I have a problem with self-proclaimed tarot decks that strip the usual symbolism from the cards and replace it with something radically different and wholly unlikely, whether it’s animals or flowers or landscapes or similar charming but overly literal artwork that conveys something other than the customary narrative cues while often being utterly devoid of human presence (although, I should acknowledge, not of “humanity” as a virtue). They are just non-representative examples of the genre, so to speak, or better yet, “tarot-free” tarot decks. Such decks move me to paraphrase the sardonic comment John Cleese made to Michael Palin in Monty Python’s “Cheese Shop” sketch: they’re “certainly uncontaminated by tarot.” Putting a name, number or suit emblem on a picture of, for example, a deer or a rabbit tells me nothing about what an animal in the wild has to do with the practical interpretation of the card, even if some sort of “mystical” connotation was intended. It was most likely just the artists’ inspiration to portray things that they know how to paint well, never mind that those things have little or nothing to do with anything remotely tarot-like. A deck like that may look pretty but as a working tool in the hands of a serious diviner it doesn’t have a whole lot going for it unless the reader disregards its uniqueness in favor of known concepts, creates a new language for it or simply adopts the ready-made meanings ginned up by the deck’s creator. In other words, we must reinvent the wheel if we don’t want to simply blind ourselves to the anomalous imagery and “go with what we know.” (Alternatively, we can pretend it doesn’t say “tarot” on the box and use it as an oracle deck; I’ve done this to good effect with the Chrysalis Tarot.)
The court cards are often subject to just such “artistic license,” in which stereotypical “head shots” are substituted for the usual full-length images of standing, mounted or seated royalty. I have a number of decks that do this to some extent, none of which I find especially compelling if for no other reason than that the courts lack individuality; most of Ciro Marchetti’s newer court cards adopt this model, as do those of the Morgan-Greer Tarot, the Aquarian Tarot and the Tarot of the Old Path. Something gets lost in the translation when we don’t see the characters in the middle distance, displaying their historical poses while holding the implements of their suit. They might be dressed appropriately and brandish a sword or cup, but it appears that they have “nowhere to go;” to my eye they seem uncomfortably hemmed in by the cards’ borders like a painting in a frame. I get the sense that the artists just felt like creating ordinary portraits regardless of how much might have been added to the story by including the mundane surroundings and trappings of the era. I find myself using the close-up caricatures or often just the titles as a trigger for my recollection of what the cards mean in more “mainstream” decks. As they do for many experienced readers, these “triggering” episodes invoke memories of past study and practice that become the raw material for the present reading since there is precious little to free-associate from in the pictures themselves; the word “sterile” comes to mind.
Other examples include completely removing male figures from the deck, which flies in the face of the dynamic polarity that has been the metaphysical norm since the time of the Greek philosophers, or simply denuding the images of anything remotely suggestive of gender. I’ve seen these trends away from human representation and binary symbolism called “New Tarot,” a curious (and in my opinion spurious) contrivance that makes my scholar’s heart nostalgic for the 19th Century. I suppose in the final analysis it depends entirely on what you’re looking for in a deck. If you want “portable art” that you can take out of the box, browse through admiringly and then put away again or a progressive paradigm that reinforces your modernist sensibilities, any of the lovelier “tarot-free” decks will satisfy you. If on the other hand you want a “nuts-&-bolts” deck that will speak plainly of events and circumstances without getting caught up in extraneous minutiae that must be deciphered before use, it would be better to stick with something more expressive of established interpretive norms.