Civil Rights, Art, and Tarot together at the Seattle Art Museum
They say the Lovers card is about choice, which means it is equally about consequence. That often overlooked corollary of this tarot card is, for me, the central take-away from Robert Colescott’s paintings currently on exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. (The exhibit, Figuring History, runs until Sunday, May 13th 2018). Thanks to Colescott, the American struggle for civil rights will forever more inform my understanding of the Lovers card, and vice-versa.
A Visual Parallel
Because of the composition, the connection is most obvious in Natural Rhythm: Thank you Jan Van Eyck, from 1976 (below, left).
Riffing off the iconic 15th century painting by Hans Van Eyck, Colescott seems to say: Here’s a marriage to consider: Black and White in America. How do you like me now? With a single visual change – the skin tone of the female figure – Colescott opens a door from this composition to the struggle for civil rights in America. SAM’s Modern art curator, Catharina Manchande, says: “Changing the woman’s skin color to black raises issues about power dynamics, gender, and race.” I’ll say. That this is done so effectively in a visual language is the hallmark of a good artistic encounter. It feels similar to that “aha” moment in a good tarot reading. (The contrasting tarot image above is from the Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative tarot deck).
A tarot aside: Clients tend to give happy cheers when the Lovers card turns up in tarot readings. This isn’t a happy romantic card, I explain. It is about commitment, for better and for worse. Richer and poorer. Oppressing and oppressed. Choice and consequence. Still, clients express a flush of victory — it will be different for us!
Back to SAM
The first parallel I notice with the Lovers card is in the 1969 painting, Night and Day, You Are the One (below, left), which is displayed on the 2nd floor of the museum, before the larger exhibit upstairs.
Here the figures are two women and a child, reminiscent of the Lovers card from the 18th century Marseilles deck (right). (Colescott’s detail is difficult to see in my snapshot, especially since so much of this painting is affected by the texture. Go see the real thing if you can.) The child completes the triad typical in the Lovers card: two humans and one spirit. The male figure from the Marseilles card (omitted in later versions of the Tarot), is us — the viewers — looking in. The traditional tarot interpretation says that this man is in the position to choose between two desirable opposites. And while everything about the two female figures seems incongruous in Colescott’s painting, the women are connected like night and day. How can we move forward without fearing each other? How can we both exist, with equal stature, on the same canvas? How can we be equally revered by the viewer, and by one-another?
Almost too much to take
The final piece that screams Lovers to me is almost too powerful for me to be near for more than a few minutes at a time. I return to this room several times, trying not to overhear the incredibly personal reactions being shared in the crowd. The painting is: A Cruise to Southern Waters, 1988.
What slays me about this painting is how it incorporates the issue of aging – another inevitable aspect of the Lovers card that tends to fall into the shadows. The reading glasses! The dentures! Lust and death! Imagine this image turning up in a tarot reading about your romantic future. Would you cheer?
Surrounded by Colescott’s work, I feel The Lovers in terms of struggle, longevity, and the impossibility of ever escaping history. I feel different tarot connections in the works of Kerry James Marshall and Mikaline Thomas, the two other artists in the Figuring History exhibit. Do you see tarot in their works? Share your associations below.
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