Reviving a Forgotten Artist of the Occult
This article from Hyperallergic, by Sharmistha Ray, gives an overview of the exhibition Pamela Colman Smith: Life and Work, currently on display at Pratt Institute Libraries in Brooklyn (through April 11, 2019). Smith was a student at Pratt Institute from 1893-7.
A few outtakes:
Installed across the library’s foyers on three floors, the exhibition presents reproductions of Smith’s art works and magazine illustrations alongside her writings, letters, and documents. These records conjure a constellation of famous friends and patrons, which included figures as diverse as Alfred Stieglitz and Bram Stoker. Smith’s magnum opus is the Rider-Waite-Smith Deck, a set of 78 Tarot cards filled with vivid oracular illustrations.
…In his 1907 Bohemia in London, the English writer Arthur Ransome describes one of these evenings and the artistic circle surrounding Smith, who went by the nickname “Gypsy,” wore orange robes and regaled her guests with folk tales and performances. All the while, she produced paintings, illustrations, calendars, and posters, and even branched out into miniature theater.
Some of her first projects included The Illustrated Verses of William Butler Yeats (1898), and her own writings, including Annancy Stories and Widdicombe Fair (both 1899). For a while, she contributed regularly to The Broad Sheet, a literary monthly co-edited by Jack Yeats, before starting a paper of her own, The Green Sheaf, which she edited and contributed poems and illustrations in color.
It’s believed that many of the mercurial characters embellishing the Rider-Waite-Smith Deck were based on her social set; the most distinguished among them, perhaps, is Henry Irving, the celebrated Victorian-era actor-manager who was later knighted (purportedly Irving was also one of the inspirations for Stoker’s Count Dracula).
Smith’s participation in the occult is documented through her membership at the Isis-Urania Temple of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn starting in 1901, which studied the occult, metaphysics and the paranormal. Introduced to the Order by W.B. Yeats, she came to the attention of the scholarly mystic and poet, A. E. Waite, who eventually commissioned her to do the Deck in 1909.
The 78 jewel-like illustrations of the Deck represent archetypal subjects that each become a portal to an invisible realm of signs and symbols, believed to be channeled through processes of divination. Queens, Knights, Fools, Priestesses, Magicians, and a whole host of arcane paraphernalia populate these worlds.
The originality of the cards’ stylization, draftsmanship, and composition make for a magnificent aesthetic achievement while displaying Smith’s jaw-dropping imagination for fantasy, folly, ecstasy, death, and the macabre. Two years later, she composed illustrations for Bram Stoker’s last book, Lair of the White Worm (published in 1911, a year after the author’s death) and converted to Catholicism.
Here’s a PDF of the above article, should the link someday go dead: [Reviving a Forgotten Artist of the Occult (Hyperallergic)]