Visitors who see my groaning shelf of tarot decks may assume I'm a deck collector. The truth is I'm no tarot collector. That shelf is the discard pile. I hate most tarot decks. Especially these new photoshop monstrosities we see replicating themselves virally.
The need to acquire is based on a single impulse; the childlike hope that there is a deck that is an authentic new expression of the tarot mystery. Not the cheap plastic-coated facsimile that the industry vomits out, but the Tarot that I see with the eye of my heart. A tarot that has been created with the degree of class and skill you would expect to see in the Devil's picture book. A deck therefor that is appropriately artful, crafty even, in its treatment of the greater and lesser arcana; by being cognizant of both tarot tradition and the greater visual tradition that the tarot was borne in, yet, is a new expression of that history. A refreshing night-bloom on the tree of knowledge whose dangerous scent stirs deep anamnesis. Not just a pack of pictures to help spark the imagination but an oracular machine, animating each image as a living sigil; with lines, colors and symbols oscillating and interlocking with the clockwork of the soul in such a way that the simple act of looking allows one to glimpse through the weavings of time - to that place where the seventy eight arcanum whisper and wink conspiratorially like glittering cardboard jewels in Indra's web.
I'm not sure I will ever manage to recover this archetarot of my soul. I'm not sure I would even want to... but dammit - I have come so very, very close today.
The Tarot by Alexander Daniloff 2012 (which is should not be confused with his major arcana deck from 2010) stands alongside the Marseilles, the Rider-Waite-Smith and the Thoth as a profound expression of Tarot, of that I have no doubt. Perhaps prescient of this fact Daniloff eschewed the obligatory silly deck name for his work and opted simply to give it his own name. This class and grace is evident throughout the Daniloff tarot. Abandoning cheesy fonts or tacky borders - or any of the other gimmicks and trinkets we see encrusting the cards these days - instead focusing on what the cards are actually about: communicating the incommunicable. Expressing that which crouches just beyond the edges of understanding. Perhaps this is why the edges of Daniloff are square cut. And what may have been a practical production decision for this limited edition deck, manages to somehow enhance the impact these images with a serene austerity, allowing the images to live on their own terms.
And what a life!
The foolish might dismiss the Daniloff tarot a "Rider-Waite-Smith clone". As if each new tarot should or even can improve on the allegories of RWS. You see, RWS is a genre. Like jazz or impressionism. When Renoir painted Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette did people say "Oh look, another Monet clone"? Probably. A fresh batch of fools are born in every decade.
However, good artists know how to work in a genre so that their work expands, deepens and comments on it. Great artists can take genre and turn it inside out without resorting to iconoclasm or novelty (the hallmark trick of the modern market) in order to form that pearl beyond price: genius.
This deck has it.
In great walloping buckets full. I'm willing to wager that one night around midnight mister Daniloff went to the crossroads with a pack of pencils, some brushes and an easel. Let's just say he went to go sketch the portrait of a certain blues celebrity whose silhouette seemed unusually pointy in the dim moonlight. And whom, as one would expect, proposed a bargain of sorts.
Because - holy crap - Daniloff illustrated the shit out of this thing. I don't even know where to begin.
More viscerally - the linework, design and composition as whole have a startling vibratory tension. Stele-like in the simplicity of arrangement; sometimes airy and dreamlike and at other times perfectly iconic with all the austere religious weight of the period - and somehow all the while remaining perfectly visually consistent. But more than that, it seems there is an energetic effect you experience when looking at each image. Something that you experience with only very, very few decks. By looking at a card a certain state of consciousness is triggered by the image. It's like it slowly starts crawling inside you and readjusting your body's subtle meridians by means of the blackest of sorceries: coloring pencil.
I mean - just look at the Devil.
Now, in a creepy italian accent croak "il diavolo". Aaah, that's what I'm talking about! There is a certain kind of dire symmetry in this image that evokes infernal consciousness in all its sulphuric glory.
The Court Cards
An area of the tarot that few people get too excited about. My system of reading uses the court as a vital feature so it's one of the first things I tend to look at in a new deck. Daniloff did not disappoint in this regard. In fact, he has created one of the most ingenious tarot courts I have ever seen. Breathtaking artwork aside - he has very appropriately decided to tap into the rich heraldic traditions of Europe and design each suit's court around a motif. The result it stunning.
