Is it just me (here in Salem) or is Tarot experiencing a major resurgence? If so, I would point to our own anxieties and its flexibility, which encourages and drives myriad interpretations and paths: the Economist kicked off the year with its annual predictions issue featuring a spread of Tarot cards suggesting a dystopian future for “Planet Trump”. Regardless of their meaning, I love visual metaphors that are enduring and flexible, or so flexible that they are enduring: reflective of a particular era’s beliefs and values time and time again. One Tarot card that seems to represent this genre well is trump XII, The Hanged Man, which can represent a state of suspension, punishment, suffering, self-sacrifice, and also a critical crossroads at which one has the opportunity to change course. In the first Tarot decks, produced in fifteenth-century Italy and France, he was simply the traitor, perhaps reflecting contemporary “shame paintings” of conspirators and criminals, who were hanged by one leg for all to see.
Hanged Men from the Visconti-Sforza deck, c. 1428-50, Cary Collection of Playing Cards, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University and Morgan Library & Museum ; Samuel Y. Edgerton’s CLASSIC book on pittura infamante, with one of Andrea del Sarto’s drawings (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) on the cover and inside.
The hanged man crosses the alps and is presented as Le Pendu in Tarot decks produced in early modern France and Flanders in the characteristic hanging-by-one-leg pose, (sometimes with bags of coins weighing him down in reference to the ultimate traitor, Judas). It’s important to note that before the end of the eighteenth century and the publication of French occultist Antoine Court de Gébelin’s The Primitive World Analyzed and Compared with the Modern World (1773-1782), Tarot cards were merely for play. The Primitive World asserted an ancient Egyptian lineage and ascribed much more power to all of the cards, and replaced the Hanged Man dangling from a rope to Prudence in the presence of a snake. A few years after the publication of de Gébelin’s tome, Jean-Baptiste Alliette reinforced and popularized his claims and offered up a more practical approach to Tarot practice in How to Entertain Yourself with the Deck of Cards called Tarot (1785), completing its transition to an occult art. The Hanged Man reappears in the nineteenth century, looking much the same as his pre-modern form but with enhanced powers and meaning.
The Hanged Man in a Flemish Tarot deck from the eighteenth century, and Oscar Wirth’s 1889 deck, British Museum.
The troubled twentieth century was a golden age for Tarot, beginning with the deck that popularized and standardized its “divinatory meanings”: the Rider-Waite Deck, with illustrations by Pamela Coleman Smith, which was first published in 1909 and reissued in a major way in 1970. In A.E. Waite’s accompanying Pictorial Key to the Tarot, the Hanged Man is described as “a card of profound significance, but all the significance is veiled…..the face expresses deep entrancement (represented by the saintly halo), not suffering…the figure, as a whole, suggests life in suspension, but life and not death”. While Tarot meanings were widely disseminated and standardized by Rider-Waite, the archetypal images were subjected to a range of modern interpretations over the next century. Perhaps the second most influential deck of the twentieth century was the “Thoth Tarot”, a collaboration between Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris which was published in 1969, well after both artists’ deaths. Much more multidisciplinary, the Thoth Deck broke the mold and inspired decades of creative interpretations–“traditional” (whatever that means when referencing Tarot), commercial, allegorical and abstract. Several Crowley-Harris paintings, the Hanged Men among them, were exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2013, which I think began this current preoccupation with Tarot. There have been several Tarot exhibitions over the past few years, encompassing everything from emblematic installations to hooked rugs, as the Tarot cards are “reimagined” over and over again. Right here in Salem, photographs from Jim Bostick’s “Salem Arcanum” Tarot series, featuring a Hanged Man who seems both traditional and modern and definitely illustrates “life in suspension”, are currently on view in the October exhibition at the Mercy Tavern.
A century of Hanged Men: Pamela Coleman Smith, from the Rider-Waite deck, 1909; Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris, 1969; Dürer & Bruegel Hanged Men by Giocinto Gaudenzi, 1989, and Pietro Alligo & Guido Zibordi Marchesi, 2003 accessed from this amazing site which showcases Tarot through the ages; the Housewives Tarot by Jude Buffum and Paul Kepple for Quirk Books, 2003; Woodcut @ HorseAndHair, 2013; photographs by Ayla El-Moussa for 25th Century, 2016; and Jim Bostick of Salem, 2017.