Playing Cards As Art

No. 5, June - July, 1997

For other issues, related links, the catalog of my entire collection, and other administrative or trivial issues, please jump to the end of the page.

To see the individual pages about each deck, click on the small images on this page. To see full-size images of the cards themselves, click on the small images on the individual pages.

Playing cards have suffered a distinctly uneven respectability in their short but fascinating history. Starting in the hands of the common people, and finding themselves co-opted into the service of divination, the conservative wealthy were unwilling to accept them as anything but a vulgar pastime and an evil influence. Periodically, there were even calls for the complete banishment of playing cards from various kingdoms, and the clergy regularly preached against them. Of course, at one time Scotland tried to ban golf, because it was distracting men from the more manly arts of archery and fencing, and we all know how that came out. So it was with cards, which survived all these attacks quite unscathed. Eventually a kind of truce was worked out - it's all right to curse the effects cards can have, drawing people down into dissipation and bankruptcy, but you can't blame the cards themselves any more.

That said, playing cards have always had their allies among the upper class. Wealthy and landed men used cards for gambling and entertainment, though sometimes by necessity behind closed doors. Kings and Lords, too, were occasionally entranced by these fascinating, new devices, probably at least in part because they found themselves glorified in them. And they would commission their own decks, beautifully illustrated and often illuminated with gold leaf. These certainly were works of art in their own right, and yet they remained pure playing cards.

Beyond the deck as deck, the singular resemblance between a deck of cards and a tiny portrait gallery should not go unnoticed. Cards have been used as a showcase for a myriad of different images, though some higher art than others. In the last century or two, with advances in manufacturing and printing techniques, it seems that everyone with a collection of artworks has put them on a deck of playing cards. And I certainly have more than a few of these. But this issue isn't about art on cards, but rather cards as art.

Artists through the centuries, no less than any other segment of society, have sometimes found themselves enchanted by playing cards. More than just a set of fifty-two frames, they saw parallels and connections between the cards, within the suits and numbers, in the identities of the cards themselves, and the swirling patterns of probability in the games they embodied. Allowed a flight of fancy, and the artist might see a court of royalty, pulsing with power and vigor, or a flock of swans, or a macabre masque given at the behest of Lady Death (the queen of spades, poor maligned lady that she is) herself. Many artists have taken the scenes their minds have presented them and painted images of single cards, or of a game being played, but a few have chosen the opposite approach, of creating a complete deck of their own.

In this issue, I offer both kinds of card images. I have two decks which are complete creations by their respective artists, and two decks which are instead collections of single cards, created by different artists, drawn together into complete decks. I'm perhaps a little saddened that, among all the various decks depicting artwork that I have, none of the works of art themselves seem to depict cards.

[Donald Sultan]Donald Sultan is an internationally acclaimed artist, whose work is well represented in galleries and museums across the world, including a major, travelling retrospective organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. While Sultan's work encompasses the more traditional forms of painting, block printing, and drawing, he is perhaps best known for his bleak industrial scenes painted with tar on linoleum. This deck, made in 1989, is stylistically very different from most artistic interpretations of a deck of playing cards - he's not interested in the identity and personality of the cards, but more their cardinality. His charcoal and conté drawings mirror traditional cards as much as they differ from them. There is no flight of fancy here, but rather an investigation of order, symmetry and arbitrariness.

[Simultani]Sonia Delaunay has had one unifying vision in all her varied artwork: color. Starting as a painter in Paris during the explosion of cubism, she found her passion for color, sprung from her own spirit and informed by Gauguin's and Matisse's work - bright, vivid, and emotional. Soon, though, she found paint alone was not enough. She moved into clothing, textiles, and even ordinary objects, and she helped redefine the aesthetics of the 20th century. She made dresses with Coco Chanel even as she pioneered abstract painting with her husband Robert. She firmly believed that art was meant to be in everything, and she strove to put it there, in her own electrifying colors. Her deck of cards, Simultané, first conceived in 1939 and finally produced in 1960, reflects her passions both with its intense, unmixed color juxtapositions, and as an exotic piece of art conceived in a perfectly ordinary object. It encapsulates her whole artistic vision beautifully.

[The Deck of Cards]There is much less to be said about this deck than of the previous two. Conceived by Alan Driscoll, the Deck of Cards is composed of separate works of art by fifty-six artists, all specially commissioned for this deck. Produced in 1979, it has been quite successful in publication, and can be found most anywhere fine cards are sold. In addition, the deck contains a list of "over 300 collections... around the world where other works by the contributing artists can be seen." The artwork spans a wide variety of styles, materials and construction, and each artist's inspiration in unique and personal. It's quite a catalog of modern schools, techniques and subject matter, but it can be a trifle difficult to play with.

[The Art Quilt]The Art Quilt: A Full Deck developed in a fascinatingly backward manner. Sue Pierce commissioned fifty-four different quilt artists to produce quilts inspired by individual playing cards. With no knowledge of what any of the other artists were doing, each quilter produced a work on their own, unique and personal inspiration. The collection was initially displayed at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC, and is now in the midst of a travelling exhibition, being shown around the country until 1998. Only after the exhibition was well underway did the project come full circle - a deck of playing cards was produced, bearing images of each of the quilts in the exhibition.

The End of the Page

My collection, the list of publishers and manufacturers, and the history of my personal collection of cards can all be found in the "My Collection" page.

I thought about doing the standard Net thing and assembling a list of useful links surrounding playing cards, collecting and such, but no effort I could produce could possibly rival The Bob Lancaster Gallery of Unusual Playing Cards. He has a monstrous list of collectors, artists, manufacturers and just plain interesting sites about playing cards. And so, in deference to his monumental efforts, I provide only a link to him. I hope he doesn't have to pay by the hit...

And people are always asking me where to buy cards. There are plenty of places throughout the net that sell them, from little theme sites that happen to have a deck or two to enormous cards and games superstores. Bob's site lists many of them, but I have to confess - I just like Newt's Playing Cards. And they've got a heck of a selection.

Other Issues:

Issue 9, 10/99 - 12/99: Oh, the Places You'll Go

Issue 8, 11/98 - 12/98: Playing With Cards

Issue 7, 10/97 - 12/97: Sports Cards

Issue 6, 8/97 - 9/97: A Game of War

Issue 5, 6/97 - 7/97: Playing Cards As Art

Issue 4, 4/97 - 5/97: Court Fashions

Issue 3, 2/97 - 3/97: A Fortune in Playing Cards

Issue 2, 12/96 - 1/97: Literature on Playing Cards

Issue 1, 10/96 - 11/96: Handmade Playing Cards

Go to current issue
Return to main home-page
Send me mail.