The Game of Marseille
The Game of Marseille
The Game of Marseille
The Game of Marseille
The Game of Marseille
The Game of Marseille

The Game of Marseille

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Jacquard Sweater - 100% Cotton Base, Acrylic Detail
Knit in NJ, Finished in Ridgewood, NY

"…A pack of cards, a corruptible paradise of two-headed people." –Jorge Luis Borges

The Jeu de Marseilles
By 1940, most of the avant-garde artists who had stayed in Paris were fleeing south to the "unoccupied zone," just ahead of the Nazi invaders. In Marseilles, refugee center of unoccupied France, the Surrealists reassembled. Having served as a military physician, Andre Breton moved to Marseilles when the army was disbanded under the terms of the Franco-German Armistice; he, his wife Jacqueline Lamba, and daughter Aube found sanctuary in the Villa Air-Bel outside the city. Here he was joined by Masson and his family, as well as Ernst, who had been incarcerated as a German national in Les Milles, a French concentration camp. At Les Milles, Ernst and Hans Bellmer had experimented with the Surrealist process known as decalcomania and together produced several collaborative works.

Other Surrealists who gathered in Marseilles included Wifredo Lam, Victor Brauner, Jacques Herold, Dominguez, Varo, and Peret. On Sundays they all met at Air-Bel (temporarily renamed "Château Esper-Visa") to hold auctions of their art, create Exquisite Corpses and other collective drawings, and participate in Surrealist games. They would remain housed there during the winter of 1940-41, taken care of by an American committee for aid to intellectuals, the Emergency Rescue Committee. Breton, Char, Dominguez, Brauner, Ernst, Herold, Lam, Masson, Peret would kill time by playing cards. Led by Jacqueline Lamba, the group also produced a deck of modern tarot cards, the Jeu de Marseilles. Among the many works by the artists and writers gathered at Villa Air-Bel, the most outstanding is certainly the Jeu de Marseille–a nod to the famous ‘Tarots de Marseille’, which André Breton was studying at the time. 

The Surrealists thoroughly reinvented the iconography of a classical deck of cards in terms of the movement’s favorite figures and symbols. So the traditional suits were renamed accordingly: Flames for love and desire, Stars for dreams, Wheels for revolution, and Locks for knowledge. Even though the number of cards was kept at fifty-two, this highly symbolic structure places the deck closer to the Tarot arrangement of Wands, Cups, Swords and Discs, rather than the usual Clubs, Hearts, Spades and Diamonds.

Breton’s socialist sympathies meant that having a royal hierarchy of King and Queen lording it over a humble Jack was quite unacceptable; these were subsequently re-named Genius, Siren and Magus. Again, the name Magus here is interesting for the added occult reference it gives to the design. It is not coincidental that the famed “Tarot de Marseille” of the late fifteenth century, regarded as the source for many later Tarot decks, is the origin for this surrealist game.

The face cards of each suit took the form of the surrealist’s favorite figures. The face cards in the flame of Love suit are represented by Baudelaire, Stendhal’s Portuguese nun, and Novalis. In the black star of the Dream suit, the face cards are Lautréamont, Lewis Carroll’s Alice, and Sigmund Freud. For the bloody wheel of the Revolution the cards represent Marquis de Sade, Lamiel, and Pancho Villa.  And in the lock of Knowledge suit the face cards are Hegel, Hélène Smith, and Paracelsus. 

A random draw determined who would design the different cards: Victor Brauner took Hegel and Hélène Smith, André Breton drew Paracelsus and the Ace of Knowledge, Jacques Hérold illustrated Lamiel and Sade, André Masson pulled La Religieuse portugaise and Novalis, Max Ernst illustrated Pancho Villa and the Ace of Love, Jacqueline Lamba drew the Ace of Revolution and Baudelaire, Wifredo Lam took on Alice and Lautréamont, and Oscar Dominguez illustrated Freud and the Ace of Dreams. Frédéric Delanglade designed the backs of the cards. The joker was based on Alfred Jarry’s woodcut drawing of Pere Ubu. For the Surrealists, Ubu was not only a tyrant. Breton called Jarry “the master of us all.”
Surrealist cartomancy – { feuilleton }
Le Jeu de Marseille - ShigePékin

VVV was a magazine devoted to the dissemination of Surrealism published in New York City from 1942 through 1944. VVV's editorial board also enlisted a number of associated thinkers and artists, including Aimé Césaire, Philip Lamantia, and Robert Motherwell. Each edition focused on "poetry, plastic arts, anthropology, sociology, and psychology," and was lavishly illustrated by Surrealist artists, including Giorgio de Chirico, Roberto Matta and Yves Tanguy. The magazine was experimental in format and in content. VVV included fold-out pages, sheets of different sizes and paper stock, and bold typography and color.  While only four issues were published, it provided an outlet for European Surrealist artists, who were displaced from their home countries by World War II, to communicate with American artists.

The Jeu de Marseille was published for the first time in VVV in 1943. Illustrations of the cards were embedded throughout the second and third issue, where the lavish color reproductions seem to rise off a field of billiard table green, and the cards themselves are printed in lavish yellow, indigo, and red. While the deck was originally created in December 1940 by Victor Brauner, André Breton, Oscar Dominquez, Max Ernst, Hérold, Wifredo Lam, Jacqueline Lamba and André Masson, the images used for publication were recreations by Frédéric Delanglade. Delanglade, who illustrated the design for the back of the cards, was tasked with standardizing the sketches by redrawing each of them in a continuous line. Breton’s accompanying commentary in VVV stresses the deliberate choice to keep the creator of each card anonymous so as to preserve the collective character of the project.

Their true-to-life size reinforces the trompe l’oeil effect produced by these rare instances of multicolored prints in the magazine. Figured in the cards are Novalis, Baudelaire, La Religieuse, Pancho Villa, Lamel, Sade, Paracelsus, Helene Smith (a nineteenth century medium), Hegel, Freud, Alice in Wonderland, and Lautréamont—followed by a flame, black star, wheel, and key signifying: love, dream, revolution, and knowledge. Meant to be visually evocative, manipulated and portable, the form and use-value of the Jeu de Marseille recalls the Tarot even more than a deck of playing cards. Surrealist and early VVV contributor Kurt Seligmann’s Magic, Supernaturalism and Religion, an encyclopedia project started during this period and published in 1948, offers extensive commentary on the Tarot, conveying the interest it held for the Parisian group. His description of the its value readily translates to a surrealist context: “In scrutinizing the vividly colored images, the diviner will provoke a kind of autohypnosis...The Tarot’s virtue is thus to induce that psychic or mental state favourable to divination...and waken in us the images of our subconscious…”

Not only does the Tarot embody a practice similar to automatism, it also claims the same political potential that Breton reiterates in the opening manifesto for VVV: “They do not express or lead to an established doctrine. On the contrary, they liberate us from such bonds.” They do this through a practice that defies those who are “indifferent to the accidents of life…”