The Surrealist ( Le surréaliste )
In The Surrealist, Victor Brauner borrows motifs from the tarot to create a portrait of himself as a young man. The tarot, a set of 78 illustrated cards used in fortune telling, was a subject of widespread interest to Brauner and other Surrealists. Four of these cards, for example, appeared on André Derain’s cover for the December 1933 issue of Minotaure. A group including Brauner even produced a deck of cards in 1940–41 that was probably a tarot. One tarot card, the Juggler (the first card in the Marseille tarot deck), provided Brauner with a key prototype for his self portrait: the Surrealist’s large hat, medieval costume, and the position of his arms all derive from this figure who, like Brauner’s subject, stands behind a table displaying a knife, a goblet, and coins.¹ The tarot Juggler appropriately symbolizes the creativity of the Surrealist poet, for it refers to the capacity of each individual to create his own personality through intelligence, wit, and initiative, and thus to play with his own future, as the juggler manipulates his baton.
In another tarot deck known as the Waite tarot, the first card of the Major Arcana is the Magician rather than the Juggler, although both share many attributes. A sign of infinity, * (the symbol of life), that appears above the Magician’s head is also depicted on the hat of Brauner’s Surrealist. Drawing on the Juggler-Magician prototype, Brauner illustrates the traditional signs of the four suits in the tarot deck: wands, cups, swords, and coins (symbols of the elements of natural life—fire, water, air, and earth, respectively). These objects and all natural life are controlled by the Juggler, just as all creative life is at the disposal of the Surrealist poet, who wields his pen as the Juggler brandishes his wand.
Brauner depicted the Juggler and a Popess (a figure from the Marseille Tarot) in another painting of 1947, The Lovers (private collection, Paris). The inscriptions at either side of that canvas, Past—Present—Future and Fate/Necessity—Will/Magic—Surreality/Liberty, are written in Brauner’s hand on the back of the Peggy Guggenheim canvas. These inscriptions convey the artist’s belief that Surrealism could be a path to artistic freedom.
Elizabeth C. Childs
1. See N. and E. Calas, The Peggy Guggenheim Collection of Modern Art, New York, 1966, pp. 123–24. Cynthia Goodman’s unpublished notes on The Surrealist offer the most complete discussion of this tarot iconography.