Japaridze Tarot

Review by Diane Wilkes

NJT78 Box top

Japaridze Tarot by Nino Japaridze with text by Steve Lucas

Published by U.S. Games Systems, Inc., www.usgamesinc.com

ISBN:  978-1-57281-780-7

Retail: $29.95

There is something about a Tarot consisting of original paintings that is aesthetically exciting. The Japaridze Tarot artwork is dramatic, passionate, and intense in a way that no computerized art could ever be. 

According to the Japaridze Tarot companion book, gallery owner Steve Lucas approached Japaridze about the Tarot that she ultimately creates. The discussions between Lucas and Japaridze informed the artwork, but Lucas gives all credit to the artist herself. 

Usually, when one artist is responsible for the artwork for a tarot deck, there is an innate cohesion for obvious reasons. This is not the case with the Japaridze, which consists of abstract and surrealistic art, as well as more straightforward paintings. Lucas seems to celebrate this, which makes sense—he’s a gallery owner, for whom diversity is exciting, a calling card. After all, it is exceedingly unlikely that one person will buy the entire Major Arcana or even a complete suit. But for a Tarot reader who is trying to provide a congruent reading, a deck as variegated as the Japaridze does not always contribute to the sought-for flow.

The Fool, depicting a figure on the high wire followed by the requisite dog, is both surreal and whimsical, which seems to fit that particular archetype. The Magician and the High Priestess operate in murky surroundings, which is odd to me because they are such cards of clarity. The Hierophant and The Lovers are abstract, although The Lovers card is heart-centered, literally, as well as figuratively. 

There is nothing abstract about Strength, however. This card is one of my favorites: a woman and lion diving together through the clouds. The Hanged One has been renamed “The Drowned” to emphasize the watery element of this card.

We go from the psychedelicized skull in Death to the sweet, simple effervescence of a girl swinging gracefully in Temperance. It is hard to imagine both cards coming from the same artist, yet come from one they do. We return to chaotic, dramatic surrealism for The Devil and The Tower, and both cards ratchet one up, only to settle with a sigh of relief into the grace of The Star. In this card, the surrealistic style does not jolt one, but eases one into a dreamlike state after the nightmarish quality of the previous two cards.

The Moon is an eyeball—another surrealistic image—but it neither ratchets one up or calms one. It makes me queasy—again, an apt emotion to feel with that archetype. The Sun is a surreal holy card, with bat. Which reminds me—this deck should be adopted by the Bay Area Tarot Symposium as its representative deck, because both the Major and Minor Arcana are positively thronged with bats. A brief bat-search turned up over 15 cards—and that was a just a bat-glance.

The last two cards of the Major Arcana are quite different. Judgment is peaceful and evocative, if, indeed, bat-filled, whereas The World makes me think of Frida Kahlo, were she painting the seventh circle of Hell—at night. This is not the sensation I normally receive when looking at The World card.

The Minors are no different—or, rather, they are equally different. Japaridze chose to rename the suits to reflect their elemental nature: Wands are Fire, Cups, Tides, Swords are Winds, and Pentacles become Gardens. The Page and Knight are, respectively, Jester and Stranger. I don’t mind intelligent renamings, especially when they make sense within the context of the deck. These do.

However, we still get the motley artistic approach in the Minors. In the Two of Fire, we have a barely surrealistic image of a soldier swathed in colorful garb, holding a lantern as he gazes on a flaming sunset. The Five of Fire shows two skeletons dueling and the Nine of Fire echoes that image with gladiators battling. The last card is artistically traditional—which in this deck, brings the reader up short as a surrealistic card appearing in a standard deck would. 

Despite (or because of) the hybridization, the cards often offer up new, nuanced aspects. In the suit of Cups/Tides, we have the Five, depicting a pregnant, grieving woman in cemetery. She could be mourning a husband lost to war or this could include the tagline, “I should have danced all night.” Either way, the sorrow becomes tangible in a way that the Ryder-Waite-Smith image does not manifest. Two girls on a beach send balloons to fly up to the sky in the Six, infusing the card with the impermeability of childhood—and nostalgia. The Seven places us in the middle of a very wrong choice indeed, a perilous, chaotic whirlpool swimming with serpents. Jewels float in the waters unclaimed and out of reach. Instead of the smugly contented man surrounded by cups, this Nine shows a woman enraptured by a shooting star. The “wish comes true” is solidly shown, but so is profound joy.

A few cards are simply bizarre: The Ace of Winds flashes the Bat Channel, yet bats aren’t limited to, or even emphasized in, the Wind suit. However, the Eight of Gardens is hypnagogic  steampunk—but it works brilliantly. The Stranger (Knight) of Gardens is utterly dreamlike and quite beautiful, but the dreamy, delicacy directly contradicts my understanding of the steady, solid knight. 

I actually relish a bit of a stretch, though—and the majority of these cards don’t demand me to become a contortionist. I do think the imagery works best for soul work, and though some readings for others don’t focus on the mundane, I see me using this deck for myself more than for others. 

That isn’t a criticism, simply an observation, because I love some of the new takes I receive from these cards. I am especially enraptured by the Seven of Gardens, which transforms the concept of patiently waiting and tending one’s crops to envisioning what you want to create in order to manifest it. Such a beautiful and profound image and concept.

Speaking of images and concepts, U.S. Games has done a stellar job with the production aspect of this deck. The Japaridze Tarot comes in a box that is slightly, but not obscenely larger than a standard deck box, with a well for the cards and a small paperback book with rich color reproductions. 

The text by Steve Lucas is somewhat philosophical and often lacks specific symbolic interpretation, which makes sense for a gallery owner but is dissatisfying for a reader who wants to know, for example, why so many bats? The Five of Fire shows two skeletons, a perfect artistic illustration of a fight to the death—which normally isn’t my take for this card. The provided divinatory meanings: 

Minor obstacles. Conflict or indecision. Competition and challenges to be met. A clash of personalities.

These are traditional meanings, yet they seem understated, even vapid, in light of the imagery. This kind of disconnect works for art-lovers who like a sense of mystery, but when you’re looking to make sense out of mystery, as readers often must, it’s dissatisfying.

Too many new decks are simple and pat, retreads of all that have gone before. That most certainly is not the case with the Japaridze Tarot. It’s not for beginners or phlegmatic types. If you are willing to embrace unique beauty and chaos—and stretch yourself—it might be just what the doctor ordered, especially if that doctor is Dr. Sardonicus.

All submissions remain the property of their respective authors. All images are used with permission. Tarot Reflections is published by the American Tarot Association - © 2014 Questions? Comments? Contact us at ATAsTarotReflections@gmail.com