Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot

André Derain: Criterium of the Aces

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Translator’s Introduction

“The only matter in painting is light.” — André Derain

The creative and intellectual ferment of the first decades of the twentieth century gave rise to some of the more daring and thought-provoking theories of the Tarot, speculative, to be sure, but otherly engaging than the occultist elucubrations of the preceding century. At the centre of the interlocking circles of mysticism, avant-garde literature, and the arts, to give but one example, we find the person of André Derain. Derain is best known as an artist, one of the chief representatives of Fauvism, before becoming an exponent of classicism and of a ‘Return to Order.

Derain, like many of his contemporaries, had an abiding interest in things esoteric, notably the Tarot, and this interest extended beyond the confines of text and the printed page to the card- and Tarot-inspired prints he produced for an edition of Rabelais’ Pantagruel, to the costumes he designed for the ballet La boutique fantasque (the subject of an exhibition held in recent years in the Musée Français de la Carte à Jouer in Issy-les-Moulineaux next to Paris), and indeed, to actual cartomancy and fortune-telling, according to anecdotes related by André Breton, among others.

Breton recalls: “I place highly the memory of those hours spent alone with him in his workshop on the rue Bonaparte where, in between two soliloquies on medieval art and thought, he read the tarot for me.” (« C’est à vous de parler, jeune voyant des choses… », XXe Siècle, n° 3, June 1952, p. 29.) (In passing, the relations between the Surrealists, for instance, and the occult are well-documented and need not detain us here.)

As one art historian notes, “Derain’s notebooks and letters reveal that he had studied the Cabala, astrology, Pythagoras, Buddhism, the Tarot, Charles Henry’s mathematical theories, numerology, Wagner’s operas, Nietzsche and Plotinus (neo-platonism was one of the few constants in Derain’s ideology). […] Derain had the advantage of perceiving how philosophical theories and mystical beliefs of the most diverse kind could be woven into a personal aesthetic, just as antithetical styles could be welded into a pictorial synthesis.” (John Richardson, A Life of Picasso. Vol. II: 1907-1917: The Painter of Modern Life, Pimlico, 1997, p 74.)

One will find a more extensive examination of some of Derain’s arcane influences, and his own thoughts, in the detailed article by Rosanna Warren, A Metaphysic of Painting: The Notes of Andre Derain. According to Warren, “Derain made the dynamic relation between the individual soul and the world spirit the central metaphor of his life.” (op. cit. p. 98) Nowhere is this ‘dynamic relation’ more apparent than in the ‘divinatory support’ or medium, of which the Tarot is the pre-eminent example.

This article, Critérium des As, was published in the Surrealist journal Minotaure, n° 3-4, December 1933, Éditions Albert Skira, supposedly at the request of André Breton. The title of the article is a reference to a famous French bicycle race, the Critérium des As (Race of the Aces), which was held from 1921 to 1990. The word ‘criterium’ denotes a bicycle race of a specified number of laps on a closed circuit. In French, As, no more than the English ‘Ace’, also means a very skilled person. In addition, Derain also designed the Tarot-inspired cover of the issue in question.

This piece allegedly “made a lot of noise at the time,” although we have been unable to find any evidence for this assertion by Jean Laude (in La Peinture française (1905-1914) et l’art nègre, Klincksieck, 1968, p. 149, n. 86). It has also been labelled “a little treatise on the Tarot,” and in spite of its brevity and its airs of modernist blank verse, that is precisely what it is. One specialist, Simone Perks, has described it as “a highly recondite reading of four ancient playing cards […] which reads as a delirious poetic extemporization.” Patrick Lepetit calls it “a poetic text with highly esoteric connotations.” Looking carefully at the text and images, it appears to us that beneath this poetry lies a meticulously crafted piece with a rigorous underlying logic.

