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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

John Bauer Tarot, One of the Most Beautiful Tarot Decks of All Time

When I look at the cards in the John Bauer Tarot deck, I hear music. Specifically, I hear the spare, haunting minimalist strains of Estonian composer Arvo Part.

John Albert Bauer (1882-1918), whose works grace the Bauer Tarot, was a Swedish illustrator. Bauer devoted his career to painting forests, trolls, gnomes, myths, and folklore.

Sweden, like its near Baltic neighbor, Estonia, lies in northern Europe. Here winters are long and hard. Northern peoples, too, are famous for their stoicism. Thus all those Garrison Keillor jokes about "Norwegian bachelor farmers." No one associates those from the far north with exuberance and insouciance. Winter is always on the horizon; one must work and plan or you and your family starve or the wolves eat you. Nature's palette is limited. No hot, bright peacocks, mangoes or orchids titillate the eye. You can hike for miles in the north and see only brown, gray, black, and white.

With this limited palette, northern artists like Part and Bauer evoke a surprisingly rich array of aesthetic responses in the audience. The color pink appears only once in the John Bauer deck – in the ten of swords, a card devoted to final exhaustion. In the John Bauer ten of swords, a stoic knight stands rigid and straight, gazing off into the horizon. His spear is dipped. A raven perches on his shoulder; a grim sign, given how ravens, in ballads, are always squawking about pecking out the eyes of defeated knights. The pink is there as evidence of a better tomorrow, as the final color of a rainbow stretching humbly across a sky as dull as lead.

Viewing the John Bauer Tarot, I felt I had gotten pleasantly lost in a northern forest at dusk. The dusk did not scare me because I left my human perceptions and values behind. I suddenly was woven into another reality, one just beyond the boundaries of civilization. Here boulders take on the form of teachers. The Hierophant, a card depicting tradition and learning, is usually personified as a Catholic pope. In the John Bauer tarot, the Hierophant is a boulder, patient and bemused, passing on his chthonic wisdom to a lost pair of human children who have climbed atop his knee.

The color palette of the deck is the palette one would see in a northern forest. There is a lot of gray, black, and beige. Bauer was a consummate artist, though, and he knew "gray" the way an Eskimo knows snow.

The five of wands depicts struggle and competition. In the John Bauer Tarot, the five of wands is a troll in the forest at night beset by ravening wolves. This image is a minor masterpiece. Though it is clearly an illustration of a folkloric creature, and though it depicts a wolf attack in a manner that would even be child-friendly – the wolves look more like household mutts than like any real menace – Bauer's image, in tiny, intimate touches, captures winter woods at night, as any hiker would recognize.

The spiky, ragged bottoms of the coniferous trees, the mounding snow, the traditional, knitted pattern on the back of the troll's mittens, all suck the viewer in to winter in the great, white north. What really wows me about this card is Bauer's command of color. Again, northern woods in winter are hypnotically, mind-numbingly monochromatic. Bauer's snow in this card is dirty white, but it glows. It glows the way that snow glows to the eyes of someone who has been hiking for hours and has not been careful about the clock and is risking spending the night alone in a white-blanketed forest.

One of the questions the five of wands asks, "Is this struggle a competition to the death? Or am I just annoyed because some minor household appliance is malfunctioning?" Bauer's image conveys that kind of ambiguity. The wolves look like the kind of stray dog that might become a friend if you pet it nicely, or that might bite you and give you rabies. One of the wolves has the troll's tail in its mouth. Is the troll about to succumb, or will he be able to swat them all off?

Bauer's teacher, the Swedish historical painter Gustaf Cederstrom, said of Bauer, "His art is what I would call great art, in his almost miniaturized works he gives an impression of something much more powerful than many monumental artists can accomplice on acres of canvas. It is not size that matters but content."

This is nowhere more true than in the images used on the Devil and Tower cards in the John Bauer tarot deck. The Devil and the Tower cards should be frightening to look at. I've never seen scarier looking cards than the Devil and Tower cards in the John Bauer Tarot. I'm not even going to describe them to you. I want you to experience them yourself.

Every card is as evocative of wonder as every other card. Some of these images are truly haunting and practically lure narrative out of the mind of the reader. The eight of cups depicts a naked man standing at what appears to be a Catholic mass. I can't look at that card and not imagine a fabulous yarn. The Knight of Cups is a man on a white horse in a green field staring up at geese flying across a cloud-clotted sky. It is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful images I have ever seen. The blue of the sky and the bright light is all the more rewarding after trekking through the dark forest of the rest of the deck.

Most of the cards depict the deep forest and its biological, folkloric, and occasional, visiting human denizens. There are a few cards that depict humans in seventeenth and eighteenth century court attire. The Lovers is a man and a woman in Renaissance garb. For me they didn't fit in the overall theme of the deck. Another quibble. Most of the cards can be interpreted within the Rider-Waite-Smith framework. Many of the cards can't be, as their imagery bears no relation to that framework. The LWB encourages the user to develop his or her own interpretation.

Unlike some who review tarot decks, I must confess that I don't believe in magic, but I do believe in beauty. I believe that tarot decks are fine tools for understanding the human experience. The combination of artwork and meaning makes many tarot decks worthy contributions to culture. Lunaea Weatherstone and Gary A. Lippincott's Victorian Fairy Tarot and the Leon Carre Tarot of the Thousand and One Nights are the two most beautiful tarot decks I've ever seen. I now have to add another to the very top, and that new entry is the exquisite and evocative John Bauer Tarot.


  1. So I love the take on the Tarot even though I have been taught and hold onto the open the door to the other world thing. Don't do it. But more importantly, your last post concerned a procedure that I hope went well and you are ok. So that's all I've got. It's been an exhausting week and I am basking in the serenity of Sunday.

    1. Thank you for reading and thank you for caring.

      I don't think Tarot is magic. I think they are pieces of paper with pictures on them that people can use to help when pondering difficult questions.

      I know some think the cards are magic but I am not in that group. I'm far too cynical to believe in magic.

      thanks for asking about my health. I had two scary tests done, and I'm still alive, if not yet entirely sure what's going on.

      I hope you had a good Sunday!

    2. If you're curious, the 8 of cups card you described sounds like it's the final illustration from Agneta och Sjökungen, or Agneta and the Sea King. I won't spoil the (heartbreaking) story, but I will say this - the man on the 5 of cups is the same, and the woman in that card is inside the church on the 8.

      This review really charmed me, and if you like the deck, I really recommend looking into some of the stories the images are from! John Bauer almost exclusively illustrated folklore and legends, and the cards aren't just visual matches to the paintings, but also matches to the meanings of the card in plot and sentiment of each story, which I think is genuinely incredible.

      Thank you for writing this review!! I'm hoping to buy this deck soon, as Bauer is one of my favourite artists.

    3. Thank you so much for this post! I did look up the story you mentioned and you are correct.