Further, he has illustrated each figure with such skill that the true character of each court card is plainly readable on the face. It would probably be more accurate to call these court portraits. You wouldn't need to know much about the court cards' traditional attributions in order to read these accurately because their facial features, expressions and attitude say it all. I can almost hear the King of Wands guffaw good-heartedly over his latest conquest. The Page of Swords really does look like a spy - a thoroughly sly looking character, hiding ever so slightly behind the most exquisitely folded banner (a motif on all the Pages). The whole of the Swords court is a blast, let me tell you.
As I mentioned, the minors use the RWS allegories as their basis which will be boon for those who love that tarot genre (as I do). Those RWS allegories have a certain power and momentum behind them - a tradition. But he really does move that tradition forward. While each RWS narrative is there he has either deepened it in some way with his consummate skill at communicating subtle ideas visually or by adding a twist that wasn't there before. The 6 of Cups, for instance is card that in most decks really falls flat (even within the RWS), but Daniloff has managed to take the same two little characters and rework them in such a way that you feel like you are glimpsing a childhood memory. There is a sweetness and nostalgia that's undeniable in this 6 of Cups. There are a few cards that depart strongly from the original RWS template (like the 9 of Pentacles) but in each case for the better in my opinion. Even with these departures he has retained the central figures and scene but changed it in some critical way. The Ten of Swords' with its animated corpse - who is offering a necrotic benediction from within a pulsating dark aureola just bakes my noodle, let me tell you! That card is certainly going to see some serious meditation, scrying and journeying from me and I ain't a path-working kinda guy!
Same thing. Takes the majors like some mad virtuoso and just riffs off them in the most mind-boggling way. If you know a bit about art history you are in for a treat - a nod to Hieronymus Bosch here, then tweaking the vatican's nipple there. But these majors are more than historically astute, much more. They are magical glyphs proper. Don't even get me started on the classy zombies tucked away like little easter eggs...
Which brings me to the major that really talks to me like no other: La Morte (Death). Here we find a skeletal-zombie type Angel of Death standing mischievously over the traditional dying figures depicted on the RWS card. This death however has a friendly glint in his eye and rat familiar perched on his shoulder, and he seems to be playing a hourglass musical instrument. It has such humor and charm to it, without diminishing the gravity of that card.
By now you probably realize how much I like this tarot. There is a lot more I could say about it but no amount of florid writing will replace the experience of looking at this beauty in real life. Even better: lay it out on the table and hear its sure, gentle voice speak.
So, what don't I like about the deck? A balanced review should have some negatives, surely?
In this case all the negatives I can point at have mostly to do with the fact that it is a limited edition production. On the one hand this is fabulous for the exclusivity of the deck. It should be treated as a collectable, its that gorgeous. On the other hand, I love this deck so much I want to read with it all the time.
All the time.
And I don't want to ruin a collectable with the wear and tear that full-time professional reader puts on a deck of tarot cards. I sincerely hope that a major publisher offers him an outrageous amount of money so they can pick this masterpiece up and print it in greater quantities. Just so that I can have a Daniloff work deck which I don't need to feel too squeamish about handing to clients to shuffle.
This would also solve a few of the small additional technical gripes I have about the deck. Gripes that are all production related. The card stock is a little flimsy for cards this size. Not terrible but a bit more weight would have done the art justice - especially for a limited edition deck. There are some inconsistencies with the borders being trimmed shorter on the bottom than on the top. Also, the box it comes in looks handmade which is charming but is already loosing its structural integrity and soon will get discarded altogether. Finally, the deck could do with some color correction so that the blacks are consistently black across the whole range of cards. The color on certain cards also looks a little washed out by comparison to other cards which remain very bright. These are small details that only someone who was chained to a DTP work station for almost a decade might notice, but there you go. Details that would easily be fixed by a large publisher like, say, Lo Scarabeo.
Daniloff has clearly given all his talent and vision (and possibly even his soul) to create this spectacular addition to tarot culture and tradition.
Do not hesitate to go to his site and order it today.