In effect, rather than reflecting an essentialist conception of the four immutable elements of classical antiquity, Derain’s view of the four Aces is to be put in parallel with the Chinese cosmological theory of the five phases and their sequences of mutual generation and destruction. It is not known whether this is what Derain had in mind, but his taste for collecting Chinese artwork is well known and it is possible he may have read something on the subject. (The monumental work on the subject in French, La pensée chinoise by Marcel Granet, was only published the following year, in 1934, although there were plenty of outlines of Chinese thought available prior to that.) A similar idea would later be proposed, for instance, in the article ‘The Tarot, the Seasons and the Five Chinese Elements’ by Swami Prem Sudheer, published in the Hermetic Journal, n° 10, Winter 1980, pp. 39-42. On the other hand, one could argue that the four Aces, rather than representing the four elements in a pure, abstract state, represent instead manifest, tangible and therefore mixed forms, and are thus subject to the Aristotelean scheme of generation and corruption, thereby undergoing the evolutionary cycle. Indeed, Derain had more than a passing familiarity with the atomic theories of Epicurus and Lucretius.

Whatever his ultimate sources, Derain’s notion of the transformative potential of the Aces of the four suits is to be related to a view of the elements-phases that may best be described as operative. As Rosanna Warren says, “Derain’s world is one of Baudelairean correspondences. Every thing becomes meaningful through its perceived relationship to other things and to other realms of experiences.” (op. cit. p. 96)

The idea that the implements on the Juggler’s table and the wand held in his hand are the representations of the emblems of the four suits is a staple of the occultist view of the Tarot, one that dates back to the writings of Éliphas Lévi (Dogme et rituel de la haute magie, 1861) and his erstwhile disciple Paul Christian (L’homme rouge des Tuileries, 1863). Moreover, Lévi’s influential work Dogme et rituel de la haute magie contains an allusion to the symbolic slaying of the bull in the tauroctony of the Mithraic Mysteries, correlating the ace of Swords with the element of earth onto which the bull’s blood is spilt. This may provide the connection between Derain’s cover art (and the title of the journal) and the content of his article. Given the foregoing, it is safe to assume that Lévi, Christian, or their followers were Derain’s inspiration in this regard. More hazardous is the tentative idea that Derain’s text contains systematic and meaningful allusions to the other trump cards themselves, although we mention it here in passing, without proposing a hypothesis, for those who love enigmas…

Derain’s cover design has also given rise to some speculation; the Italian art historian Arturo Schwarz suggests that the four cards represent “perhaps an allusion to the four natures of the mythical animal” (‘Minotaure,’ FMR, n°31, 1988, p. 20), without saying what these four natures are: the Minotaur is generally considered as having two natures: man and bull (cf. Plutarch, Life of Theseus, 15.1, citing Euripides). Without pursuing the matter too deeply, it may be the case that the four cards in question represent the combat of Theseus against the Minotaur, an interpretation made possible by following the sequence of the cards in the same order as that of the four Aces: the intrepid Theseus (I) enters the labyrinth (XII), kills the Minotaur (XI), then escapes (XXII). This interpretation is bolstered by the fact that Derain himself added the number XXII to the Fool card, thereby giving it the expression of finality.

One will note, in addition to the Biblical references to King Solomon and to Aaron’s rod, the references to the constructive symbolism of both Compagnonnage and Freemasonry, and their initiatory allegories such as the Hiram legend. Less obviously, there are references to alchemical symbolism and the Grail myth. Although Derain does not appear to have been a Freemason, his interest in the writings of Martinez de Pasqually is well attested.

Derain’s piece appears to have gone largely unnoticed, although it has been mentioned on a few rare occasions and translations of brief excerpts appear in The Esoteric Secrets of Surrealism: Origins, Magic, and Secret Societies by Patrick Lepetit, which provides a comprehensive overview of the wider context, and in the dissertation From Ancient Greece to Surrealism: The Changing Faces of the Minotaur by Brenton Pahl (pp. 24-25).

