Reviewing Contemporary Visionary Art
Three Bones Society does not entirely exist in a void. Our artists and writer are part of a small community of visionary artist who explore esoteric, occult and political subjects from a the vantage point of those who give form to complex ideas from a bold perspective in which there is not a clear diving line between the mudane and spiritual. As such it is important that we acknowledge what others our doing through periodic reviews, collaborations and shout out. I can think of no better place to start than with an offering from Scarlet Imprint.
First a brief word on Scarlet Imprint. Founded in 2007, they spurred a Renaissance of esoteric publishers. By producing provocative, handsome, scholarly, well-written books on a wide range of phenomena, ranging from reinterpretations of old grimoires to African-derived religions and tarot, Scarlet revitalized a tradition of quality occult imprints. (It has spawned a growing number of publishers to follow suit.) Expectations for their first tarot deck from a contemporary artist have been high, and Oculi Occultati does not disappoint.
The Oculi Occulti Tarot by visionary Polish artist Radomil Boguslawksi, published by Scarlet Imprint, is a standout offering among recent tarots. The title translates as “the eyes are hidden” or “concealed gaze.” The reason should be obvious. All of the actors, except for one, in the 78-card large format deck have their eyes closed. Frankly I didn’t immediately catch on the first time I examined it. I was so transfixed with the vibrant artwork I immediately responded to the bold line work and subtle background details. The imagery is so evocative that one’s gaze is absorbed into the each card’s intricacies. The payoff lies in gaining inward vision through external examination.
That brings up an important point. There are no card titles or little white book - a bold move obviously. Boguslawski nods to the Rider Waite tarot in many compositions. Card titles should be obvious to an experienced reader. (One can always count cups or staves.) Applying standardized definitions for the cards can work for adequate interpretation. Often when reviewing such a deck, the conceit is to write that this is a deck for the initiate or fine art lover. I don’ think that is so. There was a time when our ancestors discerned meaning and oracles from patterns of tree branches or swirls of the smoke. They didn’t have written instructions. The primal energy of Boguslawski’s artistry evokes such a primordial mind-set.
Look at the Hanged Man (which I pulled arbitrarily.) The suspended figure’s legs are crossed and arms bound in the classic pose. The legs’ perspective is contorted in a manner suggesting a Penrose (a.k.a. “Impossible”) triangle. This visual manipulation causes the viewer to innately question the perspective through which he/she perceives the actor. Feelings of pain and tension are elicited through the derangement of his limbs. Furthermore, he is dressed just in puffy trunk hose. The garment’s wrinkled folds have an ominous organic quality. The exposed skin and musculature are boldly shaded indicating tension in suspension. Whether the Hanged Man’s face is pained or ecstatic is open to conjecture. The scaffold’s branches are indicated in bold Van Gogh like swirls, and the entire composition is off center.
The picture communicates plenty. Key descriptors might include discomfort, suspension, bound, transfixed, overwhelmed, poised, etc. One possible message: “You are caught up in an evolving situation and feel pinned. You need to take advantage of being in a fixed situation until you can assimilate what is going on around you.” This is one of many interpretations that can be derived from just looking at the card. That happens to be consistent with traditional interpretations of the Hanged Man. The illustration is powerful enough in itself to convey that. Consulting an independent text is not necessary for that or any other valid interpretation.
Boguslawki’s art powerfully communicates. The major arcana’s black and white schema imparts gravitas. Subtle gray shading invites the eye to move in and out of the image suggesting different planes of focus. When the eye moves the mind engages in direct interaction with the image. Thought and interpretation are stimulated. This is excellent for both observation and revelation, critical components of effective divination.
The minor arcana introduce new characters and colors. The actors in each suit resemble elemental spirits: salamanders (fire and Wands or Staves); undines (water and Cups); sylphs (air and Swords); and gnomes (earth and Pentacles or Disks.) Each suit of actors shares unique and sometimes jarring physical attributes consistent with imaginary beings. Pentacles’ gnomes have distorted proportions, pointy ears and hirsute bodies. The undine figures in cups are mer-creatures with fish tails. This imbues them with magical resonance. It also encourages the viewer to wonder about them and try to understand.
Boguslawski adds single colors to each suit, and these are not entirely traditional color attributions. Aqua blue-green is used for Cups and water, and green for Pentacles and earth. These are close to what we expect in Tarot. However, he chooses magenta for Swords and air and yellow for Wands and fire. Usually we associate red more with Wands than we do Swords. Boguslawski is a very visceral artist, and perhaps he combines emotion with intellect. Perception is what one feels. Thus he attributes color more typical of the Wands fury to Swords. I could similarly conjecture about yellow and Wands. I think that the artist has proven that he has a firm grasp on tarot and earned the right to make his readers examine their own preconceptions to enrich their understanding of his work.
As a whole, Boguslawski has created a provocative deck handsomely produced by Scarlet imprint. It has already generated a lot of buzz in both tarot and esoteric communities, and will likely become a collector’s item. It is a relevant deck that invites rich interpretation and deserves to be used as divinatory tool as much as it merits admiration for its artistry.
Feel free to join the discussion. Have you used Oculi Occultati for divination? Are there other recent tarot decks or publication you feel stand out. At Three Bones Society, we are open to reviewing publication but please use our contact form to discuss first. Take a look at the site and consider if we have a sensibility that may reflect well on yours.