178 pgs. B&W | $29.99 paperback and card deck | Writer and Artist: Nina Bunjevac
The first thing I have to say about Nina Bunjevac’s new Tarot deck is that it’s stunningly beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful I have ever seen (and I’ve seen quite a few over the years). The art on each card is incredibly detailed, recalling woodcuts by the 19th-century artist Gustave Doré, and for most cards the primary design is presented in black-and-white against a gold background, with gold sometimes used as a highlight as well.
The cards are oversize (18 cm by 10 cm, or about 7.25” by 4”), which allows you to appreciate both the strong layout of each card and the need for every line of detail included. The result is a deck that feels at once both luxurious and efficient, with the splendor of the gold balanced by the efficiency of designs in which every element included serves a purpose and nothing is in excess.
The use of gold as the background color makes the black-and-white designs pop, but that color may have been chosen for another reason as well. Bunjevac states in the book that accompanies this deck that she sees alchemy as a discipline and tool for personal development, and we all know that the alchemists wanted to turn base matter into gold. Her interpretation of alchemy is less literal, however, and doesn’t involve a chemist’s lab: gold is the wisdom achieved through insight and reflection, while base matter corresponds to anything a person needs to work on, be it a character trait, a specific situation, or a problem to be solved.
In a similar light, Bunjevac sees Tarot as a means to encourage reflection and spark the imagination. That this deck includes only the major arcana may be due in part to the length of time it took to create these cards, but it also makes sense if you consider that many people are interested in the Tarot but are not ready to tackle learning all 78 cards at once. Plus, the major arcana (the named cards, such as The Fool, The Hanged Man, and The Wheel of Fortune, etc.) are already somewhat familiar to many people and their sequence makes intuitive sense as an outline of a journey through life. So, the major arcana are a good starting point for people interested in the Tarot or who just want to admire Bunjevac’s art.
Bunjevac’s illustrations draw on the imagery of the well-known Rider-Waite tarot deck, or perhaps I should say the Rider-Waite-Smith deck to give credit to the artist Pamela Colman Smith who made the familiar illustrations for each card. This deck is often the first one people buy, and it’s become almost synonymous with “tarot” in popular culture (you usually see cards from this deck when reference is made to the tarot in a movie, for instance). But, and it’s a big but, the Rider-Waite-Smith deck is very much a product of its time (it was first published in 1909), with all the racism and sexism and belief in the rightness of the British Colonial Empire that that implies.
Bunjevac’s approach could be considered an updating of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which preserves a connection to that well-known imagery while revising the more noxious features that certainly don’t need to be dragged into the 21st century. Her art for the Fool is quite similar to that of Colman Smith, for instance, while her version of The Hermit is clearly female and her Empress is a woman of African descent.
The book which accompanies this Tarot deck includes a full-page image of each card along with a few pages of interpretation, which Bunjevac states she wrote as if giving a reading. She also includes an introduction and afterword explaining more about her philosophy of the Tarot, and of esotericism more generally, as well as a bibliography including works on alchemy, psychology, esotericism, and related subjects. The cards and book are packaged in a beautifully-designed box bearing her design for the Magician card.
You can see a preview of An Alchemical Journey Through the Major Arcana of the Tarot on Bunjevac’s website. | Sarah Boslaugh