The Tarot of Chinoiserie

Foudraz title

Tarocchi Orientali Foudraz 1845

Chinoiserie: the imitation or evocation of Chinese motifs and techniques in Western art, furniture, and architecture, especially in the 18th century.

chicanery:  deception by artful subterfuge or sophistry : trickery

“Chinese and Japanese imports were wildly popular in Europe in the 1600s and 1700s. Every fashionable home was furnished with porcelain, lacquer, silk, and other materials previously little known in Europe. European artists and craftsmen combined eastern artistic forms and techniques from the Middle and Far East into a fanciful hybrid style known as chinoiserie, French for ‘Chinese-esque.'” (Getty Museum)

Ever since Marco Polo brought home fantabulous tales of his journeys at the close of the 13th century, Europeans had been intrigued with that exotic place, China. The name was a stand-in for all countries Asian–including Japan, India, even the Middle East. By the mid-17th century, chinoiserie referred to decorative arts influenced not only by the East, but by Europeans’ romantic, fuzzy ideas about “China.” Exuberant yet delicate floral motifs. Depictions of Chinese pursuits, or at least what Europeans had heard or imagined those might be.

Today, we live in a time when globalization is a charged issue, when the internet beguiles us into believing we know, well, everything about other places. It may be hard for us to conjure up this old-fashioned feeling of mystery, of longing for the exotic, with imagination eagerly filling a semi-vacuum of sparse actual fact. Is any place exotic anymore, when you can see its image or purchase its unique artifacts online?

Chinoiserie isn’t about faithful reproduction, reverse engineering, generic knock-off. It’s one part Chinese aesthetic, along with many parts European longing, romance, assumption, and just plain fiction. Chinoiserie as Pied Piper, Music Man, Wizard of Oz–or Tarot’s Le Bateleur. Chinoiserie as chicanery, deception–make that self-deception. A beautiful haze. Out of fabulous spell-spinning comes the “fanciful hybrid”–something lovely, beyond ersatz, a real repository of dreams.

When I was young, I had a friend whose family was far worldlier than mine. How did I know? Her mother (a working woman) ordered take-out every Wednesday from the one Chinese place in town. We, on the other hand, frequently made a dinner at home of chop suey, that fancifully Oriental dish once popular in American homes. I didn’t question the authenticity of any of this, of course. And once–I was grown by this time–when I was traveling in the rural US, we stopped at a real find, a Chinese restaurant. Unfortunately, our meal was a long time coming. Our Occidental waitress was most apologetic–the cook had run out of noodles and had to run to the store for spaghetti.

I have partaken of chinoiserie.

Like a dozing sleeper passing in and out of dreams, chinoiserie as a European decorative style went in and out of fashion. After a heyday in the 18th century, it died down then had a resurgence in the mid-19th century.  And as one small, little-known thread of the tapestry that was chinoiserie, a man named Claudio Foudraz, a lithographer in Turin, made a chinois Tarot in 1845. Although he wasn’t the first to use an Oriental motif for a European card deck, he seems to have been the only one to make a true (or almost true) Tarot de Marseille in this style. Other so-called Tarot decks using Oriental motifs abandoned the traditional representations of Tarot. Almost like today’s oracle decks, the figures bore no resemblance to the traditional trumps. Foudraz’s Tarot was different. And exquisite.

Luckily for us, Foudraz’s Tarot has been lovingly recreated by Giordano Berti. It’s a gorgeous amalgam of the traditional Tarot images and a 19th century dream of the Orient. And it’s curiously modern in its mash-up of the traditional and the exotic, like an edgy new cuisine in which French, Italian, and Asian flavors mingle. Some trumps are quite traditional–only the slanted eyes of one La Roue de Fortunue (sic) creature conveys its “Oriental” nature. Other images are straightforward cultural transpositions–the charioteer is carried in a litter by four men, rather than driving two horses and a chariot. Then there’s the fierce dark character who holds the scales of Justice. He’s sitting cross-legged atop a pedestal whose plinth is likely Bi Xi, the Chinese mythological figure of a dragon with the shell of a tortoise.

It almost seems wrong to describe the cards in this analytical way, though. I simply fall under the chinoiserie spell when I look at them. Stickler for authenticity though I usually am, I don’t care about the veracity of either their Oriental or Tarot de Marseille iconography. Both are a bit hazy in this deck, but I’m ready to believe in the dream.

What is the relationship of truth and illusion?

Foudraz 3 card

That quintessential illusionist, Le Bateleur, conjures a wake-up call to truth. His small wand turns into a no-nonsense sword. This judgment isn’t so much a joyful awakening as a fearsome reckoning. And there’s a burning bush on the scene. “Every angel is terrifying,” says Rilke, as we make obeisance. Yet, after the awakening, the laundry (adapting Kornfield). Temperance turns her back to the drama. You must learn to live within this revelation, balancing your energies, balancing your worlds. Don’t waste that water trying to douse an eternal flame.

But which is truth, which is illusion? Maybe the genie with the sword is just Le Bateleur’s sleight-of-hand, an illusion. No wonder Temperance turns her back. If it’s real, though, isn’t her robe awfully close to the flame? How oblivious she seems to the danger that her robe will catch fire!

Maybe the real illusion is that we can measure an angel, regulate revelation. That we’re safe from the burning bush at our heels. Self-chicanery.

And all of this, all at once, is the answer to the question posed.

Cards: Tarocchi Orientali Foudraz 1845, recreated by Giordano Berti (2016)

Blog contents © 2016-2017, the author.






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