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  • Writer's pictureTero Goldenhill

Traces du Sacré: Thoth Tarot

Traces du Sacré (Traces of the Sacred) was an exhibition held at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, between 7th May – 11th August, 2008. From the Press Release:

“With “Traces du Sacré,” already promising to be one of the major artistic events of the year, the Centre Pompidou returns to the tradition of major multidisciplinary exhibitions that made its reputation, offering a visual exploration of one of the most pressing issues of our time. Following what has come to be called “the disenchantment of the world,” a significant strain of modern art has found its roots in the turmoil attendant upon the loss of conventional religious belief, a terrain that continues to nourish the development of contemporary forms. Taking in the whole history of twentieth-century art, from Caspar David Friedrich to Kandinsky, from Malevich to Picasso, and from Barnett Newman to Bill Viola, the exhibition looks at the way in which art continues to testify, in often unexpected ways, to the existence of a universe beyond, remaining, in a thoroughly secularised world, the profane vehicle of an ineluctable need to rise above the quotidian. —

This broad selection of paintings, sculptures, installations and videos brings together some 350 major works – many of them never seen before in France – by almost 200 artists of international renown.”

The exhibition was organised into 22 thematic sections (excluding the ‘Introduction’ and ‘Close’, surely not a coincidence?), which examined “the major aesthetic and spiritual preoccupations of the twentieth century” (from the Press Release). In the third section, Les Grands Initiés (The Great Initiates) we find a familiar name: Aleister Crowley. He is in a good company; other names include Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Jean Delville, Charles Sellier, Paul Elie Ranson, Rudolf Steiner, André Bély, Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp, Hugo Ball, Hilma af Klint, Usco, and Gino De Dominicis.

The exhibition featured Aleister Crowley’s self-portrait from the 1920’s (24,2 x 19 cm, you can see the picture here) and four Thoth Tarot paintings; the Priestess, the Hermit, the Moon and the Aeon, each measuring 61 x 45 cm. Apparently the Thoth paintings were placed on the walls inside a white cubicle, where Kenneth Anger’s film “Lucifer Rising” was shown. It is likely that the paintings were missed by many people simply because of this ‘misplacement’.

Four paintings from the Crowley-Harris Thoth Tarot included in the exhibition

While I wasn’t able to visit the exhibition myself, I did get the Exhibition Catalogue (a small comfort), published by the Centre Pompidou. It’s an impressive work with 455 pages and around 400 images. Unfortunately it is entirely in French, so I’ll be working my way through it very slowly... Information on Aleister Crowley is on page 100, with his self-portrait shown on the following page. The Thoth Tarot paintings are shown on page 344 (the scanned image above), with Harry Smith’s version of the Tree of Life in the Four Worlds shown right next to them (my all-time favourite Tree of Life pic!). The Warburg Institute was still working on the restoration project of the Thoth paintings at the time of the Exhibition, but the four paintings displayed there were among the finished ones (notice the bright colours compared to the standard Thoth edition). It is also these restored paintings that the Thoth Tarot Neuausgabe edition is based on.

The article on Crowley is written by Marco Pasi, who is a historian of religions specializing in the history of modern Western esotericism and the history of magic. Pasi certainly knows his subject well; his laurea dissertation analysed the relationship of A. C. with the politics of his time, while his Ph.D. dissertation was devoted to the idea of magic in British occultism. Here’s what Pasi writes about concerning the Thoth Tarot:

“Le dernier grand projet artistique qu’il réalise, dans les années 1938 – 1942, est la création de son jeu de tarot, “The Book of Thoth”. Il s’agit d’un nouveau jeu dans lequel la symbolique des cartes, tout en conservant la structure fondamentale des jeux traditionelles, est profondément renouvelée, sur la base de la doctrine magique de Crowley. Pendant la préparation du jeu, Crowley écrit aussi une monographie, où il présente son interprétation personnelle du tarot et explique la valeur symbolique de chaque carte (Master Therion [Aleister Crowley], 1944).

Crowley ne s’occupe pas directement de l’exécution matérielle des images, qu’il confie à une artiste anglaise, Frieda Harris (1877 – 1962), dont il avait fait la connaissance vers la fin des années 1930 et qui était devenue sa disciple. Leur correspondance pendant la préparation du jeu (qui comprend en tout 78 cartes) nous éclaire sur la forme de leur collaboration, et l’on aperçoit que Crowley suivit de très près la réalisation des cartes. Les sujets, la composition, le choix extrêmement soigné des couleurs: tout fut décidé par Crowley en fonction du message symbolique que chaque carte était censée transmettre, alors que Harris se contenta d’exécuter fidèlement les instructions reçues. Selon Crowley, le jeu dans son ensemble est supposé offrir une image complète de la structure de l’univers, et est destiné à la méditation plus qu’à la divination.”

Traces du Sacré was also exhibited in Munich, Germany, but without the Thoth paintings.

Edit. Annick Van Damme of Tarot Cirkel has kindly added this:

Buratti Art did also an exhibition with the work from the Palermo Collection. The catalogue is in English. I wrote a blog about it here.

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