Magazine article The New Yorker

Higher Arcana

Magazine article The New Yorker

Higher Arcana

Article excerpt

Tarot cards have been in use for more than five hundred years, first in trick-taking card games and, since the late eighteenth century, as aids to fortune-telling and occult divination. The artist Francesco Clemente got interested in them about three years ago. Clemente, born in Naples but a New York resident, off and on, since 1981, studied reproductions of fifteenth-century tarot decks, and delved into the voluminous literature on the subject. "A friend got me Aleister Crowley's unpublished notes on the cards," he said. "I read Italo Calvino's wonderful text. I had my own cards read, and I read cards for my friends." The result of his delving is a series of drawings, one for each of the seventy-eight original tarot cards, but larger (approximately nineteen inches tall by nine and a half inches wide), executed in several different media: watercolor and gouache, ink, pastel, colored pencil. The drawings go on view next month at the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence--not a bad place to be seen, although the locals may draw a blank on some of the visual references. All the figures in the Higher Arcana (the twenty-two trump cards in a tarot deck) and quite a few in the Minor Arcana (ace to ten, plus four face cards) are portraits of Clemente's New York friends. "I would love to show them here," he said, leafing through the drawings on a sweltering June day in his lower-Broadway studio. "In a way, it is my portrait of the city, the aura of the city, the style, and the people."

Clemente himself, an elegant man with a neatly trimmed gray-white beard, appears twice in the series. He has given his facial features to the Fool, a jauntily striding gent carrying a sack of provisions, a staff, and a bell, and paying no heed to the doglike creature biting his bare rump. "I am the Fool because the Fool is zero, the first card in the deck, and he is travelling," he explained. "The Fool is all potential." Clemente is also the Ace of Swords. In the tarot, swords usually have to do with the intellect, but Clemente won't admit to that. "It was the first card I drew," he said.

Clemente's portraits all tend to look alike at first glance--huge eyes, full lips, serious expression--but then you see something that, if you've met the person, is exactly right. The playwright Edward Albee, sitting for the Emperor, clasps his haunted-looking face in both hands as he gazes out from beneath a sixteen-pointed star. Fran Lebowitz, as Justice, holding scales in one hand and a sword in the other, regards the viewer with that dour look that sets up the punch line. …

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