The art of Sullivan Hismans


A conversation with Sullivan Hismans by Danilo DiPrizio

All rights reserved © 2019
S.Hismans / D.DiPrizio

1° spread <> question


DDWhen and how did you meet the tarot for the first time? How did you fall in love with the ancient Italian cards?

SH – It was probably by the age of sixteen. At that period, all I knew was that it was a famous divination tool. I was interested in this specific aspect because I’ve always loved fantasy literature and books about healing, magic, divination, these kinds of subjects.

What I really liked about those cards is this state of mind you can experience when you look at them, giving you access to a creative and active part of you. My first deck was a modern Grimaud; I had several other fantasy decks, but this one, close to the “Marseille”, was the only one I was using for my readings.

By the age of twenty-one, I was a student in illustration and graphic design. I continued to practice tarot, working for a psychic phone line then creating my own. After graduation, my art career took over and I forgot about tarot. It was still there as a discreet friend in my studio but I never used it again.

Three years ago, I was at a spiritual crossroads and looking around me for a signpost, I saw it: my old deck. But this time, I saw it differently. In the same way that it was leading me to revisit the Bible, early Christianity and Hermeticism, I had questions for the tarot itself. What is it? Where does it come from? What and how was the first tarot deck?

It is now easy to find the resources online and learn about tarot history, thanks to many tarotists, designers, restorers and historians who are doing a great job. So I discovered those luxury Italian hand-painted decks and many different old tarot cards. But I literally fell in love with the earliest printed decks dating back to the 15th Century. Strong lines, vivid colors, old paper texture … powerful. An unexpected playfulness in the figures. The trumps were still recognizable but they suggested another story. They have a very specific origin as they were found as uncut sheets of cards. Immediately, I was drawn to the card-making dimension. For an artist, it is really appealing – a need to understand, a call to create something.

And this new idea came: “I want to make myself the deck of my dreams”. I started to work on the first drawings for the Budapest Tarot. After studying the original engraving, printing and card making techniques used, I decided to work digitally to stay as close as possible to the original artwork. Since the beginning, I decided to share this process online under the name Tarot Sheet Revival. It gave me the opportunity to meet people from the vast tarot world and contribute to a global community I didn’t even know existed. What began as a personal interest really took an unexpected direction.

I can’t believe how lucky I was to re-encounter the tarot at this precise moment. Because the tarot is for me such a source of fulfillment not only regarding spirituality, but also in so many areas of my life. Today, I feel grateful.

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DDAt first glance, Budapest uncut sheets might seem more ancient then the hand-painted Visconti decks. Since this might be the first true Tarot, you want to tell us about the origin of these woodcuts? Which hand could have thought, designed and engraved a deck like this? Why someone have added twenty-two trumps to a playing cards deck? What was the real intention of an artwork like this?

SH – The Visconti-Sforza cards were painted after 1450. The Budapest cards date back to more or less 1480. So let’s say a difference of thirty years. It means that they might have been carved and printed dozens of years earlier. And there is another version of the same design, which probably means that it was popular. I’m not a tarot historian, but my opinion is that the tarot was a folk product before it was commissioned by Italian princes. So I think that printed tarots, like the Budapest and Rosenwald, were already in existence when the Visconti-Sforza cards were painted and when, around 1440, tarots are first mentioned (as trionfi) in documents of the time.

What fascinates me about the origin of the Rosenwald and Budapest tarots is the story of how they were apparently rediscovered. It’s part of the reason why I chose to restore these two decks: the phenomenon of accident or chance is inherent to the language of tarot.

The Rosenwald tarot, my second reconstitution of a fifteenth century tarot deck, was accidentally discovered by a restorer of antique books. You must know that playing cards are printed grouped on sheets. Once properly prepared, they are cut into cards. But sometimes, during this process, the sheets are judged to have too many defects to be sold. In this period, this paper was considered too valuable to simply dispose of it. The rejected sheets would be recycled and used in bookbinding. So by chance, fragments of uncut sheets are sometimes uncovered during the conservation of antiquarian books.

