A Profound Disquiet: The Work of Pamela Colman Smith

smith_tarot.jpgI’m grateful to Toni-Ann La-Crette for drawing my attention to the illustrator of these images. Like many people, I was familiar with this well-known tarot pack, but oblivious to its creator Pamela Colman Smith. This is partly because the pack has long been known as the Rider-Waite Deck, named after  Golden Dawn scholar AE Waite. It’s only recently that Smith has been credited as artist for the deck. She had the innovative idea to illustrate every card with an individual scene rather than simply showing cups or swords etc., which has greatly influenced the way we read tarot today.

Here she presents an insight into her creative process:

Note the dress, the type of face; see if you can trace the character in the face; note the pose… First watch the simple forms of joy, of fear, of sorrow; look at the position taken by the whole body… After you have found how to tell a simple story, put in more details … Learn from everything, see everything, and above all feel everything! … Find eyes within, look for the door into the unknown country.

From ‘Should the Art Student Think?’ published in The Craftsman, July 1908

The deck was published in 1909 and Colman Smith received barely any money, whilst Waite enjoyed fame and financial comfort.

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Born in London in 1878, Pamela Colman Smith led a rich and varied life. At various times she worked as an  illustrator, storyteller, author and set designer, and was also a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn. In 1902-3, she collaborated with W. B. Yeat’s brother on a series of broadsheets with coloured prints (there is a collection of them you can view online here), and published a collection of illustrated Jamaican stories.

 

Image result for drawing Colman Smith theatre company Colman Smith’s drawing of the theatre company she travelled with (1900). She is on the left and Bram Stoker far right.

In 1907, she exhibited seventy-two of her drawings and watercolours at Stieglitz’s gallery in New York. Her work was compared to Edvard Munch in arousing ‘a profound disquiet’, and to William Blake. Her show attracted more visitors to the gallery than any of the photography shows, and almost all of the work sold.

I’m especially interested in Smith’s use of synesthesia. Much of her work depicted imagery spontaneously brought to her mind while listening to classical music. She wrote in an article in 1908:

‘what I see when I hear music-thoughts loosened and set free from the spell of sound.’

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In this 1907 watercolour, the head of a woman becomes a cliff on which figures stand against a fluid background.

 

 

 

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And in this watercolour, held at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, female forms become grey and mauve waves, ships passing on the horizon.

 

 

 

Synesthesia was explored by European modernists such as Kandinsky (1866-1944). These artists sought to find the equivalents of music in colour and imagery, and to find a universal language in art that transcends the specificity of language or direct representation. From early in her career, Georgia O’Keeffe also appreciated the abstract quality of music because it seemed somehow essentialized or pure, freed from the superficial details of representational art.

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Here is one of Colman Smith’s magical translations of music into a visual landscape.

 

 

 

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She also provided poster and cartoon artwork to the women’s suffrage movement as part of the Suffrage Atelier – a group of political artists.

 

 

 

 

 

Though she received little recognition in her lifetime, Pamela Colman Smith’s art is still very much alive. Her images on the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot pack are still portals into the unconscious and mystical realms for millions of people around the world.

 

 

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