The Ship of Fools Tarot by Brian Williams
Review by Valerie Sim-Behi
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When I think of Brian Williams, I think of the many facets of Brian that were so special: The historian, the artist, the linguist/traveler, the philosopher, the humorist. To know Brian was to love Brian. Even when you disagreed with him on a particular subject, you could not help but be moved by his passion and admire his intellect and his honest heart. This deck and book, more than any of his others, feels to me like the total Brian.
The Renaissance Tarot introduced us to not only Brian's formidable talents as a fine artist, but to his tremendous knowledge as a historian. To not realize just how accomplished and thorough a historian and researcher Brian was, is to miss a lot of the man.
With the PoMo Tarot (short for Post Modern), we can enjoy the wry humor of Brian Williams as he laughed at society, life in general, and at himself. Some people are put off by this deck, but I have always loved it. This is the deck I invariably grab to do political readings as it has a way of acerbically reducing all politicians, platforms and issues to merely human and very humorous constructs.
In the Minchiate Tarot, Brian's love of Italy-- the land, its culture, art, people and language -- is never far from the surface. Brian was as comfortable in an Italian villa as he was in his flat by the Bay, and his Italian was as flawless as his English. He could guide you as adeptly through the Italian countryside and museums as he could show you around his beloved San Francisco.
With The Ship of Fools, Brian comes full circle. Here again, he is the consummate historian and researcher. Here again, his artistic talent is obvious. And the humor that both binds the deck together and underlies every card is a delight. This work is truly a tribute to the Fool as Everyman, to the Inner Child within us all, and to the man who created it.
Why a tarot based on Das Narenschiff? Let's let Brian answer that: "The relevance of the Narenschiff to the tarot is in its capacity as a sort of Renaissance catalog or register. The Narenschiff images and text function as a kind of encyclopedia of the human soul, with special emphasis on humanity's capacity for foolishness."
Now let's look at the merits of this deck/book one-by-one.
The first thing I like about this deck is the simplicity and honesty with which Brian put it together. With each card, we are shown exactly which Narenschiff image or images were used for Brian's version of that card. When there was no suitable inspirational or basal image in Brant's work, Brian also makes that clear and informs us how he chose to create his card, that usually being a themed take off on the Waite-Smith deck. (Note: Here I am doing something that Brian and many of us who love the cards have done for sometime, and that is to acknowledge the two people who were most instrumental in making this deck, published as the Rider-Waite deck, breathe. Those two people are not William Rider, the publisher, and Alfred Edward Waite, the author and conceptualizer of the deck; but were rather Waite and Pamela Colman "Pixie" Smith, the artist who "was much more than a passive conduit" expressing her vision of the cards, to quote Brian.) Brian goes on further to compare corresponding cards from the Tarot de Marseilles and the Waite-Smith decks. This format makes for a delightfully complex appreciation of every card in the Ship of Fools.
The next thing I marvel at is Brian's ability to remain utterly faithful to his source while yet succeeding in making each of his images cleaner, crisper, less cluttered and more artistically pleasing as a whole. Unnecessary and distracting people, objects and backgrounds in the original are often removed to accomplish this. (Compare the original woodcuts of the Brant work to Brian's versions of the Mountebank and the Eight of Cups.)
In many cases, Brian has almost
imperceptibly corrected errors in perspective or anatomy. The woodcuts for Das
Narrenschiff were created by several artists, some of the best being
attributed to the young Albrecht Durer, and they do vary in artistic execution
and effectiveness. I even enjoy the way Brian has worked his own monogram as a
signature into each of the cards in a way that is pleasing and often clever.
(See the placement of the monogram in Justice and in the Tower.)
But the thing I like the best about the Ship of Fools is its humor, which is two-part. First, the underlying sparring he does with Brant is a treat. As he explains in his introduction to the book, Brant's work, though often humorous, was yet stodgy and judgmental. Brian twists Brant's words and ideas into ways that no doubt have caused Brant to spin in his grave, yet even as he does so, Brian is respectful to the "curmudgeon" -- Brian's term for Brant--, who penned Das Narrenschiff. Secondly, we can enjoy Brian's own brand of humor that shines in most of his passages on the divinatory meaning for each card. Never again will I be able to look at his Three of Swords and not be able to almost hear Brian say, "Comeuppance: pride goeth before a bad haircut"; or to see any Seven of Staves (Wands) without remembering his, "Children, pets, and other infernal distractions."
My caveats with this deck are few and have nothing to do with the multi-talents of Brian Williams. There are several glaring typos in the text and the Narenschiff image for the Six of Swords is missing and in its place appears the image for the Three of Swords that we have already seen. Small stuff. All in all, this is a set dear to my heart. Llewellyn has a winner here with a pictorial epitaph to one of tarot's greatest, Brian Williams.
The Ship of Fools Tarot
Art and text by Brian Williams, based on Das Narenschiff by Sebastian Brant
Publisher: Llewellyn Worldwide 2002
ISBN #: 0-7387-0161-0
You can read a tribute to the artist of this deck, Brian Williams, here.
Valerie Sim-Behi is the founder and moderator of Comparative Tarot, an email list devoted to studying cards of different decks in comparison to each other. She has worked with the tarot for over 30 years. Valerie created a spread that will appear in the book accompanying the Victoria-Regina Tarot by Sarah Ovenall, and has written various articles, including one on the Comparative Tarot method that was published in Llewellyn's Tarot Calendar 2002. You can visit Valerie at the Comparative Tarot website.
Images © 2002 Llewellyn Worldwide
Review © 2002 Valerie Sim-Behi
Page © 2002 Diane Wilkes