The Springfield Museums’ latest exhibit “Card Tricks: Salvador Dalí and the Art of Playing Cards” is currently on exhibit through November 20th in the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts.  

Playing cards have been around for hundreds of years, and the exhibit explores Dali’s surrealist contribution to this popular pastime with his unique, limited-edition designs, as well as through card decks designed by artists working today.  

Zydalis Bauer spoke with Maggie North, Curator of Art at the Springfield Museums, to learn more. 

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: The Springfield Museum’s latest exhibit entitled “Card Tricks: Salvador Dalí and the Art of Playing Cards,” is currently on exhibit through November 20th at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts.

Playing cards have been around for hundreds of years, and the exhibit explores Dalí‘s surrealist contribution to this popular pastime with his unique limited-edition designs, as well as through card decks designed by artists working today.

I spoke with Maggie North, curator of art at the Springfield Museums, to learn more.

Maggie North, Springfield Museums: Salvador Dalí was born in 1904 and he lived for much of the 20th century. He was born in Spain, but by the end of his lifetime, he had really become an international artist celebrity in part for his artwork, and in part because he had an eccentric personality and a very distinctive mustache.

He really came to prominence in the 1930s for surrealist paintings like “The Persistence of Memory,” which is that famous Salvador Dalí painting with melting clocks and a sort of eerie landscape. But really, the artist was involved in many media, including printmaking, sculpture. He didn’t shy away from commercial opportunities such as furniture design – he designed department store displays, and he even appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show” towards the end of his lifetime.

So, he was really a household name at the end of the 20th century but is best known for that early surrealist painting that was often inspired by dreams and mind his own subconscious in order to create material.

Zydalis Bauer: And I know that his artwork that’s on display currently in the Springfield Museum hasn’t been on display since 2004.

So, what was it that made you want to bring back out this artwork for the public to see?

Maggie North: We’re really excited to share this work with the public, and it’s an opportunity for us to share works on paper from our permanent collection, which can’t always be on view because of their light sensitivity. But we do try to rotate them through our gallery spaces every so often.

I actually must admit that I was unaware that we had these prints until I stumbled on a record for them in our database and we didn’t have great images in the database, so I wasn’t exactly sure what I had come across. But once I investigated a little bit further, I was really excited to see that we had eight examples from a suite of 17 prints that Salvador Dalí created in the 1970s, in about 1970, that really emulated and reinterpreted playing card designs. So, they include wonderful depictions of Dalí‘s own imaginings of what queens and jacks and king faced cards could look like, as well as aces.

Zydalis Bauer: You describe this exhibit as small but mighty, so in your opinion, what makes this exhibition so robust?

Maggie North: This exhibition is one that includes the work of a well-known artist. Dalí has really become one of our most famous artists of the 20th century.

But I think that more so than even just focusing on Dalí‘s important contributions, which are showcased in this exhibition, this exhibit really encourages creativity. It showcases the ways in which a sort of standard design can be reinterpreted, re-imagined, remade throughout the decades and throughout the centuries.

And as the curator of this exhibition, it was important to me to also include several examples of contemporary card decks that were designed by artists working right now. And were really made in the past ten years because, as we can see, artists continue to re-imagine playing cards and many other objects that we think we know.

So, I think it’s a really wonderful, creative exhibition that I hope will inspire our visitors to go out there into the world and re-imagine the everyday objects that are around them.

Zydalis Bauer: And speaking of objects that we think we know, I was actually really surprised to read that playing cards have been around for centuries and present in so many different cultures.

Can you share with us some of the history behind this past time?

Maggie North: Historians and art historians can’t pinpoint the exact origin of playing cards because their history is really marked by this variety and reinterpretation that we’ve been talking about. But we think that they were used in China as early as the 10th century, and we know that around the 1400s, playing cards in various forms were being used in Egypt and in Europe.

But it wasn’t until printing presses became more popularized and more accessible that cards were standardized and widely disseminated to the public. So, for example, in the 18th century, we start to see more codified examples of playing decks such as this Paris pattern, which is a pattern that emerged in France and represents kings, queens and jacks – it’s one of the most familiar patterns to us today.

So, this is a long history and the design of playing cards, of course, is influenced by the hierarchies that were in society at that time and the noble figures that were in society. But there are also interesting influences ranging from mysticism to astronomy and history. We can think about tarot cards, for example.

So, there’s — there’s a lot to uncover within this exhibition, and I hope that it provides just a taste of the history, the long and fascinating history of playing cards.

Zydalis Bauer: Absolutely. And I know that you mentioned to me that you personally love Dalí‘s surrealist work and his interpretation of the playing cards.

So, which one is your favorite in this collection?

Maggie North: Oh, it’s a good question. There’s a number that I like, but I would have to say that the ace of diamonds, which is hung at the center of the exhibition, so you’ll see it just as you walk through the door is one of my favorites.

It depicts an ace card but included is one of Dalí‘s famous melting clocks and that’s a motif that is recognizable as a surrealist motif and has really come to represent the strange quality of time as something that is transient and sort of malleable. Time doesn’t always feel the same as we’ve all discovered after living through the pandemic for two years. So, I think that even though it’s an old motif, it has new resonance and continued importance within art history, and it’s just a really fun image.

But there are so many other great examples of Dali’s interpretations of playing cards: there’s a jack who wears a boat for a hat, a king whose castle is upside down, and examples of strange but familiar objects such as keys and drawers appearing within the garments of the noble figures represented on the face cards.

So, there’s really a lot to hunt for as you’re looking through these images.

Zydalis Bauer: And I know that the other cards on exhibit that you were talking about that have been made by artists working today, those are some powerful cards as well.

Talk to us about what some of those playing cards represent in the exhibit.

Maggie North: These playing cards are really wonderful and they really are just a small selection of the amazing variety that’s out there today when you Google or you go on Etsy and search for contemporary playing cards.

Included in the display are playing cards that are designed by Kyra Johnson, who replaces the traditional face cards with influential figures from American history who have made strides in African American and Black history and culture. So, figures from Malcolm X to Michelle Obama.

There are also cards in the exhibition that feature colorful line drawings by Shantell Martin. And these are really a celebration of LGBTQ+ pride.

We have cards on view that illustrate Japanese tattooing traditions. And also, one of my favorites is a deck of cards designed by an artist named Rico Worl, who celebrates and depicts images that are central to indigenous cultures from the Pacific North – I’m sorry – from the Pacific Coast, so these are a deck of raven inspired playing cards.

Zydalis Bauer: I love that when you think of art, sometimes you think of something frames or sculptures. So, just to see this interpretation be on a playing card that people love to use every day is so cool.

As curator of this exhibition, what are you most proud of?

Maggie North: I think I’m most proud of the fact that we were able to create this dialog between Dalí‘s interpretation of the playing card, the history of playing cards, and these contemporary playing cards.

Because although Dalí is at the center of the exhibition title, this is an exhibition that is more broadly about the creative and playful history of cards and the ways in which cards will continue to be reinvented years and years into the future.