Setting, subject and artist are the three interlocked components of a compelling art exhibition. It would be difficult to find a more perfect example than the trio of Barga, Tarot and Keane.
This is the chemistry that animates “The Barga Pop Tarot Paintings,” now open for viewing at the Locanda di Mezzo in Piazza dell’Annunziata. The “Pop” adjective refers to the art movement of that name in the 1950’s and 1960s, whose best-known exponents included Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein. It employed mass-cultural objects and graphic media to explore a limitless range of themes, both serious and whimsical.
In a nod to the Pop comic strip style made famous by Lichtenstein, Keane has painted magnified portraits of the mysterious characters found on Tarot cards, the assortment of esoteric archetypes that reach back to the cards’ Medieval origins and far beyond, to the deities of ancient Egypt and India. Equally suitable for straightforward table games and arcane sorties into the human subconscious, the Tarot reading was a form of proto-psychoanalysis, rooted in eclectic religious symbols and codified centuries before the careers of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
According to Paola Marchi, an experienced Tarot reader who collaborated on the mostra, Barga itself “lies on a direct line of ‘spiritual energy’” that traces a sequence of venerable monuments from Mont Saint-Michel in France over the Alps to the Duomo, and onward to the Gargano Peninsula in the southeastern region of Puglia — home of a celebrated shrine to San Michele. One of the key Tarot cards features a majestic figure identified as “Justice” who is believed by some interpreters to represent Saint Michael “although others see him as the Norse god Odin,” says Marchi.
The connection casts speculative light on two of Barga’s own pervasive mysteries. An engraved inscription in stone at the Duomo’s main portal appears to refer three times, in a combination of Latin and Greek letters, to “San Michele.” Above it, more than 200 bas-reliefs of uncertain age on the upper facade appear to illustrate figures and episodes from Norse mythology (article here)
Ten of Keane’s Pop-art enlargements of Tarot faces, executed in oil on canvas, are on the walls of the Locanda’s cantina bistro under Palazzo Mordini. They include an eccentric pilgrim (“le Mat”) whose wanderings among other archetypes frame Tarot readings, a man hung upside-down (“le Pendu”) and a female Pope (“la Papesse”), all of whom have a plethora of alternate identities. “Their placement was arranged by Paola,” he says, “because the juxtaposition of Tarot figures has enormous symbolic importance. That’s her field.”
Six other works, depicting entire cards rather than enlarged details, are displayed along the sloped corridor leading from the main Locanda dining room to the bistro. Painted over metal advertising plaques, “they are symbols atop symbols,” Keane says, universal archetypes dating to prehistory superimposed over the evanescent archetypes of modern consumer culture.
The exhibition’s paintings are based on a painstaking reconstruction of the original French “Tarot of Marseilles,” among the most revered of many Tarot decks, which first appeared in 1760. The reconstruction was a joint project of Marseilles-born Philippe Camoin, one of the world’s most respected experts on the subject and Marchi’s mentor, and Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Chilean filmmaker and spiritual guru. “Every detail on their cards has significance. Nothing is there by chance,” says Marchi.
“It was intense, demanding work, requiring absolute fidelity to the originals,” Keane says of his paintings. “Even marks that initially seemed like accidental brush strokes turned out to be meaningful.”
The meaning and interpretation of symbols is familiar terrain for Keane. In earlier exhibitions, he has explored such varied symbolic vocabularies as the Duomo bas-reliefs, the “mutande” (undergarments) that Barghigiani hang out to dry over the town’s narrow lanes, the Tuscan blood sausage known as “biroldo” and Italian ice cream cones.
Frank Viviano is the author or co-author of seven books, including the critically-acclaimed Blood Washes Blood, Dispatches From the Pacific Century and In the Balkans (with Magnum photographer Nikos Economopoulos).