Saugerties artist, scholar and illustrator of the Alchemical Tarot, Robert M. Place, first encountered the tarot through his girlfriend at Montclair State University in New Jersey. His interest in occult history led him to study antique decks like the Tarot Marseille, of which he attempted to paint his own version on cardboard – “before I realized that, ‘Gee, this is a lot of work,’” the artist says. He simultaneously pursued sacred art, painting icons and medieval religious imagery, and spending time each summer visiting a Russian friend of his at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York. “I’m drawn to the mystical aspects of the work,” he explains. “But I don’t fit into organized religion.”
In the subsequent years, Place briefly taught art in grammar school before opening a custom jewelry business and working in sculpture and illustration. While he maintained an interest in mysticism, it remained a largely intellectual pursuit – until the tarot returned to him, that is.
It was the summer of 1982, and Place was inside of a dream when a phone rang – a contact from an entirely different dream. “It was a woman who said I had a call from England, and she put me on with a secretary from a dream law firm, who I said I had an inheritance coming. And that was the Waite-Smith Tarot.” He is referring to the deck, also known as the Rider-Waite, whose illustrations by Pamela Colman Smith have become the classic tarot imagery since its publication in 1909. If you can think of a depiction of the Fool or the Hanged Man, you are most likely thinking of Colman Smith’s indelible Art Nouveau-inspired artwork.
This might have remained a dream, had it not been followed by what Place calls “a series of weird, synchronistic events.” Several days later, a friend came over with the Waite-Smith deck, which he recognized from the dream. The next, another friend dropped by to hand him a copy of the 17th-century Tarot Marseille that he no longer needed. He began to read up on the hermetic, gnostic and Neoplatonic origins of tarot until, as he describes in his book Alchemy and the Tarot, his research “had become noticeably excessive to my wife and friends – and to myself.”
This search led him through many books on the tarot that, in his opinion, simply didn’t make any sense. They ascribed the tarot’s seemingly occult origins from places like ancient Egypt, or examined it purely on intuition, leaving Place unsatisfied. But, one day in 1987, he was struck by a singular insight into the tarot and its history. While reading a book on alchemy, it occurred to Place that the imagery of both stories was linked in the World card, whose design mirrored that of a popular hieroglyph of the Philosopher’s Stone, key to all alchemical transformation. “The tarot was created by artists,” he explains, “when the ideas of alchemy were prevalent.” He likens it to the prevalence of psychological terminology in the popular consciousness. “They weren’t all alchemists, but they incorporated all of it into the tarot.”
In response to this insight, he created the deck that made him famous: the Alchemical Tarot. Inspired by the Waite-Smith deck, and with imagery taken from alchemy, Jungian psychology and contemporary artists from 14th-century Renaissance Italy, it was published in 1995 by the UK Branch of Harper-Collins, along with The Mystical Tarot, a book that Place co-authored with occultist Rosemary Ellen Guiley. Around this time, Place and his wife relocated to Saugerties.
Though he has created a number of new decks, the Alchemical Tarot has proven to be his most popular. It is currently in its fourth printing from Place’s own Hermes Publications, through which he has distributed sets as diverse as the Angels Tarot, the Tarot of the Saints and the Vampire Tarot. It led him into a new career of writing and lecturing on tarot, alchemy and mysticism, and around 2000 he gave up his jewelry business to devote himself to it full-time.
Place believes that his decks are defined by their combination of insight and aesthetics, and that this has led to their staying power. His decisions are based on extensive research. “The art,” he stresses, “isn’t just frills.” He cites pre-Raphaelite Renaissance artists who believed that beauty contained religious meaning. “Aesthetic truth is a mystical truth, and it’s probably more important than all of the scholarship.”
Every deck that Place designs comes with its own book. “If you look at most books about the tarot,” he says, “they’re just making stuff up about what it means to them.” Place believes that his research sets him apart, and in conversation he is a font of knowledge. He has authored 12 books to date, from proper divination techniques to art history to monographs on astrology, shamanism and alchemy.
He has further fused this breadth of interest – in alchemy, mysticism, history and literature – in his subsequent decks. His Buddha Tarot uses the apotheosis of Siddhartha as a means of describing the same alchemical rarefication, while his Vampire Tarot relates the Dracula story to the roots of the Arthurian Grail stories. His most recent deck, the Ukiyo-e Lenormand, is derived from Shinto and features Japanese woodcut-inspired illustrations. While the initial ideas tend to arrive in dreams, he fleshes them out with deep research that he hopes will shed light on the shared roots of seemingly disparate ideas. “These connections really blow people’s minds,” says Place. “They just don’t see it.”
Place has traveled the world teaching classes on these and other subjects, so that those interested can come to see these seemingly disparate connections. He taught at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Open Center this spring and is planning a 2019 Tarot Tour of France based around the Tarot Marseille. But it isn’t purely academic. The wisdom of the tarot, he says, lies not in its ability to predict the future, but in how it can inform our choices and thus better that future. “It’s advice from inner wisdom,” he says, “from your intuition.”
For more information about tarot artist/scholar Robert M. Place, visit www.robertmplacetarot.com