The culmination of Colquhoun’s coalescence of art and magic occurred in 1977 with the production of a set of Taro cards. Taro was Colquhoun’s spelling of the more usual Tarot. Over the years she had made several paintings inspired by individual cards. Examples include Rose of the Palace of Fire (1969) and a set of Taro Aces from c. 1949. The Taro was of deep importance to the Golden Dawn, even though its early history was unclear. The date at which it first appeared in Europe was obscure and the pack itself inspired a great deal of debate about its occult significance and the extent to which it enshrined a secret tradition that could, perhaps, be traced back to ancient Egypt. Eliphas Levi was the first occultist to work out systematic correlations between the twenty-two trumps of the Major Arcana and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. A.E.Waite, who translated Levi’s works into English, was responsible for much of the iconography found in the best known modern pack, the one illustrated by Pamela Coleman Smith and published by the Rider Press in 1910. Into the so-called Rider pack Waite blended figures from diverse traditions. These included the Great Mother, the Dying God plus Arthurian and Grail legends, Christianity and Dionysian cults.
Colquhoun believed that the pack had valuable applications that went beyond mere fortune telling. She saw the use of the pack as a mantic practice that could help the adept achieve higher and more subtle planes. The cards are charged with visionary and spiritual experiences and are meant to lead the practitioner towards those experiences. She was critical of the Waite pack, accusing Waite of introducing gender imbalance into the court cards by substituting Knaves for Princesses (1). Her use of the suit name of Disks rather than the more current Pentacles may be another criticism of Waite, who was responsible for introducing the new term.
Her deck consists of seventy eight cards, divided into four suits of fifteen cards (ace to ten plus four court cards), together with the eighteen trump cards that make up the Major Arcana. In Colquhoun’s designs she sought to ‘render the essence of each card by the non-figurative means of pure colour, applied automatically, in the manner of the psycho morphological movement in surrealism’ (2). The cards follow the colour symbolism of the Golden Dawn which also links the four suits with the four traditional elements of alchemy. That is, Air (Swords; pale yellow); Water (Cups: deep blue); Fire (Wands: scarlet) and Earth (Disks: indigo). They were intended as personal meditation glyphs, certainly not for divination or fortune telling: she saw such usages as decadent. The outcome of such a process of meditation would be a transmutation of consciousness; an awakening of the latent and profound connections between humanity, nature and the divine, and of restoring a paradisal union between them. Could there be any grander achievement in art? In these works, art and magic are one. The cards are, of course, the product of a physical as well as a spiritual process. In some cards the colours have been allowed to flow and mingle without intervention, save, perhaps, for a discrete tilting or turning of the paper. On occasion the paint has been applied in dots, as one might pipe icing onto a cake. In other cards the paint has clearly been manipulated and swirled with a small rod or stick; perhaps the reverse end of a paint brush. In these works Colquhoun has been as Cerridwen at her cauldron, stirring and churning her brew, or as a magician raising galaxies and nebulae with her wand.
1. Colquhoun, I. The Sword of Wisdom. MacGregor Mathers and the Golden Dawn. Spearman, London, 1975, p.250.
2. Colquhoun, I. The Taro as Colour. Sangreal, 1978, Vol 1. No. 2 pp31-33.
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