Both the Rosenwald and Budapest tarots are based on discarded sheets found in this way. In the case of the Rosenwald, the discovery of one page from a certain book (also recycled), enabled the sheets to be dated and their geographical origin traced. Unfortunately for the Budapest, we have no reference to date it precisely. The only clue we have is the order of the trumps and the engraving style. The order corresponds to one of three different tarot trump orders established by Michael Dummett. The placement of the World at the top followed by Justice as XX, then Judgment, refers to the “Type B” order, and thus indicates a Ferrarese or Venetian origin. This tarot is therefore all the more valuable because it is, to the best of my knowledge, the only complete set of trump cards found in this tradition which disappeared around 1600.

…Which hand could have thought, designed and engraved a deck like this?

SH – This question is very interesting because during the Renaissance, when the tarot was created, scholars and intellectuals were trying to gather and translate ancient texts called Hermetica. They believed those texts to date from Pharaonic Egypt, and that some of them were announcing the coming of Christ and the Trinity. The fact is that they were not that ancient, but this was not discovered until later. Part of their appeal comes from an idea that’s still a powerful precept in our culture: to give value to that which is more ancient, if not “the first”.

Like many people, my initial motivation was to find the oldest tarot model. I wondered what it looked like. Along the way, I became fascinated by the many different, forgotten traditions I encountered. They inspired me to make it possible for people to hold them in their hand and use again. To take them out of the museums and back onto the streets.

Each of them are so unique in design terms. Seeing them made me want to know more about their creators; the world they came from. People’s relationship with iconography is different at different times in history. I came to the understanding that every period of history produces something meaningful. Therefore, there is not one true tarot model. I do not think in terms of one underlying model, but of a structure and a visual program. I will not risk myself into an interpretation of this program but my guess is that it has been constantly reviewed to fit a contemporary point of view. So the tarot of 1440 was different from the tarot created in 1480.

For example, The Hanged Man is sometimes shown with bags in his hands, or with his hands tied behind him, or with his hands above his shoulders. All these details give us clues to what was important to the creator. They tell us that this card means something different in the context of each model. Each time a cohesive series of images emerges and forms another tarot model, something solid is produced – a masterpiece is created. This process continues with the work of today’s tarot artists and designers.

…Why someone have added twenty-two trumps to a playing cards deck? What was the real intention of an artwork like this?

SH – There will probably never be a final answer to this question, because the creator of the tarot did not leave a book or a treatise explaining his program.

Obviously, the addition of twenty-two cards gives more complexities, more possibilities for gaming. Playing cards were also used as learning and memorization aids. I imagine that this series of drawings could have conveniently summarized teaching points regarding spirituality, philosophy and morality. But regarding those points, the intention of a card maker in the fifteenth century could not be the same as one in the seventeenth century.

Another aspect we tend to forget is that the value and purpose of an image is constantly evolving, and this leads to the notion of the power it gathers and incubates. And frankly, the tarot is a powerful thing, to be so alive and mesmerizing after half a millennium. Today, when I see how much creativity the tarot inspires, and the growing numbers of artists and practitioners, I can say that a passion for tarot can be life-changing – whether it be through creativity, philosophy, history, or spirituality. So if the purpose of the tarot was to stimulate our imagination, then it’s a real success.

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DD – There are more and more aspiring “Tarot entrepreneurs” and cards traders in circulation, perhaps thanks also to the social networks. There are even more young card readers who easily magnify themselves as experienced masters besides the flowering of persuasive schools, or suspected “Tarot academies”.

Most of them seem to find an easy business opportunity and an exciting square to conquer, a growing market but accompanied by a clear tendency to emulate and repeat the same overrated contents – like the infinite new versions of the Conver deck restoration, for example.

What do you think about it?

SH – When my Budapest and Rosenwald decks were completed, the question naturally arose: “Am I doing this just for me, or will I make these tarots available to others?” Thanks to the social networks, followers of my work on ancient tarot cards had asked to be informed in case I decided to publish a deck. Besides, specific aspects of a larger scale of production intrigued me: to print and fold a packaging envelope is physically a very different process when you do 250 of them. As a result, my creation process has been challenged and nourished by the history and tradition of card making.

