley’s in discussion of her paintings. US Games lists Smith and Waite’s so-called Rider-Waite Tarot of 1909 as “the world’s most popular tarot deck” and uses a silhouette of Smith’s design for The Fool as the company logo, yet it was years before I saw a credit for Smith as artist of this deck, her personal presence being reduced to a tiny monogram in the corner of each picture.

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The Absurd ABC by Walter Crane (1874).

I’ve often thought of Smith’s deck as “the Art Nouveau Tarot” which it isn’t really—it’s more late Victorian in style, if anything—but it was created when Art Nouveau was at its height and has some of the character of the poster art of the period. Smith’s designs are incredibly striking in places, with the clarity of drawn archetypes, and her style possibly owes something to the books Walter Crane created for children in the 1870s and 1880s; the clean lines and bright colouring are very similar. In that respect, Smith’s deck might be more fittingly labelled “the Arts and Crafts Tarot.”

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left: Pamela Colman Smith’s Hermit; right: Barrington Colby’s inner sleeve for Led Zeppelin IV.

Pamela Colman Smith also worked as a book illustrator but her other work is overshadowed completely by the popularity of the Rider-Waite cards. Her design for The Hermit was famously borrowed by Crowley obsessive Jimmy Page in 1971 for an inner sleeve illustration, View in Half or Varying Light by Barrington Colby, for Led Zeppelin IV. That use alone makes it possibly the most famous Tarot card in history (there was even a statue made of it for the now defunct Hard Rock Park Led Zeppelin roller coaster) but I doubt many people familiar with the image could name the original artist.

Happily, Ms Smith’s obscurity is gradually diminishing. US Games recently produced the Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative set for the 100th anniversary of the Rider-Waite deck, a package featuring a book of her artwork (including non-Tarot drawings), prints, postcards and a reprinted set of cards. A long overdue reappraisal but, as is always the case, it’s better late than never.

Mary K Greer’s Tarot blog has some excellent postings devoted to Pamela Colman Smith including this page which gathers links to sites containing further information about the artist’s life and work.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Layered Orders: Crowley’s Thoth Deck and the Tarot
William Rimmer’s Evening Swan Song
The art of Cameron, 1922–1995

Layered Orders: Crowley’s Thoth Deck and the Tarot

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left: The Magus from the Thoth Tarot by Frieda Harris and Aleister Crowley (1938–1940?); right: The Magus from The Major Arcana by John Coulthart (2006).

Phantasmaphile presents another magickal art event in NYC next week. Layered Orders: Crowley’s Thoth Deck and the Tarot is described as “a personal narrative by Jesse Bransford”, an artist with a very distinctive approach to traditional occult symbolism. Bransford’s talk will focus on the peerless Thoth Tarot deck which Frieda Harris painted over several years under the careful direction of Aleister Crowley. The Thoth deck for me is still the ultimate Tarot deck. Crowley and Harris sought to create a Tarot for the 20th century, throwing out much of its tired and degraded iconography. This they replaced with dramatic interpretations which brought new layers of symbolism to the cards—including references to contemporary science—and also acknowledged the developments of Cubism and Futurism in the visual sphere. Tarot decks have proliferated since the 1960s but the Thoth deck has few (if any) rivals. I made use of Crowley’s controversial reordering and renaming of the cards in 2006 when I produced my set of Major Arcana designs based on international symbol signs.

The Tarot in general and Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot in particular represent a miasmic confluence of image and thought into a single structure that is both liberating and overwhelming in its scope. In creating the deck, Crowley (in collaboration with painter Lady Frieda Harris) sought to integrate the mythological structures of the major mystical systems of both Western and Eastern occult traditions and to bring them into line with contemporary scientific thinking. The symbolism of the cards blends Kabbalah, Alchemy, Astrology, Egyptian mythology, quantum physics and even the I-Ching in ways that are at the same time clear and utterly confounding.

In an image-soaked personal narration Bransford, whose research-based artwork has delved into many of the territories Crowley sought to unify, will discuss some of the basic concepts of Tarot symbolism, returning to Crowley’s deck as among the most total example of the cards’ syncretism and as the most controversial.

Layered Orders: Crowley’s Thoth Deck and the Tarot takes place at Observatory, 543 Union Street, Brooklyn, NYC on Friday, July 17 at 7:30pm. Admission is free and there are further details at the Observatory website and Phantasmaphile.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Fata Morgana: The New Female Fantasists
Aleister Crowley on vinyl
The Man We Want to Hang by Kenneth Anger
The art of Cameron, 1922–1995