The original punctuation (or lack thereof) and typography of the piece has been preserved insofar as possible, and we have endeavoured to adapt Derain’s free-flowing syntax to the genius of the English language. The original text may be found here on page 8. Due to the limitations of the blog formatting, we have been unable to replicate the particular layout of the piece, with the four cards in the corners and the text in the shape of a cross (see below). However, one will find both an image file of the piece reproduced in its original layout immediately after the text, and a PDF (higher resolution) for download here: Criterium of the Aces

The Tarot deck used to illustrate the cover of the journal and Derain’s piece is a Besançon Tarot by Jean Jerger, printed between 1820 and 1845, and the illustrations we have used come from a very similar (if not identical) deck held in the Bibliothèque nationale. The smile on the face of the Juggler on the cover was added by Derain himself, as was the number XXII on the card of the Fool. (The image of the Juggler did not appear within the article itself.)

Minotaure n° 3-4, December 1933, cover by André Derain

* * *

Criterium of the Aces

André Derain

a word to the Wise!

Make way for the unrepentant Juggler, orator painter whose mouth shall be sewn up with strong leather laces, like a shoe, the shoe of the Hanged Man, “twelfth card.”

Here neither Good nor Evil nor Time nor Space nothing but the Eternal Present, privilege of the Image

Image that animates the one who desires it.

Anxious souls concerned with the Future, the Aces will reassure you.

There is no Future, let us predict it !! and let us defy the Devil who deals us the cards.

Table of the Juggler
here then are the four ACES


Flowering branch picked in the springtime of the World!
Magician’s Wand or sorcerer’s lightning-bolt rod you make water spring from the rock you strike.
Beautiful flowering stick of the devouring journeyman in which he will carve his Rule, a Rule which will lead his work to perfection. Forgotten one evening of exhaustion his apprentice will seize it and strike the Master, great Architect of the TEMPLE and kill him.
Sprig of acacia you will flower his grave.
Insignia of command you make Tears spring from the thief you punish as with the Rock and spur on the THE steed you lash.
Companion of the lost traveller, you protect him at night
Finally support of the exhausted old man you are thrown in the Fire when he dies.
You thus rekindle the flames of the burning hearth which will smelt the precious Metal, substance of the coin.


The fire of the Wand smelts the Metal become stream the light Metal fixed in the hollow of the abysses which the fire resuscitates makes supple agile and brilliant your lost drops take as they cool the shape of the Stars and like them at Night are the reflection of the Day.
Chief, powerful and wealthy in artifice you manage human societies, you sustain passion. You are instability even indifference and dispersion.
Alone, in the universe, without vice and without virtue you confer them according to your will to the most disparate beings and objects. making the strong stronger you annihilate the weak.
Great Master of Chance, you go, you come, you disappear without a trace.
Thanks to the flowering Wand the still burning Fire of a tougher metal will melt us.


The Flame fixed in the Steel, the flame that burns flesh with its sharp point. gives its shape to the Sword which pierces provoking Wound and Pain.
The flame crosses THE NIGHT.
In the splendour of the Day. the solar ray Sword of the World transpierces the clouds.
Instrument of anger and of Hatred it engenders Murder and suffering.
It delivers the frightened Hero and arms the hand of the criminal with the same fervour.
Indistinctly it is the support of outraged honour or else the dark tool of crime
It cuts the flowers transpierces the Trees
Scores the Earth cleaves Stones chops Wood.
It finally pierces the Heart whose tearful blood will spread on the ground.
Blood eager to rejoin the Vase which will hold it, a new Wound that desires it. it is


new heart desiring to retain and to keep, thirsty for the liquid passionate for whom abandon is death.
You once were the Bronze vase built by the hands of Hiram to measure those things contained and Measurable concern for Equity obsession of Solomon.
Cup of Dew you are the Red Rose. Mirror of the Sun
You spread yourself over the Fire you quench
You slake the thirst of man till the Drunkenness that brings him closer to his God.
Emblem of the oath and of lasting friendships.
Finally spilt in the Earth you make the flowered Branch reborn New ACE which will open up to us the doors of the next Cycle if the painter does not decide to remain hung between the two Trees.
Head down sleeping the sleep of the bat clutched on to the ceiling of the caverns
The image of the FOOL advises Prudence for the dog cruelly bites the legs of the half-savant.

Let us rest on this Cloud.

* * *

Derain’s original piece

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