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VAMP: Theda Bara Tarot: Part 2

WRITTEN BY: STE JOOK

Ste Jook is a traditionally photographer and skilled calligrapher who has taken the plunge and in the process of creating The Jook Tarot and VAMP: Theda Bara Tarot. We are going to look at the VAMP: Theda Bara tarot process and results and you can find more about Jook Tarot here and support the Kickstarter here.

I wrote in my previous TABI about my long term tarot deck project using the ‘wet plate collodion’ Victorian photographic process. This deck will be unique due to the medium used. Which leads me to my current project that I believe is unique and interesting as a result of the theme rather than the medium.

I have been collecting Victorian and Edwardian photographs for some time now, especially those that reminded me of a tarot card. These tend to be from silent films, dancers, circus acts, fortune tellers, gypsies etc. I noticed after a while that I was collecting images of the silent film actress Theda Bara way way more than anyone else. I became fascinated by her and quickly consumed the two biographies of her and watched the surviving film she starred in.

Theda Bara was a huge star of the silent film era. She was the first ever film star to go from unknown to a superstar overnight following the release of ‘A Fool There Was’ in 1915. In it she played a femme fatale ‘vampire’. This was a vampire in the sense of the 1897 Rudyard Kipling poem ‘The Vampire’, (on which the film was inspired by) rather than the Bram Stoker variety. In her biography of Theda Bara, Eve Golden describes how the film crew started to use ‘Vamp’ as a nickname for Theda Bara, as an abbreviation for Vampire, and this name stuck, becoming part of everyday language. Theda Bara was the first Vamp.

Sadly, Theda Bara is not so well known today. At the time she was one of the most famous film stars in the world. As famous as Charlie Chaplin. However, although she starred on over forty films, most were lost during a great fire at Fox Studios in 1937. I suppose Theda Bara became a bit of an obsession for me

and by this stage I had several hundred photographs of her, many of which I saw would make ideal tarot card images. This then became a personal challenge to create a major arcana of Theda Bara images. I spent hours and hours trawling archives looking for images I had not seen before and hoping to find something suitable. Happily, I continued to find new images so the search was continually fruitful. Eventually I had amassed a large collection of images, but more importantly had an image that worked for me to illustrate each of the majors.

It might be interesting at this point to describe how I chose an image for each card. Some cards were easier than others, and some images shouted out the card they belong to. Theda holding a lion statue….strength, Theda in a horse carriage…..the chariot etc… Some cards were less obvious. One card I like because of the story behind it is Judgement.

I found this photo of Theda looking down from above at a sarcophagus, her own reflection visible on the glass. This is pleasingly visually similar to my traditional idea of the Judgement card; of an angel looking down below at coffins and the faces looking back up.

It was not until I was reading Eve Golden’s biography of Theda Bara that I found out the story behind the photo. In 1917, Theda was given the role of Cleopatra in the Fox extravaganza. As part of her research she immersed herself in Egyptian history and costume. She was a frequent visitor to the Egyptian collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Egyptology in New York and the and this is where this photograph was taken.

Theda declared that she was the reincarnation of a daughter of Seti, a High Priest of the Pharaohs. She claimed that the mummy in the sarcophagus was that of her own previous body. So in effect she is staring down at herself and I like to think making a judgement about her previous life and on her soul.

I mentioned in my last blog about my love of calligraphy, and how I wanted to somehow incorporate it into a tarot card deck. At the time I had been reading and enjoying the prose of PD Ouspensky from his 1913 book ‘The Symbolism of the Tarot’ and loved his elaborate descriptions and visualisation of his journey through the majors. I decided to incorporate the Ouspensky prose for the majors with the Theda Bara images to create a card that merged the two.

The Ouspensky text varies a lot in length for each card from a few paragraphs to several pages, so it was never possible to cram it all into each card. Also, as the majors are familiar to us all, I didn’t need the text to explain the card. I wanted the text to be visible but also hidden from the viewer with certain words or phrases becoming more or less prominent on different viewings.

The text for each card was carefully selected and hand written by me using pen and ink. This was then scanned into a computer and merged with the Theda Bara image in Photoshop.

So I now had a major arcana only deck, and expected it to end there. Although I had hundreds more Theda images, very few (if any) worked with the traditional tarot suits, and I didn’t really want to make pip cards without images. Also, Ouspensky only wrote about the majors, and I didn’t have any text for the minors. I home printed a set of the cards and shared them with my friends at the Oldham tarot meetup and at the TABI conference in July. I got some lovely positive feedback from people and the encouragement to get the cards printed as a major only deck. Then, at the TABI conference, the whole deck changed when Caitlin Matthews mentioned Matteo Boiardo in her talk.

I had never heard of Matteo Boiardo before this. I looked for him in all my tarot history books and found barely a mention of him. This was rectified with the purchase of a couple of books by Mary Greer and Alan Jones, and by a google search.

Count Matteo Boiardo was a 15 th century Italian poet who proposed a tarot consisting of 78 cards. The 22 majors (apart from the Fool) would be unfamiliar to us being based on attributes and emotions such as Laziness, Desire, Reason etc… rather than the characters we know.

The minors in Boiardo’s tarot follow the same structure of 4 suits comprising of ace to ten and four court cards. But Boiardo proposed the suits be based on the ‘Four Passions’ of Fear, Jealousy, Hope and Love.

The films of the silent era starring Theda Bara were all about emotions and passions, so it seemed to be a perfect match. And better still, Boiardo had written a tercet (three line poem) for every card of the minor arcana. So I had the text I needed as well to be consistent with the majors.

What clinched it for me as well is that the calligraphy hand I used for the major cards is my own slightly gothicised version of chancery cursive. Chancery cursive was developed in Italy in the early 15 th century, and would probably have been the style Boiardo would have used when writing his poetry.

Choosing the Theda images for the minors was easier than the majors. I had way too many possible images for each suit. So the problem was more narrowing it down to the best images that represented each suit.

Theda Bara was a student of the Delsarte method, that was commonly used by actors in the silent era. This involved poses and facial expressions to register emotions. In Eve Golden’s biography of Theda, she describes: “In the early years of fan magazines, Theda and her fellow stars were pictured registering Fear, Love, ….and other facial expressions”

By modern standards the Delsarte method may look exaggerated and almost pantomime like and it looked outdated even by the late 1920s.

For the court cards, I decided to use Theda images that followed a certain pose for each different card, along the lines of the Tarot de Marseille differentiation (apart from knights as there are insufficient photos of Theda both on a horse and registering emotion at the same time).

 Page cards feature Theda standing.
 Knight cards feature a close up image of Theda.
 Queen cards feature an image of Theda seated looking straight forward
 King cards feature Theda seated but looking to the side.

I tried to match the images to match the relevant Boiardo tercet, and this worked for a couple of cards such as the Ten of Fear, but was not possible for the majority of cards.

Boiardo’s poems for the minor court cards are all about famous figures who would have been familiar to audiences of the time. These were historical, biblical or mythological allegories used to represent the relevant passion.

For the minor pip cards, most are poems relating to the nature of the passion itself and the impact it can have on the individual.

In contrast to the majors, I decided that as the suits are different from the traditional tarot, the text for the poems should be clear and easily read, and shown in it’s entirety. This gives the minors a different visual appearance to the majors. After this it was just the matter of adding the card titles. These were hand-written by myself using an alphabet I created inspired by other art deco and Rennie Mackintosh style fonts.

Then the deck was complete, and this brings the story to today, when I am hoping to make a small print run of the deck.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the process and journey in completing this deck, and hope to share future updates on my tarot creation adventure.

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