It is great that today, there is such a huge tarot and playing cards market to satisfy many tastes, sensibilities and practices. This wide diversity makes the tarot so alive, and that’s very attractive, but it does not really impact my choices. I keep my production artesanal; in many aspects it stays handmade. I even make, in very small quantities, a deck of trumps that is fully handcrafted and involves very specific techniques. I have a growing list of projects related to tarot and cards making that I wish to invest my time and creativity in, I think and act in terms of an artistic practice, and that’s it.

4° spread <> question


DD – Thanks also to artistic work like yours, we can truly observe how the authentic Tarot source still alive in a well protected field. The original Tarot continue to shine like a flower in the desert, despite its true iconography and structure being submerged by a pile of lies and the mystified pages of all “esoteric” and “artistic” Tarot decks. Are you agree?

SH – I think that the 600 years that separate us from the creation of the tarot have continued to rewrite its meaning. Having lost track of the original records, in the absence of a similar pre-existing program, we are forced to fumble without ever reaching a satisfactory and definitive explanation.

The task of interpretation is all the more complicated because the world that gave birth to the tarot, and the evolution of its imagery, was not assembled like ours. Before the 17th century, the diverse elements that constituted the world were structured analogically, by long continuous chains linking the smallest things to the vastness of stars. For example, astrology and the properties of stones were part of the foundations necessary for a sophisticated understanding of a coherent world. To put it another way, tarot imagery finds its origins in a logic that has become foreign to us.

The way we read images has changed a lot. Images are no longer a medium for meditation that inspires deep meaning. They are quickly consumed and superficially perceived. Their depth remains hidden. Faced with the unknown, and with the best intentions, we are naturally led to give new meanings to the old images, and form new perspectives.

If you accept the tarot as a creative product based on an iconographic system from a precise moment in history, you will understand why a 15th century Ferrarese deck doesn’t equal a Vieville from 1650, and that is again different from a Belgian Tarot. It is unrealistic to search for one absolute meaning. We can appreciate someone like Court de Gebelin, who developed his own tarot theories, just as occultists and card readers throughout history have continued to do so. Within this continuum, the historical approach remains a very good point of reference. The Budapest and the Rosenwald tarot are jewels or “flowers in the desert” because they stand silently as witnesses to key moments in tarot history.

In my quest, I try to be open minded and critical in the same time. The tarot is an ancient device that comes with a very strong numerical structure; a harmonious architectural construction. Its elements are striking, remarkable, memorable. Once you embark on an intimate relationship with the tarot, it undoubtedly has life-changing power. It is a great tool to generate clarity.

DD – How to look at the Tarot without restrictions and preconditions? Are we really free to looking at those cards with your eyes?

SH – Yes, we are free to look at the tarot with our eyes. To put it another way, we have the privilege of looking at tarot in this way. As soon as we introduce words, the preexisting image slowly fades and is superseded by the words that represent it. Something happens when we silently connect with a series of images and their living, dynamic structure. It takes guts to sustain this without adding anything.

5° spread <> question


DD – After researching and enlightening the beauty of the past art, have you ever thought about giving birth an original card deck? Do you think it could be possible to combine a fresh artistic creation with the perfect and shining structure of the (g)old classic Tarot?

SH – In a subtle way, I am already giving birth to original tarots. Just like the ancient cardmakers and engravers, I am reproducing an existing design – but influenced by my sensibilities, artistic choices, and contemporary techniques.

Our time, and its very specific understanding of self and ego in relation to society, is the condition for the concept of originality. This has given birth to countless new tarot decks.

Studying and reproducing historical tarot images is my specialty. I imagine that this process could eventually lead to a new, coherent entity that stands for itself. In this sense, an “original” tarot may become the next step, but it’s not the other way round. 

DD – Ok, so, before leaving I would like to show you another kind of portrait that I have worked out in my spare time just today while I was finishing editing our conversation. It was not expected but I hope you enjoy it!

DD – Thanks Sullivan for the time we spent together and this pleasant opporunity. I wish you all the best for your artworks and goodbye, hopefully we can meet soon in Italy or Belgium!

SH – Thank you, Danilo! You are welcome to visit me anytime, and I would be happy to meet you in Italy in 2020. I have a very exciting tarot project waiting for me there…

All rights reserved © 2019
S.Hismans / D.DiPrizio